Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rangers Rookies Critical To Present Success, Gaining Invaluable Experience For Future

The New York Rangers have been relying on rookie NHL players all season long in different roles and Derek Stepan, Michael Sauer, and Ryan McDonagh have answered the call at each turn.  The trio has acquitted themselves so well that they have been continually given increasingly important roles within the team.  At no time this season have any of the three seemed to have the moment be bigger than them and that bodes very well for them in this transition from playing in the intensity of the stretch drive versus the reality of playoff hockey.  Tonight begins that test of their current level of readiness, and the Rangers will need all three to maintain their high level of the regular season if they have hope of winning this series.
Derek Stepan started the season as the most heralded of these three rookies and he did not disappoint turning in a rookie campaign of 21-24 which had him tied for fourth on the team in goals and fourth alone in points.  With that kind of standing in the main offensive categories and without Ryan Callahan there will be a considerable burden on Stepan to continue to provide offense for the club during the series.
As big as the burden will be on Stepan, Sauer and McDonagh are the ones who will likely have more to say about the overall outcome of the proceedings.  Sauer had a tremendous overall rookie campaign in which he played his solid defensive style while adding some physicality and snarl to the tune of a plus 20 rating for the year.  McDonagh did not get the call until midseason but other than a few hiccup games he played tremendously well since his debut chipping in one goal, eight assists and playing plus 16 hockey in his 40 games as a rookie.
This pairing has been stellar since being put together and for much of the second half has been the Rangers best defensive duo and the combination of their ice time and role to shut down the second line of the Washington Capitals makes them critical to any success the Rangers are going to have. 
In addition to those three, Mats Zuccarello will be another rookie the Rangers are hopeful to get contributions from during the series.  Coach John Tortorella has opted to play Zuccarello in game one over veteran Sean Avery because of the potential upside of Zuke offensively and avoiding any potential penalty downside with Avery.  Zuccarello excelled in the shootout in the regular season, but there are none of those in playoff hockey.  He was very good early in his time with the Rangers, but tailed off late to the point he was on the fourth line and finally sent down to the minors.  He was recalled for the finale and played well in limited to minutes so it is tough to expect much of an impact from him in series based on his limited opportunities.
All of these players have played in big games before in their careers, but nothing truly prepares you for NHL playoff hockey other than being in the games themselves and that is the challenge all of these rookies are going to have deal with.  The Rangers have said all along that this year is about building for the future and all four of these players are going to gain invaluable experience for their futures with each second of playoff hockey they play right now.  The Rangers want these guys to prepare for the future, but they also have to rely on them now.