The New York Rangers have officially reached the postseason for the third consecutive year.
Despite early-season struggles that earned the squad an "overrated" label for much of the season, the team surged through its final stretch of the regular season to solidify a spot in the playoffs.
Although the Rangers began the lockout-shortened campaign as a Stanley Cup favorite following an offseason filled with splashy moves and heightened promise, New York didn't nearly look the part for much of the 48-game slate.
Following a loss to rival New Jersey in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final, the organization acquired five-time All-Star Rick Nash. The club immediately entered Stanley Cup-or-bust territory with the move.
“The Rangers are coming off a season in which they finished first in the East and made the conference finals, so anything short of a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals likely will be regarded as a failure," NHL.com columnist John Kreiser wrote last summer. "To say Nash will have big expectations on his shoulders would be putting it mildly.”
Although he suffered through a mild slump to open the season, Nash has predominantly met expectations, totaling 40 points in 43 games played as a Ranger.
However, the squad still just narrowly avoided being left on the playoff doorstep one season removed from winning the Atlantic Division for the first time since 1994.
So what went wrong in the Big Apple this season? New York, which will land somewhere between a sixth and eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, must learn from a rough first half if it hopes to fulfill lofty playoff expectations.
New York has spent the season ranked among the bottom third of NHL teams in terms of power-play effectiveness. The Rangers are playing much better of late, going 9-3-1 in April, but success on the man advantage remains elusive.
The team currently ranks 21st in the league on the PP and its shortcomings in the department failed New York again against lowly Florida earlier this week.
With a playoff berth at stake, the Rangers went 0-for-3 against the Panthers.
New York ultimately lost 3-2, but still managed to clinch a spot in the postseason with a win over Carolina. Special teams take center stage in the playoffs and routinely provide the tipping point in tight matchups.
“At the end of the day we lose the special teams battle and that hurt us,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan told New York Post reporter Brett Cyrgalis.
If this deficiency continues to trip up the team in the playoffs, it will be hard for New York to survive and advance deep into the tournament.
Brad Richards is a proven commodity in New York's star-studded lineup. The veteran brings a savvy presence and elite skill set to the ice each night.
Richards is red-hot these days, tallying five goals and four assists in the Rangers' past five games. It's a great sign for New York fans, who watched him struggle throughout much of the season.
When March came to a close, Richards had registered only five total goals to go along with 13 assists. The ineffectiveness put the veteran front and center in the line of questioning this team's ability to live up to expectations.
Coach John Tortorella and the Rangers brass opted to stick with Richards despite some speculation that his contract could be bought out. New York has depth at the center position, which should enable Richards to stay sharp in the playoffs.
If the Rangers continue to get production out of a resurgent Richards, this team will be considerably more dangerous than it was just a month ago.
Kreider was a playoff revelation last season, setting a league record for most playoff goals scored by a rookie (five). His performance gave the Rangers a shot in the arm during a memorable postseason run and it appeared the 2009 first-round pick was ready to take on an expanded role with the organization.
However, that ambition failed miserably. Kreider, still just 21, has tallied three points in 22 games this season. He was demoted to the AHL with teammate J.T. Miller on April 3.
"Quite honestly, I'm worried about the kids," Tortorella told Katie Strang of ESPNNewYork,com at the time. "Not that I'm upset with them. I just think the stakes are high. We play so many close games and I've just got to watch how they go through the game, do I trust them?"
That question remains as the Rangers gear up for the postseason.
The Rangers severed ties with Gaborik at the trade deadline, when the squad sat in the Eastern Conference's ninth position. He scored 41 goals during the 2011-12 season, but simply couldn't piece his game together this year.
The 31-year-old scored in just six of New York's 35 games before being dealt. His 19 points highlighted a dismal campaign for Gaborik, who was benched at different stages of the season.
The Rangers appeared to sacrifice some offensive firepower at the time of the trade, but have slowly righted the ship since his departure. This may be a case of addition by subtraction for New York.