The 5 Biggest Questions for New York Rangers in the Home Stretch in 2013-14

Andrew CapitelliContributor IApril 2, 2014

The 5 Biggest Questions for New York Rangers in the Home Stretch in 2013-14

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    With an 8-2-0 record over their last 10 contests, the New York Rangers have solidified themselves as a force in the Eastern Conference.

    They’ve come a long way from their abysmal start, but with just five games remaining they’ve essentially wrapped up a divisional playoff spot, and with the Philadelphia Flyers in their sight, the Rangers could put together an impressive playoff run.

    Although, for that to happen, a lot has to go right. There are still several questions that will have to be answered if the Rangers are to reach the latter stages of the tournament.

    Today we’ll highlight the five biggest questions for the Rangers as they enter the home stretch and the NHL playoffs.

Are the Rangers Deep Enough at Center?

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    After the marvelous showings of Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard last season, the Rangers appeared set at center heading into 2013-14. Brad Richards would slot into a third-line position and assume a lesser role, and the Rangers as a whole would have some of the best center depth in the Metropolitan Division.

    Except it didn’t exactly play out that way early on. Stepan struggled after rejoining the team following his holdout, Brassard appeared lost, but Richards excelled. It took a long time for the trio to get on the same page, and for the past four months they’ve found chemistry with their linemates and have not only steadily put up points, but upped their intensity and provided support in all three zones.

    That’s great, but, even at their best, are they as good as we thought? Do they actually compare with the groups Philadelphia (Claude Giroux, Vinny Lecavalier, Sean Couturier) and Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Sutter) boast?

    It’s obvious the three don’t have the raw talent, or pedigree, those sets have, but they do have heart. Whether or not it wins out is another story, but I’d say, even though the three have played well over the past few months, center depth could be a problem for the club.

How Much Does Home Ice Matter?

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    If you hadn’t noticed, the Rangers have the league’s second best road record, behind the Western Conference leading St. Louis Blues. At 25-14-0, the Blueshirts have made picking up points on the road a habit, and it’s been a saving grace for the club, as their home record was left to be desired earlier in the season.

    For example, during the Rangers’ nine-game homestand that lasted nearly all of December, the team put up a 3-4-2 record after they appeared to turn their season around with a 5-2-0 record during a road trip that preceded the slate of home games.

    The Rangers have since improved—and I say that cautiously—and moved their home record slightly over .500 (18-16-4).

    Although I’m not sure that it matters. The Rangers and Flyers are on a collision course to meet in the first round of the playoffs, and whether or not the Blueshirts get home ice is something of a non-factor. Besides having the Eastern Conference’s best road record, the Rangers are 9-0-0 against the Flyers at Madison Square Garden over the last nine games.

    If they can advance, it’s safe to say they will be without home-ice advantage, even if they were to grab that No. 2 spot in the division. Essentially, the Rangers’ proficiency on the road is nothing but an advantage for them in the playoffs, and potential lack of home-ice advantage shouldn’t be an issue.

Will Run-and-Gun Work in the Playoffs?

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    When general manager Glen Sather fired John Tortorella at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season, it was clear he wanted to take the team in a different systematic direction.

    Enter Alain Vigneault and his run-and-gun offensive style.

    He and the team struggled to forge cohesion during the early stages of the year, but AV now has the team utilizing its speed and smarts to catch opponents flat-footed.

    Although the Rangers are still not an offensive powerhouse, their speed makes them difficult to play against. That being said, with the introduction of Vigneault's style—and the departure of a few “Torts guys”—the Rangers have lost a lot of what made them a grind-it-out team just a couple of years ago. They were arguably the toughest team to play against then.

    And as we all know, it’s the hard-nosed hockey that is typically most effective in the playoffs. The question is, will the Rangers still find success with their new, less heavy system?

    Not sure, but you’d have to think they’ll score more goals than they did under Torts the last couple of seasons. Scoring was the club’s Achilles' heel, and putting pucks in the net is the name of the game.

    At times this season, we’ve seen the Rangers score a lot. At other times, scoring was a struggle. If the Rangers get hot in the playoffs and start finding the back of the net, then the change of style will not cause any problems. If they get unlucky, they’ll struggle, as this team is no longer a group of grinders.

Can Marty St. Louis Heat Up?

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    On Tuesday night in Vancouver, Martin St. Louis scored his first goal with the Rangers after not registering a single tally through his first 14 games with the squad.

    Luckily, the Rangers have played some of their best hockey of the season during the stretch, but when you trade your captain at the trade deadline, you expect the reigning scoring champion you received in return to produce.

    Through his struggles, it was evident he lost confidence, and for anyone who’s played the sport, you know confidence is a huge part of the equation for success.

    Finally St. Louis got the monkey off of his back, and although his struggles were painful to watch, they were somewhat excused. Over a decade spent in Tampa Bay, there was bound to be an adjustment period. But what he does now will define his legacy with the Blueshirts.

    He will be expected to do nothing but rack up goals and assists from this point on, and although he’s 38 years old, that’s exactly what he’s capable of.

    As a consummate professional and future Hall of Famer, you know St. Louis is hungry to produce offense and win games. There’s no doubt in my mind Marty gets a run going here and leads the Rangers into the playoffs.

How Will Injury Affect the Club?

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    This is a tough question to answer as of now, considering Chris Kreider is expected to be out indefinitely, and at this point we are not aware of how serious Ryan McDonagh’s injury is, even though a team spokesman said late last night that it isn’t actually a “serious” injury.

    In terms of Krieder, the team has played well without him. That being said, they will inevitably miss his size, speed and skill. J.T. Miller was believed to be a good replacement for the rookie, but Vigneault has proven, yet again, he is not comfortable with the second-year man.

    Once the playoffs come around, though, I believe the Rangers will truly miss the presence of Kreider. They aren’t an overly big physical group, but Kreider is.

    As for McDonagh, if he’s out long-term, the Rangers are in a lot of trouble. I feel that he is literally the last player the team could afford to lose to injury, even more so than Henrik Lundqvist. I say this because—although he is not a replacement—Cam Talbot has proven a worthy NHL backup, and if the defense plays as it has in front of Talbot, the blow wouldn’t be as serious. Losing McDonagh—a potential Norris candidate—affects the team on numerous levels; defensively, offensively and in terms of leadership.

    All the Rangers can hope for at this point is that McDonagh misses little to no time, because if he’s out an extended period of time, any Stanley Cup hopes the team had will have come to a screeching halt.