Why New York Rangers Are Dark Horse Contenders in Eastern Conference

Tom Urtz Jr.Contributor IApril 10, 2014

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 29: Rick Nash #61 of the New York Rangers skates with the puck against Johnny Boychuk #55 and Zdeno Chara #33 the Boston Bruins at the TD Garden on November 29, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins are the team that stands above all the rest. They are the clear favorite to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Final because of their experience, defense, depth and goaltending, and there are no other teams in the East that particularly stand out.

Of the other teams in the conference, each has questions surrounding them, but the Rangers are arguably one of the top dark horse contenders in the Eastern Conference that could usurp Boston. The Blueshirts have played solid hockey the last few weeks, and they have the potential to run the gauntlet and eventually square off with the Bruins.

Although statistics over the course of an 82-game season are important, they don't always reflect the temperature of a team as they head into the playoffs. When you look at the overall team statistics for the Rangers during the 2013-14 season, they aren't promising. A bad 10-game start skews the numbers, but they have played well since then.

For the sake of relevance, if you look at their play since returning from Sochi, they have some pretty decent numbers. Here's a look at the Eastern Conference playoff teams since returning from Sochi. You can also click this for a breakdown of the entire season to date.

Eastern Conference Playoff Teams Post Sochi
No. 1BOS16-2-4363.452.00
No. 2PIT11-9-2242.502.77
No. 3MTL13-6-2283.002.86
No. 4TBL10-7-4243.003.00
No. 5NYR12-7-2262.902.10
No. 6PHI11-6-3253.152.65
No. 7CBJ13-7-2282.502.23
No. 8DET12-7-3273.002.91

The Rangers are warming up heading into the playoffs, and that is a great sign. Statistically, the numbers reflect that they are a hot team, even though they have had a sprinkling of games in which the outcome was not optimal.

The Rangers have been successful because they have received contributions from multiple players. Here's a look at their scoring depth.

New York Rangers With 10 Or More Goals
PlayerTotal GoalsTotal Points
Martin St. Louis3068
Rick Nash2538
Brad Richards2051
Mats Zuccarello1958
Derek Brassard1844
Derek Stepan1756
Chris Kreider1737
Carl Hagelin1733
Ryan McDonagh1443
Benoit Pouliot1435

In the playoffs, scoring is a coveted commodity, and the Rangers should benefit from having multiple players with a track record of being able to put the puck in the net and points on the board. The depth of scoring gives them a huge advantage over some of the other teams in the playoffs.

Dominic Moore has been key for the Rangers.
Dominic Moore has been key for the Rangers.Scott Levy/Getty Images

One of the biggest strengths of the Bruins come playoff time is their ability to roll four lines.

Their talent up top is well known, but they are also famous for their "Merlot" line that consists of Shawn ThorntonGregory Campbell and Daniel Paille. The trio is one of the league's top energy lines that plays physical hockey, but they have been known to contribute offensively on occasion.

The Rangers were exploited by this line last year during the playoffs, but this season the Blueshirts have a line that could keep up with the Merlot in the playoffs. The line of Daniel Carcillo/Derek Dorsett, Dominic Moore and Brian Boyle has brought physicality, energy and occasional scoring this season.

Here's how the fourth line has produced this year:

New York Rangers' Fourth Line
Dominic Moore6121811:43
Brian Boyle6121812:44
Derek Dorsett44811:07
Daniel Carcillo3038:41

For the sake of comparison, the Merlot line currently has 45 points, so even if you take away Carcillo's three goals, the line has one less point than the league's best known fourth line. Having a dynamic and energetic fourth line will certainly be helpful, but there is another thing that the Rangers have that only a few teams in the conference do, too.

The Rangers have elite goaltending, and that is something they have in common with the Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina in 2012, Sergei Bobrovsky won in 2013 and Tuukka Rask and Carey Price are favorites to capture the award this season.

Someone of you may be saying, "what about the other teams?" That would be a fair question, and here would be my response.

Ben Bishop of the Tampa Bay Lightning is currently injured, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins has been a sieve for the majority of his playoff career, Jimmy Howard of the Detroit Red Wings has had an up-and-down season, and Steve Mason of the Philadelphia Flyers has also historically been a Jekyll and Hyde goaltender.

The above four could end up having an amazing postseason, but there is enough evidence to suggest that the first four will do better than the bottom four.

Rask was huge for the Bruins last season in the playoffs, and if the Rangers are going to beat Boston, they are going to need similar goaltending.

Having a goaltender like Lundqvist gives the Rangers a chance to beat Boston because he can steal games needed to win a series. He did it against the Washington Capitals during last year's playoffs when he recorded back-to-back shutouts in Game 6 and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal.

While Lundqvist doesn't particularly have a great playoff record, he hasn't had the greatest goal support during his time in New York. Here's a list of stats courtesy of Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy:

Overall, Lundqvist is 32-24-5 with a 2.39 GAA and a .920 save percentage. Since returning from Sochi, he's 10-6-2 with a 2.27 GAA and a .924 save percentage, and there is reason to believe his solid play will continue into the playoffs.

This year it will be interesting to see if the style of Alain Vigneault as opposed to that of John Tortorella will result in more playoff offense, and if that is the case, how far can the Rangers go? That is the question on fans' minds, and based on the team's scoring depth, up tick in play and superior goaltending, they stand a better chance against Boston than they did last season.