The New York Rangers entered the Olympic break in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, with a 32-24-3 record.
They made a huge climb into the top of the Eastern Conference standings, with a 12-5-1 record in their last 18 games.
Of course, that hot streak will mean nothing if the Rangers come out of the break slowly. A bad two or three weeks could eliminate them from playoff contention.
So what can the Rangers do to ensure a fast start after the Olympic break?
Read on to find out.
If the Rangers want to capitalize on their last month of play before the Olympic play, then they need to find a way to replace their leading scorer.
Mats Zuccarello broke his hand in the Olympics playing for Norway, and he is expected to miss two or three weeks, according to Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News.
Alain Vigneault told the media Derek Dorsett will replace Zuccarello in the lineup if he's healthy (h/t Andrew Gross of the Bergen Record):
I’m hoping by Monday or Tuesday, we’re going to have a good read on where Dorse is. If there’s a chance Dorse can play, then we’ve got 12 healthy forwards so we’ll probably stay that way. If there’s a chance Dorse might not play, when Glen (Sather) gets back, we’ll talk and figure out what we’re going to do. Dorse got tested today and did pretty good on the test so with a skate on Monday and Tuesday, he’ll be close. He’ll have contact on Monday. The last couple of practices, he’s taken some hits. I think it’s just a matter of how he feels conditioning wise right now more than anything else. We’ll know after that practice on Tuesday.
If Dorsett can't go, then the Rangers will have to call up someone from the minors.
Whatever happens, they need someone to replace Zuccarello's offense. Zuccarello is the catalyst for the Rangers, in all situations. While Dorsett is a useful player, that is not his game.
Additionally, there is no player in the Rangers' system who plays the type of game that Zuccarello does.
But they need to replace his offense. Calling up someone like Danny Kristo could help. In his first full professional season, Kristo has scored 17 goals and added 14 assists in 45 games.
Without Zuccarello, the Rangers would really struggle on the man advantage, as well as off the rush.
It's only a few weeks, but with the Eastern Conference standings so tight, the Rangers cannot afford a few bad weeks. Finding someone to replace Zuccarello's offense is imperative.
Despite not winning a gold medal, Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding for Team Sweden in Sochi.
He was named to the Olympic All-Star team, as per Mike Halford of ProHockeyTalk, and posted a stunning .943 save percentage.
He was simply brilliant, and the Rangers will need him to continue that into the stretch run.
Lundqvist found his game in January, recording eight wins and posting a .938 save percentage.
If Lundqvist keeps this up, then not only will the Rangers make the playoffs, but they could make a deep run. If he continues to play like the best goaltender in the world, then there's no telling how far the Rangers could go.
There are, naturally, concerns about whether or not Lundqvist will be worn down. You can be assured that Cam Talbot will start more than a few games in the next month or so to make sure Lundqvist gets his rest.
But Talbot can only take this team so far. As it's always been, this team will go as far as Lundqvist takes them. Based on his Olympic performance, the Rangers could go really far.
After a month in which Rick Nash scored 11 goals, the hulking winger went scoreless in his last five games before the Olympic break.
In Sochi, Nash had zero goals and one assist in six games. He started on the second line before being moved to the fourth line.
Nash is so important to the Rangers' success. It's no surprise that in January, the Rangers' best month by far, Nash scored 11 goals in 15 games.
So even though he didn't have the best tournament—although, interestingly enough, Nash played an important defensive role for Team Canada, including logging big minutes on the penalty kill, a role he does not play for the Rangers—Nash will have to find a way to regain his January success.
Besides just hoping that his five-game goal drought is a momentary slump, the Rangers could get Nash going again by double-shifting Nash, or by putting him on a line with Ryan Callahan, a grinder-type who can go into the dirty areas and get the puck.
Whatever prevented Nash from scoring in his last five games was just a minor blip. However, the Rangers really cannot take a chance.
Look for Alain Vigneault to use Nash as much as possible in the next few weeks to ensure that Nash has ample chances to score. Once he gets back in a groove, Nash will settle back into his normal first-line role.
If the Olympic tournament illuminated anything, it's that Ryan McDonagh is one of the best defenseman in the world.
He was simply masterful all tournament long, averaging nearly 21 minutes a game against the world's top competition. Remarkably, he finished plus-1.
Team USA coach Dan Bylsma sang McDonagh's praises in a press conference (via SNY Rangers Blog):
Ryan McDonagh has played the off side….he has played it in New York. He has played there a little bit, he has killed penalties on his off side and that is something that we were looking on and possibly counting on coming into the tournament. We made that change in game two and I think he has grown even stronger with a couple of games under his belt. With the two shut down pairs we have been able to get good matchups……maybe one thing I didn’t know as much of from Ryan McDonagh was how well he skated, we have seen that both offensively and defensively and that pair with the top four guys have been a good shutdown group for our team.
McDonagh is absolutely critical to the Rangers' success. He is as good a lockdown defender as there is in the NHL.
And while he may be a bit gassed from playing so many minutes in the Olympics, it's not a complete foreign concept. Besides, at 24-years-old, it's likely that he can handle it.
So the Rangers will just need to ride McDonagh, playing him 25 or more minutes a game. Assuming he can handle it, the Rangers will essentially have the left side of the ice locked down for half the game. That's the blueprint the Bruins implemented with Zdeno Chara.
It's what the Rangers should do with McDonagh.
The NHL is a business.
This we know.
And if the Rangers cannot re-sign Ryan Callahan, then trading him would be the prudent thing to do.
But it is hard to reconcile trading their captain in the midst of a playoff run.
And it's even harder to trade someone who excels in postseason competition.
In the Olympics, Callahan was a catalyst for Team USA.
He wreaked havoc on the forecheck, particularly against Russia. He was a dominant force on the penalty kill and consistently risked his body to block shots.
In playoff hockey, teams need players like that. Teams need players like Callahan.
And if the Rangers trade him, there will be a lot of teams interested in his services. After playing so well with David Backes, it would not be surprising if the St. Louis Blues tried their hardest to get Callahan.
But trading Callahan is the wrong decision. Yes, they may lose him in free agency, but Callahan will not only help the Rangers get off to a hot start after the Olympic break, but will also help the Rangers make a deep run in the playoffs.
His value transcends the score sheet. The Rangers, in my estimation, are the third best team in the Eastern Conference. They have a chance to do something special.
Trading Callahan would make that impossible.