The New York Rangers have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the NHL to this point in the season. When the team starts again on Tuesday against Pittsburgh they will have 30 games left in the season to ensure they hold onto their playoff position. They start the “second half” with a five-point edge on the ninth-place Carolina Hurricanes, who have two games in hand on New York, and a four-point lead over the Atlanta Thrashers, who have played the same number of games as the Rangers.
Since there are eight spots in the playoffs, I made a list of eight things that must happen for the Rangers to stay in the top eight. The list is divided into four things that must continue and four things that must improve for the team to hold onto a playoff spot, if not advance up the standings.
Room for Improvement:
This one is the winner of the captain obvious award considering the Rangers have lost 193 man-games to injury already. That number is going to rise with each passing game as Dubinsky, Christensen, Fedotenko, Prospal, Boogaard, Frolov will not be back at the start of play Tuesday, but Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi should be. This team has played admirably though all the injuries and found different players to continue to step and step up, but if they are going to hold on they need some better luck on the injury front.
This one is pretty self-explanatory as the Rangers need Marian Gaborik to be Marian Gaborik more often. The three hat-tricks (one four goal game) are great on those nights, but they need him to have an impact more consistently.
Power Play Improvement
Overall this season the Rangers rank 23rd in the NHL with the man advantage, converting on just 16% of their chances. That standing is the lowest of any team that currently finds themselves in the top eight of either conference.
It is no secret the Rangers have struggled mightily to solve their deficiencies at the point on the power play. Michael Del Zotto was thought to be the answer there, but his struggles not only had him off the power play, but down in the AHL. They have tried just about every defender on the point and even forwards to fill the void.
As bad as the point has been though there is a mentality problem on the man advantage that is just as big in my opinion. The Rangers do not attack the net or shoot the puck enough in an attempt to create the kind of scramble plays they score on while at even strength. With the man advantage the forwards seem content to play pretty passes looking for the perfect shot while standing around the outside of the zone. The attacking mentality will not solve the deficiencies in terms of a big shot, but it would allow for more ugly goals. Someone should inform them that pretty or ugly, they all count the same.
Win a Faceoff
The team is currently ranked 28th in the league (45.8%) on draws. That percentage and ranking is simply not good enough for a team that wants to be a puck possession club. If there is one area where I would look to make a move it would be here.
Where Things Must Remain the Same:
The Rangers have gotten to where they are because they have played with and stuck to a system and the identity it has forced them to adopt. A key for the Rangers will be to keep that mentality once they get healthy and not relax because more talent is in the lineup. If they scratch and claw for points the rest of the way, as they have through the injuries, then the team will have nothing to worry about from those behind them.
Avoid Hitting the Wall
The Rangers are a team that has played a lot of players minutes and games they have never seen before in their careers. You have players like Ryan McDonagh, and Derek Stepan who have never played this many games in a season. There is Michael Sauer, and Steve Eminger who have not played this many games in years. You have Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust who might have played the games, but certainly not the minutes they are logging this year. It will be important for all of those guys to avoid wearing down as the season get towards the latter stages.
Career Years Must Continue
Players like Brian Boyle and his 18 goals certainly top this list, but it includes his partner Brandon Prust, along with young players like Stepan, and Zuccarello. Maybe it is unrealistic to think any of them can continue to play at the level and pace they have to this point, but the team will need them to maintain a similar level even with the return of key pieces like Callahan and Dubinsky.
John Tortorella has done a brilliant job so far at managing his goaltending situation. Martin Biron has allowed him to do that with his stellar play and that will obviously have to continue, but it is important that if Biron does have a bad game that Tortorella sticks to the plan. The extra rest certainly seems to be doing the job of keeping Henrik Lundqvist healthy and fresh to this point in the season and they need him that way for the stretch as well as the playoffs.