The New York Rangers celebrate their first-round victory.
The NHL Playoffs are quite easily the most grueling and mentally draining of the North American sports postseasons. You don’t win Lord Stanley’s Cup by accident; you sacrifice everything to obtain it.
Every night you play the most important game of the season, and if you don’t leave it all on the ice, you've got no shot.
But as much as winning the Stanley Cup is about effort, you can’t win without talent. Players with game-breaking ability are essential to any team that hopes to even get a sniff of hockey’s Holy Grail. They’re the ones who break the deadlock the playoffs so often present and lift their teams to glory.
You can have all the heart and determination you want, but without your best players playing at the top of their games, you can forget it.
The Rangers are no different.
In the first round against Washington, some of New York’s top guns were at their best: for example, Henrik Lundqvist and Dan Girardi. But others—Rick Nash and Brad Richards, I’m looking at you—were so far from their best, it almost cost the team the series. The Rangers were fortunate to make it out, honestly.
In their second-round series against the Boston Bruins—or any other series they may or may not find themselves in—that can’t happen. The stars, and all of them, have to come to play.
So before the series begins, we’ll take a look at the Rangers’ six high-profile players and the expectations they must meet for the Rangers to advance to the third round.
Derek Stepan emerged as the Rangers’ top-line center in 2013. His hard work and well-rounded game made him New York’s most consistent forward all season long.
He’s been able to carry some of that momentum into the playoffs, too. Though he only had two goals and zero assists in the seven-game series with Washington, his two tallies were game-winners. His responsible defensive play also contributed to the Rangers’ neutralization of Alexander Ovechkin.
The Blueshirts need to Stepan to continue playing that strong brand of two-way hockey against the Bruins, as they too have a host of talented forwards who require constant attention.
But they’ll also need Stepan to pick up his offensive production. Two points in seven playoff games for a player who was producing at nearly a point-per-game pace during the regular season isn't ideal.
One of Stepan’s greatest strengths is his playmaking ability, and although it’s clear in playing with grinding forwards like Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan, Stepan won’t find himself in too many instances in which he can be patient and create, he still needs to find a way to facilitate more offense beneath the hash marks.
Dan Girardi may have not had the best of regular seasons, but he was about as solid as you can get in the first round.
Though Ovechkin switched wings this season, meaning the left-handed Ryan McDonagh assumed the burden of defending against the now right-winged sniper in the first round, Girardi still provided more than ample support.
What was most impressive about Girardi in Round 1 was his foot speed. During regular-season play, he was getting beat one-on-one more than usual, but he’s stepped up in the playoffs.
He was also one of several Rangers defensemen more prone to turnovers in the defensive zone in the shortened season, which is very uncharacteristic of not only Girardi but the defense as a whole. But he was smarter with the puck in Round 1 and rarely made mistakes.
When a player is playing as well as Girardi is right now, you don’t want to change too much. He and McDonagh will again be matched up with Boston’s top line, which is centered by Patrice Bergeron. But as good as a player as Bergeron is, he’s no Ovechkin.
That doesn’t mean Girardi can afford some slack, but he also shouldn't over complicate things.
If he can stay the course and keep things simple, there’s no doubt he’ll be able to handle what the B’s throw at him.
As the captain of the team, Ryan Callahan already has a particular set of expectations. He’s looked upon to ready the troops and set the tone early so that his team can initiate its game from the opening faceoff.
But as one of the team’s top players, Callahan has a host of other responsibilities, too.
He’s been a staple on the second line for a few years now, so he’s expected to produce offensively. He'd failed to against the Caps, though. He scored only one goal, and it was the fourth tally in Game 7, which the Rangers won 5-0.
Not only is a player in his position expected to score goals, but he’s expected to score big goals. He did it during the regular season—see his game-winner against Carolina to clinch a playoff spot—but he has to bring it in the postseason.
Too many of these games are one-goal games or even overtime games. A team needs its captain and second-line winger to be clutch.
