With 14 games left in the 2013-14 season, the New York Rangers find themselves in a familiar position: inside the playoff picture, but precariously so. Outside of their run to the top of the East in 2011-12, this has been the pattern for the Rangers in basically every season since the 2004-05 lockout. Through March and April the team is relevant, but in this fleeting kind of way – one bad week, and the talking heads will be talking about someone else. There’s a wide gap between playoff-regular and Cup-contender, and the Blueshirts are stuck on the wrong side of the canyon.
Still, what’s fandom if not optimistic? The mere fact that the Rangers are inside the East’s top eight is cause for hope, so who’s to say the team can’t get hot for two months this spring? All anyone can ever ask for is a shot, and the Rangers will get the same shot as the Bruins and Penguins, Blues and Blackhawks come April. That’s the hope, at least.
But the Blueshirts’ playoff footing has slipped a little bit since the Olympic break. They have won just four of nine since Sochi, and have dropped to third place in the Metro. They’re sixth in the East, but stand just three points clear of the ninth-place Red Wings who hold two games in hand. Where the Blueshirts were just about playoff-certain a month ago, they are playoff-probable today, a status that will continue to deteriorate if the losses keep outnumbering the wins.
It’s an unsettled time in the NHL, a heady stage of doubt and belief, angst and optimism, an hour of unease placated only by incessant self-assurance. It’s at this time of year, under these types of conditions, that fans remind themselves who they’ve got on their side. To quiet their worries, they start ticking off in their head the players they can count on, the guys who will help avert disaster – and they don’t stop until, gulp, disaster strikes. Lundqvist’s back there, we’re fine. Giroux’s got this under control. Kessel’s gonna come up big. Ovechkin won’t let us fail. (For whatever that last one’s still worth…)
With that in mind, here are those players that Rangers fans can count on to carry the team into the playoffs, defined by a confidence rating in their ability to deliver. (Ranked on a scale from 1-10; 1 being Marek Malik, 10 being Mark Messier.)
Anyone making $7.8 million/year is automatically on this list. You can’t rake in that kind of money and expect immunity down the stretch – not that Nash would want it. He finagled his way of Columbus in 2012 for exactly this type of challenge, in exactly this type of market, so one has to figure the Big Easy is geared up for the stretch run. This is why I’m here, he has to be thinking. It’s been a disappointing season for Nash so far, yes, but he is still the most gifted player on this team, the one guy on the squad who can completely change the complexion of a game with a single jaw-dropping play. He hasn’t done it much this year, but the clouds still darken when he touches the puck, a storm ever threatening on the horizon. As much as Nash is sometimes criticized for playing an individual game, that may be exactly what the Rangers need from him in big moments down the stretch. Look for 61 to start taking matters into his own hands in the final month of the season.
Confidence Rating: 7.3
Martin St. Louis
Anyone who forces his way into New York is also automatically on this list. You can’t demand a late-season trade to an Original Six team and expect immunity down the stretch – not that St. Louis would want it. In his press conference following the trade on March 5, the reining Art Ross winner talked about his appreciation of the high stakes in New York and his willingness to embrace the challenge. I’ll be eaten alive if I don’t perform, he seemed to say, and I accept those terms. He is eager to step up for the Rangers as he always did for the Lightning, a fact that is evident in the way St. Louis is pressing on the ice. The points have yet to come in New York the way they always came in Tampa Bay, but it’s only a matter of time before the levies come crashing down. St. Louis is too talented – and too experienced – to go quietly in New York. For nervous Rangers fans, his is a name worth reciting.
Confidence Rating: 8.2
Is Derek Stepan a true first-line center? Well, depends on when you ask. Last year, when Stepan led the team in scoring with 44 points in 48 games, he was every bit the number-one center the Rangers hoped for when they drafted him in 2008. This year, with just 46 points through 68 games, Stepan looks more like the solid, second-line pivot most projected him to be. But the hard-nosed American is suddenly in the midst of a revival since returning from the Olympics, posting 11 points in the nine games since play resumed to let Alain Vigneault know hey, I’m your guy. That’s the Stepan the Rangers will need from here on out, and there’s good reason to believe that’s the Stepan they’ll get. This is a guy who wants to be relied on, who wants to be thrown into the most heated frays of the game. Stepan likes taking the game on his stick, and he’ll get his chances down the stretch. One more reason you can depend on this kid? In four NHL seasons, Stepan has never missed a game.
Confidence Rating: 7.5
Brad Richards is likely to be bought out by the Rangers this summer, but they need him now more than ever. Such is the nature of sports in New York, where each player is but a cog in the big machine, but a number on the bottom line. It’s an unfeeling business where winning is the primary
goal, which is why Richards is here now and gone tomorrow. However you look at it though, the Rangers’ $60-million man still has some game left in his legs, a fact made clear by the kind of play he made Friday night to set up Carl Hagelin for his hat trick goal. Richards collected the puck in his own zone, burst up ice on an odd-man rush backing up the defense in the process, and fed Hagelin on the wing just as he was joining the play. Hagelin did well to beat Al Montoya between the legs, but the goal was a product of Richard’s speed and vision. He’s no longer the threat he was in Tampa Bay, or even in his first year in New York, but Richards is skilled enough still to make the Rangers’ second line a formidable unit.
Confidence Rating: 6.5
As a Rangers fan, is there one guy you want on the ice in a big moment more than Ryan McDonagh? The 24-year-old American has been a rock for the Blueshirts since joining the team midway through the 2010-11 season, and has earnestly grown into one of the elite defensemen in the NHL today. This year, in particular, has been one of exceptional development for McDonagh, who has added some offensive flair and cool-eyed snarl to an already complete defensive skill set. He leads the team in ice time, with 24:39 per game, while sparring night in and night out with the opposition’s best. There isn’t a forward in the league who McDonagh can’t contain, which stems from his confidence as much his ability. Both with the puck and without, he makes difficult plays look easy, bold in his decision-making, calm in his manner. His poise settles down the players around him, his mere presence on the ice cause for confidence.
Confidence Rating: 9.5
Alas, none of the aforementioned players matter if Henrik Lundqvist is not playing at an elite level. For at the end of the day, through coaching changes and personnel changes and what-have-you changes, the Rangers are a team founded on goaltending, their ceiling defined by the man between the pipes. And as frustrating as that fact may be for fans that dream of offense, it should be equally reassuring for fans that dream of winning. In depending as they do on Lundqvist, the Rangers are playing to their strengths. Quite simply, would you rather the team’s fate lie in the hands of, say, Derick Brassard and Chris Kreider, or Lundqvist? Hank struggled mightily in the early going this year – and thus so did the team – but he has found his game in the past two months or so and looks locked in as the season winds to the finish. Expect three-goal games to be a rare sight against Lundqvist in the next 14 games, who has always raised his play when the situation calls for it.
Confidence Rating: 9