It is that time of the year again. The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and for the first time in five years, the New York Rangers are gearing up for a playoff run.
This highly anticipated, momentous occasion is born from the fruits of former General manager Jeff Gorton’s labor. The “letter” from the Rangers front office that was sent out on February 8th, 2018 is just now reaching its full bloom.
With the Rangers’ playoff destiny set, though their opponent is not, it cannot be overstated the importance of understanding expectations; and more importantly, setting proper ones.
How will the kids perform? Does this Rangers team have what it takes? Are they “gritty” enough, and did current GM Chris Drury’s offseason moves add the sandpaper the team apparently needed? Will Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad’s regular season success extend into the playoffs? How will the deadline acquisitions fair in the postseason?
All of these questions and more are certainly burning in not only the minds of the fans, but the Rangers’ front office itself, or more likely the people who work in the Rangers front office.
What to expect in the first round?
Let it be known, so that this sentiment is made perfectly clear, there is no such thing as an easy playoff round. The worst team in the entire NHL could be put up against the best team in a best-of-seven series, and would likely skate off the ice triumphant in at least one of those contests.
Regardless who the opposing team may be, come puck drop of Game One of Round One in the Eastern Conference, they will certainly be a challenge; and that is no doubt.
Let it also be stated that the outcome of the remaining game on the 2021-22 schedule could not matter less to the Rangers. It is likely that the objective of this final game will be to avoid sustaining any injuries before the show begins.
With all of this crystal clear, the next order of business is understanding what to expect from the team once the playoffs begin.
The Rangers have been one of the best teams league-wide since the deadline. Offensively, they rank 11th in the league in goals scored per game with 3.44, 14th in shots per game with 30.9, and12th in power play percentage, operating at a 22% clip since March 21st.
While all of these stats clearly rank in the middle of the road in terms of league-wide standings, it is the defensive side of the puck that has drastically improved.
They have been the best in the league at preventing goals, giving up just 2.44 goals against per game, as well as ranking first in allowing only 25.7 shots against per game. The penalty kill has been a little disappointing during this time, operating at a 82.9% efficiency, good for ninth overall. Even that has improved lately as they have killed 28 of their last 29 penalties.
The playoffs are a grind, and usually feature a defense oriented game. Thus, the fact that the Rangers have improved to be arguably the best defensive team in hockey since the trade deadline is more than encouraging.
Ultimately, this means they have been attempting to play a playoff-style game since the March 21st trade deadline, and have been successful in that attempt.
The caveat with this Rangers squad was always whether or not they could play the defensive game. The offense will come, especially with the firepower of Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, and Adam Fox.
The question that needed answering has finally been met with a favorable response.
How deep can this team go?
The offseason additions that head honcho Chris Drury added to the team have certainly stabilized the lineup. In addition, the leading cast of Kreider, Zibanejad, Panarin, and Fox can push this team forward with their offensive abilities.
Jacob Trouba, a red-hot Andrew Copp, and Frank Vatrano are providing some much needed scoring depth. The irrefutable step-forward taken by K’Andre Miller has added some much needed force from the back end.
Whether or not the team can make a deep playoff push ultimately relies on the kids, as it was assumed at the beginning of the season.
From game one of the regular season, the idea of the Rangers making the playoffs hung on the shoulders of the development of Alexis Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, and K’Andre Miller.
While the rest of the team has had career years, the kids have been a bit underwhelming, excluding Miller. Lafrenière does have 18 even-strength goals in 78 games played, but his ability to find a consistent level of play has been missing.
Kakko and Chytil have had seasons cut by injuries, as well as a benching here and there for Chytil. Kakko has 16 points in just 42 games this year, while Chytil has just 7 goals and 14 assists in 66 games played.
Should this Rangers group make a deep run and potentially take a shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup, it is the young guns who need to put on an impressive performance in the playoffs; and more importantly have that performance result in increased production.
Where do the Rangers likely finish their season?
With the success this group has attained during the 2021-22 season, a first round win is not out of the question. In fact, it is expected. Regardless of who the opponent may be, the Rangers could and should come out of the first round victorious.
This exciting team has earned their current position, and thus the expectations that come with it. A second round matchup is entirely impossible to predict, and it would be a colossal waste of time to attempt to do so.
However, the second round will likely be against an opponent that possesses more firepower than the Rangers. This would be where the Blueshirts must call upon Igor Shesterkin to be the goalie that has cemented himself as a shoe-in for the Vezina Trohpy.
If Igor is up to the task, which fans and players alike expect him to be, then a trip to the Conference Finals is in the cards.
If it proves too tall a task for the second-year netminder, then a second round exit may be the extent to which this Rangers team goes.
The way many of the other teams in the Eastern Conference are built, they will likely all possess greater offensive force than the Rangers.
How far the team goes is largely going to be determined by the play of Shesterkin and the defense in front of him. It is my prediction that the Rangers are eliminated by round number two, but it is my hope that they conquer the final two rounds as well.
Now, it is almost time to actually play the games. Sit back and enjoy, folks.