For the eighth time in the past nine seasons, the New York Rangers are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But, in all that time, they've never advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. That's about to change.
For much of his first season behind the Rangers bench, coach Alain Vigneault has rolled four forward lines and three defense pairings with remarkable consistency. That depth and the standout play of one of the world's best goaltenders will make this a memorable spring at Madison Square Garden.
As always, the Rangers' hopes of winning the Stanley Cup hinge on the play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Of course, they call him the King for a reason. After some stumbles out of the gate, Lundqvist has enjoyed a historic season that is worthy of a championship finale.
By his own admission, Lundqvist did not get off to a good start when the Rangers opened the season with a marathon nine-game road trip in which they started 3-6-0 while being outscored 33-15. Dealing with alterations to his equipment mandated by the NHL and negotiations on a contract extension, Lundqvist struggled, allowing four or more goals in four of his first seven starts.
But he has sparkled since backup Cam Talbot made three straight starts in late December. After sitting out three consecutive games for the first time in seven years, Lundqvist went on a 20-7-2 tear in which he had a 2.10 goals-against average, and established new franchise records with his 302nd win and 50th shutout. He even earned a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics for good measure.
The Rangers' franchise goalie always will be the key to their success, but Vigneault has had the luxury of tapping into his team's depth for much of the season. While previous coach John Tortorella relied heavily on his top lines for offense, every Ranger received a regular shift this season with a new offensive hero emerging almost every night.
The resurrection of offseason signee Benoit Pouliot and the acquisition of Martin St. Louis from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the NHL Trade Deadline gave Vigneault greater freedom to roll all four lines, even with rookie forward Chris Kreider out with a hand injury. A bounce-back season from Brad Richards also gives the Rangers three playmaking centers in Richards, Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard, all of whom totaled at least 40 points this season.
That chemistry and a consistently physical fourth line will spell an antidote to a Boston Bruins team that has run roughshod through the League the past two months and relies on a similar combination of goaltending and depth. The Bruins overwhelmed the Rangers in the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That won't be the case this year.
After relying heavily on the top pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi early, the Rangers blue line saw drastic improvement as the season progressed. Marc Staal's return to health solidified the back end, and the acquisitions of Kevin Klein from the Nashville Predators and Raphael Diaz from the Vancouver Canucks added veteran depth to the unit, not to mention Diaz's right-handed shot on the power play.
As each player established their role, the Rangers hit their stride. Between January and March they went 22-11-2, scoring 3.09 goals per game and allowing 2.09 goals per game in that span.
With Lundqvist in net and the Rangers showing remarkable consistency, Vigneault has barely had to make changes to his lineup. That synergy and team speed has always been a hallmark of postseason success, and you can't ever rule out the man in the crease.
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