Once the regular season ends, these teams will be the favorites to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in June. There’s no arguing that.
But the NHL is unlike many of the top leagues in North America. Hockey is a game of split-second decisions and uncontrollable variables; therefore, anything can happen. The best team doesn’t always win.
Just a couple of seasons ago we saw the Los Angeles Kings become the first eighth-seeded team to win the Cup. I’m not suggesting they weren’t the best team in those playoffs—because they were—but rather that the teams expected to win don’t always actually win.
And that’s why teams sacrifice everything they’ve got just to reach the second season. It makes for some unbelievable hockey down the stretch and also grooms teams into contenders.
On the surface, the New York Rangers may not look like contenders. The way they’ve been playing, though, is evidence that they would be a tough out for any opponent in the playoffs, but to call them contenders right now would be premature.
There have been major ups and downs over the course of the season, yet the Rangers boast a 33-24-3 record and have forced themselves into contender consideration.
When you look at the makeup of the team it’s easy to see why they’re is second in the Metropolitan Division. Henrik Lundqvist is still the best player on the team, despite his early-season struggles. He’s again proven he’s one of the strongest goalies in the world, and in addition he’s got one of the deepest defenses directly in front of him.
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi form a top-notch first pair, but it’s the number of quality defenseman that make the Rangers dangerous.
Marc Staal—who would feature on most teams’ top pairings—slots in at No. 3 and allows the Blueshirts the luxury of two shutdown pairings. It’s a huge advantage that many teams don’t have, and it means head coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t have to worry too much about matchups.
In addition, the offense has been good for the Rangers, but further consistency would be welcomed by the coaching staff. For example, Nash scored zero goals through the last five games before the Olympic break, but in the 11 preceding games the winger scored 11 goals. It’s that kind of inconsistency that has created problems for the Rangers this season.
Mats Zuccarello and his linemates Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot have been a good story this season, as they have picked up some of the slack in the wake of Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan’s poor seasons. But the Rangers will need all of those players going if they’re to be considered contenders.
Furthermore, the Olympic break changes things. Between injuries and potential fatigue, it’s hard to foresee where this team will be come April and May.
Will Nash and Lundqvist be able to handle the increased workload after facing each other in the gold-medal game? Can Zuccarello rekindle the magic that elevated him to leading goal scorer when he returns from his upper-body injury?
Those are significant variables heading into the homestretch. But there’s more.
Will Girardi and Callahan even be on this team come next week? And if they aren’t, what kind of roster players are coming back, if any at all?
If that Callahan-for-Martin St. Louis deal actually goes down and Girardi re-signs, you’d have to think the Rangers are in very good shape. St. Louis would slot in with Richards on the second line and the Rangers would have a very solid top nine.
But many in the hockey world believe that deal will not go down. The same insiders haven’t suggested any other possible deals since Darren Dreger of TSN suggested the St. Louis Blues would offer up Chris Stewart for Callahan. If that deal went through, the Rangers would potentially take a step back.
It looks increasingly likely that Girardi will re-sign with the Rangers, but there’s no guarantee there either.
The problem for the Rangers is that both players are unrestricted free agents, and because of that many teams are unwilling to sacrifice prime assets, since there is no initial assurance that either player would be willing to re-sign with his new team.
So not only are we unsure whether or not the Rangers can find consistency down the stretch, nor can we tell how the Olympians will finish out the season, but we don’t even know what kind of personnel this team will feature next week.
That makes it very hard to say if the Rangers are contenders or not.
But as of right now, with the team they have, it’s safe to say they’re not quite there yet. Nash has to prove he can handle the playoff grind before the Rangers think Stanley Cup, because after him there’s a serious drop-off in talent up front.
And, if you haven’t noticed, the name of the game is scoring goals.