New York Rangers: 5 Keys to Winning the Atlantic Division

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IIJuly 20, 2011

New York Rangers: 5 Keys to Winning the Atlantic Division

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    The New York Rangers made possibly the best move of any team in the NHL this summer by bringing in Brad Richards from the Dallas Stars, but they'll need to do much more if they want to finally move out of the bottom half of the Eastern Conference standings.

    The Rangers have missed the playoffs just once since the lockout, when they missed the cut by one point in 2009-10. However, each time they have made it, they've been the lower seed in their first round matchup. 

    People like to say that home ice advantage doesn't matter that much in the NHL Playoffs, and the last few years have produced some evidence to support that, but it certainly can't hurt. 

    The Rangers need to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference so they don't have to play the Washington's and the Pittsburgh's of the world in the first round. That way, they'll have a better chance to advance deep into the playoffs.

    In order to get a top four seed and establish themselves as bona fide Stanley Cup contenders, they'll have to win the Atlantic Division. 

5. Improve the Power Play

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    The Rangers ranked 18th in the league in power play percentage last year, scoring on just 49 of 290 man-advantage situations. 

    Bringing in a new power play quarterback in Brad Richards should certainly help their top unit. He'll likely be paired with Marc Staal at the point in that first unit, and you can be sure that Marian Gaborik will be one of the forwards. 

    Where the Rangers must also improve is on the second power play unit, and a large portion of that responsibility will likely fall to Michael Del Zotto.

    In portions of his rookie season, Del Zotto looked like a future All Star who would be capable of being the Rangers' power play point man for years. Last year, however, he had a bit of a sophomore slump and was eventually sent back to the Connecticut Whale for more seasoning.

    Not having to run the Rangers' top special teams unit will take some of the pressure off of Del Zotto, and it would help to surround him on that second unit with players who have been around the team for a while like Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. 

4. Get Better in the Face off Circle

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    Of the Rangers who regularly took face offs last season, only Brandon Dubinsky won more than 50% of his draws, and he played on the wing most of the year. 

    Brian Boyle, Erik Christensen, Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan all won less than half of their face offs, and Chris Drury didn't take enough for his percentage to be considered relevant.

    Stepan was especially bad in the face off circle, winning just 38.5% of the time.  

    Winning face offs is obviously key to possessing the puck, which is key to scoring goals, which the Rangers have struggled doing for quite a while now. 

    This is another area where the newly signed Brad Richards can help, and a large part of why he is such a great fit for this roster. 

    Richards himself only won 51% of his face offs last year, so Boyle, Stepan and Anisimov will have to step their games up as well. It helps that Mark Messier has taken to helping some of them with this problem. 

3. Stay Tough on Defense

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    Defense is a large part of the Rangers' identity, and it showed last year when only three teams let up less goals than New York did (Boston, Washington and Vancouver). 

    With a strong defensive corps led by first pairing Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, that trend should continue this season. 

    The Rangers also have a strong commitment to defense coming from their forwards, many of whom are known for sacrificing their body on that end. 

    Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Mike Rupp are all excellent on the defensive end of the ice. They all sacrifice their bodies to block shots by whatever means necessary, even it it means getting injured like Callahan did toward the end of last season. 

    That is a risk that the team must be willing to take, however, because a large part of the identity the Rangers have built is based on grit and toughness. They'll have to show that same kind of fire and determination on the defensive end this year to be successful. 

2. Bring Back the 2009-10 Marian Gaborik

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    Marian Gaborik had a terrific first season on Broadway, registering 42 goals and 86 points in 76 games for the blueshirts. 

    However, he regressed big time last year, and those totals dropped to 22 goals and 48 points in 62 games. Gaborik went from being a player who registered over a point per game to one who was down to about 0.75 points per, and that just won't cut it for a player with his talent level and salary.

    What made it even worse was that he scored in just 14 different games. He had two three-goal games - one each against the Islanders and Oilers - and a four goal game against the Maple Leafs. It's simply unacceptable for a player of Gaborik's caliber to score that little.  

    It didn't help that Gaborik missed 22 games due to injury last year, or that he worked with a revolving door of centers in an effort to jump start his game. He spent time being centered by Erik Christensen, Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan, Chris Drury, Vaclav Prospal, Brandon Dubinsky and Brian Boyle at different points of last season. 

    Gaborik needs to develop chemistry with Brad Richards as soon as physically possible, and really needs to get off to a fast start this year. 

1. Keep Henrik Lundqvist Healthy and Rested

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    Henrik Lundqvist is the best player on the Rangers and one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. 

    He has been asked to carry far too big a load for the Rangers in his career so far, but if Brad Richards provides a boost to the Rangers' goalscoring, that may change this season.

    Lundqvist has also been getting hit a lot the last few seasons, and for that reason the Rangers really need to work on clearing players out of the front of his net. Too often, players come crashing into Lundqvist right before or after the whistle and that is simply unacceptable.

    Lundqvist is too important to the team's success to allow that to happen. The Rangers defenders need to take pride in keeping forwards away from the Swedish goaltender. 

    Lundqvist could also use more rest throughout the season. It looked like that would indeed happen last year until Martin Biron got injured in practice. If Biron is fully healthy this season, the Rangers would be wise to give him 20 to 25 starts throughout the course of the year in order to make sure Lundqvist has enough energy to lead the Rangers on a deep playoff run.