With just three games remaining in the NHL season, the New York Rangers currently sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 52 points. What must they do the rest of the way to not only make the playoffs, but to also hit their stride?
There are many encouraging signs. In the month of April, the Rangers are 8-2-1. The new players added after the trade deadline—Derick Brassard, Ryane Clowe and John Moore—have all been terrific, as has midseason signing Mats Zuccarello.
The Rangers are not in the playoffs yet. The Winnipeg Jets sit three points behind them. However, if they can continue their current play, especially the play they've shown on their latest three-game winning streak, then the Rangers will be entering the playoffs as a hot team.
What do the Rangers need to do to uphold this type of play and hit the playoffs performing their best?
The Rangers offense is on fire of late.
In their past three games, the Rangers have scored 18 goals, including eight against the Buffalo Sabres.
That's pretty remarkable for a team that averages 2.58 goals per game. In fact, they scored just 32 goals in the month of February alone.
The driving force behind this increase has been Brad Richards. In the month of April, Richards has scored 12 points. Seven of those points, including four goals, have come in the past three games.
Why has Richards started to break out of his earlier slumps? One reason has been the arrival of Mats Zuccarello. Richards and Zuccarello have played on a line for most of the time since Zuccarello rejoined the team at the end of March. While Zuccarello has only six points, he's been a presence in each game. He's had many chances, and he has given Richards a winger who can make plays by himself. That takes some pressure off of Richards, who now doesn't have to produce all of the offense on his own.
In addition, Derick Brassard has given the Rangers four legitimate centers. Before the trade, Richards had to assume more responsibility than he was capable of handling. Now, Brassard can take some of the load off. He can control the puck on the power play, giving Richards a chance to use his shot more instead of directing the action.
It also allows Richards to play a little less and keep himself fresher. In March, Richards played a little over 240 minutes. In April thus far, he's played only 173 minutes. This allows Richards to make a better impact when he is on the ice, because he's not tired.
It's not just Richards who is playing well. Derek Stepan has had a remarkable month of April on top of a remarkable season. He has 15 points in the month of April and 40 on the season. To put that in perspective, last season in 82 games, Stepan had 51 points. If he played like this for a full season, Stepan would end up with around 80 points.
He's been a catalyst for this team, taking a huge step forward in his development. He's been a terrific center for Rick Nash, who continues his strong play with 19 goals and 21 assists.
Ryan Callahan has also been terrific, with three goals and three assists in his last four games.
The Rangers are hitting on all cylinders on offense because their star players are playing well. The core of this team—Nash, Richards, Stepan and Callahan—have come up huge in April. Secondary players, like Derick Brassard, Zuccarello and Ryane Clowe, have also been terrific.
If the Rangers want to hit their stride going into the playoffs, then the star players need to continue to play well. A solid offense has a few things going for it: star players, scoring depth and good forechecking. That's how the Rangers have been playing of late, and it bodes well for them as they enter the playoffs.
The Rangers defense is solid as always.
They only let up 2.27 goals per game, which is fourth-best in the league.
Led by Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, the defense is sound positionally and physically. They're not afraid to throw the body, and they have enough offensive skill to start a breakout.
When Marc Staal went down with an eye injury in March, the team faced a huge hole. Staal is a terrific player, and his presence has been missed.
That said, a few players have really stepped up. Chief among them is Steve Eminger. Before the Staal injury, Eminger was primarily the sixth or seventh defenseman. Now, he's found his game. He's not a flashy player, but he's been steady and hasn't turned the puck over too much, which had been his problem.
"He's still a young guy, but what we're trying to teach him, he's picking up. The way he skates and the area he covers in that position, the onus is on us to teach him about positioning and how we play defense. He's an interesting one."
If Moore, who has been playing a little over nine minutes per game as a Ranger, can continue his solid play, then not only do the Rangers have an asset going forward, but they also have someone who can contribute in a big way in the playoffs.
The top four, comprised of Girardi, McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman, is one of the best in the league. Girardi and McDonagh are amongst the best in the game, while Del Zotto and Stralman are solid.
The Rangers defense has been great all year. In order to play well in the playoffs, the defense has to just stay the course. They need to keep playing with strong technique and positioning, keep playing with physicality and keep making smart passes out of the zone. If they do that, then they'll continue their strong play into the playoffs.
Henrik Lundqvist is the best and most important player on the Rangers, and this season has been no different.
Lundqvist has a 2.11 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. In his Vezina Trophy-winning season last year, Lundqvist had a 1.97 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. So his numbers are typically excellent.
In April, Lundqvist has come up big. In 10 games, he has a .936 save percentage and has let up just 19 goals.
If the Rangers want to make the playoffs, and if they want to go far in the playoffs, then Lundqvist has to be at his best. He has the potential to take this underachieving team and lead them to the Stanley Cup. He's that good. He can cover for defensive lapses and can steal multiple games.
To win in the playoffs, you need a hot goaltender. A hot goalie, like Jonathan Quick last season, can take an eighth-seed to a Stanley Cup.
Of course, the Rangers would need a lot of things to go their way before they can start thinking about the Stanley Cup. But Lundqvist has been absolutely terrific in April, and without him, the Rangers would be near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Lundqvist is certainly hitting his stride as the playoffs come near. Assuming he continues this high level of play, the sky is the limit for the Rangers.