Henrik Lundqvist and Anton Stralman
It’s been a postseason of ups and downs for the New York Rangers.
After falling behind two games to none to the Washington Capitals in Round 1, the Rangers knotted up the series 2-2 and eventually won in seven games.
But their second-round outing has been nothing short of disappointing. Down 3-0 to the Boston Bruins, the Rangers have failed to exhibit any sense of urgency or desperation, and as a result, their season could end Thursday night.
New York’s shortcomings can be traced back to a number of high-profile players failing to live up to expectations. Rick Nash and Brad Richards, the supposed offensive dynamos on the team, have been zeros. Even captain Ryan Callahan’s showing has left much to be desired.
But it’s these poor performances that have undoubtedly overshadowed the strong play of others. There is a group of Rangers—albeit small—who have impressed in these playoffs, and they’re to thank for the Round 1 victory.
We’ll reveal the Rangers’ top five performers of the NHL playoffs after the jump and discuss what they've done to be considered.
In Round 1 against Washington, Dan Girardi was a beast.
He and his defensive partner Ryan McDonagh held superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to a combined two goals and five points in seven games. In doing so, the pair severely limited the Washington offense, which was ranked fourth in the NHL during the regular season.
Despite a miserable showing in Round 2's Game 2, in which Girardi was on the ice for all five of Boston’s goals and finished the contest a minus-four, he’s still been solid in Round 2. In Games 1 and 3, he was a combined plus-one, which isn't outstanding, but when you consider he’s playing against Boston’s top unit almost exclusively, and they've only scored one goal in the two games against him, it’s impressive.
Game 2 was a disaster, but not just for Girardi. It was the team’s worst showing in over a month, and although Girardi was on the ice for every Boston goal, he cannot be blamed for all of them.
His strong positional play and physical presence have easily made him the team’s top performer on the blue line. Facing the opposition’s top offensive threats on a nightly basis is no easy task, and it would be a shame if Girardi’s outlying Game 2 showing overshadowed his performance in the 2013 playoffs.
Against Washington, Derick Brassard was something of a revelation. His nine points in the seven games made him the team’s primary offensive weapon, and in addition, his impressive numbers overshadowed the invisibility of both Nash and Richards, who combined for just three points in the series.
The Caps didn't have an answer for Brassard’s quick feet and elite vision. His passing opened up the game for the Rangers, and as a result, he created more scoring chances than any player on the team.
In Round 2, he’s struggled, though. Boston is a physical hockey club that tries to intimidate less physical, skilled players like Brassard. He’s only registered one assist in the three second-round games, but the one goal he did help to create was a huge McDonagh goal late in the first period of Game 1 that tied the game at one.
The Rangers have struggled to score this postseason; this is not a secret. But Brassard’s 10 points have been one of the few real positive stories coming from the offense. His creative and fresh approach has brought a new dimension to the team’s offense, and it’s a shame the rest of the forwards haven’t followed his lead.
Since joining the Rangers late in 2011, Anton Stralman has done nothing but impress.
The Swede, who failed to earn a contract at the New Jersey Devils' training camp just months before joining the Rangers, has filled the void left behind since Mike Sauer went down with a concussion in December of 2011.
2013 may have been his best outing as a Ranger, and he’s carried his strong regular-season play into the playoffs. He’s been a mainstay on the team’s second defensive pairing, and despite the revolving door of partners he’s been teamed with, Stralman has continued to provide stable defensive support.
In Round 1, his strong play limited the Caps’ second-line unit of Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr and Mike Ribiero to a combined four points in seven games.
Although he has zero points in 10 playoff games, his strong skating ability allows him to pinch in the offensive zone, allowing offensive zone pressure—when it’s applied—to persist. Furthermore, his speed all but guarantees he’s never out of position for too long.
Though he too has struggled against the Bruins, most of the team has, and he remains the Rangers’ second-best defender of the postseason.
Like Brassard, Mats Zuccarello was brought in late in the regular season, and his creativity and offensive instincts have, on occasion, sparked the team’s offense.
Zuccarello is second on the team in playoff points with six, and that’s been huge considering the shortcomings of the team’s other top forwards. Though he’s failed to jump start the Rangers’ despicable power play, without his five-on-five production the team would probably have been eliminated in the first round.
But what’s been most impressive about Zuccarello in his second stint with the Rangers is how well-rounded he’s become as a player. The major reason he wasn't re-signed by the Rangers last summer was because head coach John Tortorella wasn't comfortable with Zuc’s defensive play. But since he’s returned, it’s clear defense is something he’s worked on.
It’s most noticeable in the neutral zone. Not only is he breaking up more plays there, but he’s also backchecking much harder.
Finally, at 5’7”, Zuccarello has played with more heart than many of his teammates. He hasn't taken a shift off and, despite his stature, isn't afraid to mix it up with guys much bigger than him. Tortorella has to love what he’s seen from The Hobbit, and if you ask me, his postseason play has earned him a new contract on Broadway next season.
Henrik Lundqvist has not only been the best player on the Rangers this postseason—and by a mile-and-a-half, if you ask me—but he’s been one of the league’s top performers, too.
He’s proved, once again, that he is the most valuable player to any team in the league. Without Lundqvist, the Rangers not only would have been swept in Round 1 by the Caps, but they wouldn't have even made the playoffs.
His statistics against Washington were mind-numbing: 1.65 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and two shutouts in both Games 6 and 7. Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin had no answer to Lundqvist’s god-like performance, and that ended up being the decider in Round 1.
Round 2 has been rough for Lundqvist, too. In Game 1, the first two goals were on him; in Game 2 he allowed five goals; and in Game 3, Boston’s game-winner was on Hank, as he gave the puck away behind the net just seconds before the Bruins scored a garbage goal in front.
But despite all that, Lundqvist hasn't gotten proper goal support and his defense—especially in Round 2—has been spotty at best. By no means should Lundqvist be blamed for the 3-0 hole the Rangers are in right now, but still, he could have been better.
His overall performance in these playoffs, I think, will be remembered for a long time. He literally won the Washington series on his own, and Rangers fans will, for years, think about what could have been if the team in front of Lundqvist would have been better.