The NHL’s nearly two-and-a-half-week Olympic break has passed, and it’s go time for the Blueshirts, who currently sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division with 67 points—16 points behind the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins.
Catching Sidney Crosby and the Pens would be nearly impossible, barring a meltdown of drastic proportions by Pittsburgh.
But that doesn’t mean the Rangers can take their foot off the gas by any means whatsoever.
The Philadelphia Flyers are just one point behind the Rangers, occupying the third and final automatic-playoff bid in the division. Behind them at 63 points are both the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Washington Capitals.
With all these teams crowded around a handful of playoff spots, New York cannot afford a slow start off the block coming back from the Olympic break. Unfortunately for the Rangers, their first game back is against the defending Stanley Cup champions the Chicago Blackhawks (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET; NHLN, MSG).
In addition, the Rangers will face off against nearly every other team involved in the playoff race; Philly, Toronto, Detroit, Columbus, Montreal and even the Carolina Hurricanes on three separate occasions. If the Canes can gain traction early, they too could challenge for a playoff position.
But fans have every reason to be encouraged by the Rangers, who collected seven wins in their last 10 games before the Olympic recess. The offense is finding ways to score, the defense has tightened up big time and Henrik Lundqvist has returned to form.
Yet, in the back of every New York fan is the eternal pessimist. The Rangers' post-Olympic collapse of 2005-06 is something few have forgotten.
In that season, the Rangers played their last game before the Olympics on February 11 in Toronto. The Rangers would go on to win 4-2—their sixth win in a row. At 35-15-8, the rejuvenated, Jaromir Jagr-led Rangers were atop the Atlantic Division.
It was good to be a Blueshirt.
The Rangers won their first game back from the break, extending the winning streak to seven games. But an 8-10-4 record over the remaining 24 games ensured they would not win the division title they seemed destined for. As a matter of fact, the Rangers slipped to third in the Atlantic and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
After dropping the last five regular-season games of the year, the Rangers met their bitter rivals, the New Jersey Devils, in the first round. They were eventually swept in four games.
These are not good memories for Rangers fans, and whenever the league breaks for international competition the fear of collapse creeps back into the thoughts of the Garden Faithful.
This year, the Rangers sent seven players to the Olympic Games, and it can be argued that—never mind, it can’t be argued—their six most important players other than Dan Girardi were among the New York contingent in Sochi.
Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Henrik Lundqvist hold the Rangers’ fortunes in their hands. Truth is, all of them—except Zuccarello—and Carl Hagelin reached the medal round and saw nearly maximum action.
And although Zuccarello’s Norwegian side bowed out in the quarterfinal round, the winger was injured during play.
This proves problematic for the Rangers, as Zuc currently leads the team with 43 points. He had eight points in the final six games before the break.
As for the others, it’s about mileage. Nash, a victim of two concussions over the past year, would have been better off with a two-week rest, and the same goes for Lundqvist, minus the concussions.
McDonagh can probably handle the load. He seems to have played over 30 minutes each and every night since he broke into the NHL. I don’t think the extra Olympic games will affect him…too much. And Stepan, he played just one game as a 13th forward for Team USA. He’ll be fresh.
As for Callahan, we probably won’t get to see firsthand how the Olympics affect the current team captain. Trade winds are fiercely blowing, and according to Darren Dreger of TSN (h/t Adam Herman, NYRangersBlog.com), there’s a 99 percent chance Callahan is skating for another club on March 5.
It can also not be forgotten that the Olympic break affects those players who do not venture abroad to represent their countries. Remaining stagnant for over two weeks can also adversely affect players. Excuses are hardly tolerated, though, as the majority of every team in the league remains behind. But whether or not those players remained in shape and in focus will inevitably determine the fortunes of not just the Rangers but every team.
It’s hard to predict how the Rangers who remained stateside will perform in the final 23 games of the season, but you’d have to imagine the break will prove beneficial for players like Brad Richards, Marc Staal and Girardi. The trio has battled age, injury or fatigue over the past three seasons and should benefit from the midseason hiatus.
For New York, it’s going to come down to how Nash, Lundqvist and Zuccarello perform in the season’s final act.
Nash collected his second gold medal in four years; hopefully, he’s jacked up and hungry for more rather than just satisfied with his hardware. We’re going to find out what he’s made of, in terms of physical and mental shape. Whether or not he runs and hides come playoff time like he did in 2012-13 is just as important as whether or not he’s in good enough shape to tack on the extra Olympic games and a deep playoff run.
Lundqvist played all six games for Sweden at the Olympics. He’s not the young man he was when he won the gold with the Tre Kronor in 2006, so you’d have to think coach Alain Vigneault will default to rookie Cam Talbot for a handful of games down the stretch. But he’s still The King, and when the game is on the line, he’ll deliver.
As for Zuccarello, he has got to get back as quick as possible and do his best to kick it back into game speed immediately. Two weeks could mean he misses between seven and nine games, of which all are crucial. As the team’s main source of offense, his absence could trouble goal production.
If the team cannot replicate Zuccarello’s production and/or the Norwegian cannot quickly return to game-breaker status once he rejoins the team, then the Rangers could be in trouble.
All things considered, I think the Rangers—barring some major move, which apparently could very well happen—will still gain an automatic playoff berth in the Metro Division, but as the third seed rather than the second.
There are many variables in terms of player performance down the stretch, but the talent and continuity seems to be there, so I don’t see a collapse a la 2005-06 in the Rangers’ immediate future.