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Rangers ride new system, road success into playoffs

Monday, 04.07.2014 / 9:56 PM
Tal Pinchevsky  - NHL.com Staff Writer

The New York Rangers are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They clinched their eighth playoff berth in nine seasons when the New Jersey Devils lost 1-0 to the Calgary Flames on Monday night.

The play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist keyed New York's road to the postseason, but the similarities to past Rangers teams generally end there. The 2013-14 Rangers were propelled by some relatively fresh faces that excelled once they adjusted to the new plan installed by incoming coach Alain Vigneault.

It's an impressive turnaround considering the difficult transition New York had to make at the start of the season. There was a new coach, a new system, a number of players entering their first full season with the team and even a newly-renovated Madison Square Garden. That transition was magnified by a season-opening nine-game road trip on which New York went 3-6-0.

Six months after that challenging trip, the Rangers sit second in the Metropolitan Division. They are two points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, who hold a game in hand and could face New York in the Eastern Conference First Round.

Here are five reasons the Rangers are headed back to the playoffs.

1. Lundqvist a rock

It's only fair this list begins with Lundqvist. The franchise goaltender struggled in the first few weeks of the season while he adapted to NHL-mandated equipment alterations and negotiated a contract extension. Even once all those early-season distractions were settled, there was talk that Lundqvist wasn't quite his old self.

No one is saying that anymore. Since sitting for three straight games in late December in favor of backup Cam Talbot, Lundqvist recaptured the form that has made him the face of the franchise and one of the League's top goaltenders for close to a decade. And he's only improved since winning a silver medal for Sweden at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Lundqvist sat out the first game after the Olympics, then proceeded to start 16 of New York's next 18 games.

His workload increased as his play improved, and the goaltender has starred in the season's final weeks, closing out March with a 5-1-0 run in which he posted a 2.17 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

2. Adapting to the new system

Vigneault spent seven seasons molding the Vancouver Canucks into one of the League's most dangerous offensive teams. So naturally he was expected to add some of that flair when the Rangers hired him last summer. He earned poor grades during the Rangers' early struggles, but has since found chemistry with his forward lines and turned New York into a dangerous scoring threat that has also limited opposition chances.

The Rangers' attack found its stride when rookie Chris Kreider was matched on the wing opposite the high-scoring Rick Nash. With Derek Stepan in the middle, that top line's speed along the wing typified an attack that started scoring in bunches. A bounce-back season from Brad Richards and the emergence of a strong two-way line featuring Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot gave New York a balanced scoring attack that brought back memories of Vigneault's potent Canucks teams.

New York's offense has kicked into high gear since the start of the new year, scoring 115 goals in 38 games for an average of 3.03 per game.

3. Road play

The Rangers' marathon trip to start the season gave the impression that road games might be a challenge, but they moved on and slowly became the League's best road team, setting a new franchise mark with 25 victories away from MSG.

New York went 22-8-1 away from home after the early trip and had a 25-14-1 road record that was the League's best heading into their final road game April 12 against the Montreal Canadiens. The offense helped lead the charge much of the season, but it was New York's defense that starred on the road. The Rangers allowed 65 goals in their 31 road games after the season-opening trek, amounting to a 2.10 goals-against average.

That exceptional play away from MSG could be a key to any postseason success the Rangers enjoy.

4. Depth in the middle

New York got strong play from its goaltending and defense, but center was easily the Rangers' deepest position. Stepan established himself as New York's top center last season and Richards recaptured his game in 2013-14 to give the Rangers two playmaking pivots. Brassard also emerged on the third line, setting a career high with 18 goals and putting himself within striking distance of his career best 47-point season with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2010-11.

Most teams would be more than happy to have one strong two-way center on their fourth line; the Rangers have two. Brian Boyle and offseason acquisition Dominic Moore gave the Rangers everything they needed from their checking line and only improved as the season went along. Both Boyle and Moore consistently won faceoffs, established a strong forecheck and occasionally provided timely scoring while leading a penalty kill that was statistically among the League's best.

5. McDonagh breaks through

Lundqvist is the Rangers' best goalie and Nash their best natural scorer, but defenseman Ryan McDonagh may have established himself as New York's best all-round player. Before sustaining a shoulder injury on April 1 against the Canucks, McDonagh was enjoying a career year in which he emerged as a true franchise defenseman.

Teamed with Dan Girardi, McDonagh was tasked with shutting down the opposition's top scoring line every night. He also found his scoring touch both on the power play and at even strength. His 14 goals are the most by a Rangers defenseman since Brian Leetch scored 21 in 2000-01 and he led Rangers defensemen in every major statistical category, including goals, points, power-play points, shots and ice time.

Fortunately for the Rangers, McDonagh is day-to-day and expected to return from his shoulder injury soon.

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