He’s an excellent defensive forward and penalty killer, but he needs to appear more on the scoresheet. Look at any team that’s won the Cup in recent years and you'll see its captain was a force. In Round 1, Callahan wasn't. He must be against a team that knows how to win.
The $60-million man, Brad Richards: What else is there to say about him?
He’s been crucified all season long, but despite that, all the critics know Richards saves his best performances for the playoffs. Maybe, just maybe, some old-time hockey would set the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner straight.
So far it hasn't. In Round 1, he had one goal—which was a gift—and zero assists and was eventually demoted to the fourth line.
He was the supposed first-line pivot for the Rangers for the next five or six years—at least that’s what they thought when they signed him.
But at this point, he actually belongs on the fourth line. Stepan, Derick Brassard and Brian Boyle are all playing substantially better.
They need him to be better, though. As good as those three have been, they don’t have the experience Richards has. His expertise in tight postseason games was clutch for the Blueshirts last year, and he’s going to have to come up big again this round.
Coming up clutch is something Richards can concentrate on when he’s actually found his game, though. He’s a non-factor right now, and if it wasn't for the Brassard acquisition, things would be tricky for the Rangers.
Richards simply has to relax. He’s obviously over-thinking things, and that’s resulted in him becoming a turnover machine. Keep it simple, Richie. Trust the instincts that led you to a Stanley Cup in 2003-04, and stop holding onto the puck too long and make the simple pass. It’ll come.
After an impressive inaugural regular season as a Ranger, Rick Nash has fallen flat on his face in the playoffs.
The nine time 20-plus goal scorer had zero goals against Washington. Zero.
Unacceptable: He’s the highest paid player on the Rangers, and he’s got only one job—to score goals.
No team can win the Cup with its top offensive weapon dragging along. It’s difficult to even win a series if that’s the case. The Rangers won’t be able to do it again, so Nash has to start scoring.
What’s most troubling is that it’s not like Nash is getting chances and failing to convert on them, he’s just not getting chances.
His game is all out of whack. He hasn't had much possession, and when he does, he tries to skate through defenders with his trademark spin-o-rama. It was successfully executed at times during the regular season, but in the playoffs, he just ends up losing the puck or having his shot blocked.
He’s getting pushed around, too. He’s a big guy and is known for using his frame to his advantage, but in Round 1, it seemed every time he got near a Washington defender, he just folded up like a lawn chair. It appears as if he’s nervous and shying away from contact.
But if he thinks the Caps were a tough team to play against, he’s in for a rude awakening against the Bruins; Zdeno Chara is going to be all over him.
I personally don’t think his head is in the right place. Maybe he wasn't ready for the increased physicality in Game 1, and then his mind started playing tricks on him. But he’s got to do what Richards has to do: keep it simple.
Nash has all-world talent, and if he gets some confidence back, he could go on a rampage. The only cure for a goal-scoring drought is to go to the net and score an ugly goal. That may be all it takes for Nash, but he has to be willing to get in the dirty areas. Once he’s feeling better about himself, the rest will flow.
Against the Capitals in Round 1, Lundqvist seemed like a man amongst boys.
Countless times when the defense seemed down and out, Lundqvist stepped up and slammed the door shut. His consecutive shutouts in Games 6 and 7 were a feat accomplished by only three goaltenders before him.
It was a fitting end to a series in which he absolutely dominated.
So what are the expectations of Lundqvist in the second round against Boston? Well, more of the same, of course. Hank sets the bar incredibly high, and the Rangers will expect him to sustain his elite form. If he doesn't they’ll probably lose.
The B’s have one of the deepest forward groups in the league, so Lundqvist will face wave after wave of attack in this series. But if he carries his strong Round-1 play over into the second round, there shouldn't be many problems.
Nobody is expecting a collapse here with Lundqvist. He’s gone eight years without a true rough patch, and I wouldn't count on it now—especially as his team inches closer to a chance at the Cup. The expectations are that Lundqvist stands on his head.
And he probably will.