When the New York Rangers marched into the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they were the top seed in the Eastern Conference and a popular pick to raise the Cup when June rolled around.
Things are different this season for the Rangers, who used a strong finish to the regular season to sneak into the playoffs. They won't be hot choice to win the Stanley Cup in 2013, but they have the components to put together 16 wins.
How can the Rangers make their run? They'll need to answer these five questions in the affirmative:
1. Can Henrik Lundqvist play at an elite level for two months?
With a shortened season, it's tough to gauge what a heavy workload will do to a goaltender. Last season, Lundqvist was at his best, starting 62 games, the fewest of his career as a No. 1 goaltender. This year, he played 43 games, 89.6 percent of his team's games, which equates to playing 73 games in an 82-game season. Lundqvist faded in the conference finals last year, which may have had to do with the Rangers playing 14 games during the first two rounds. How Lundqvist reacts to this unique situation will go a long way toward deciding the fate of the Rangers.
2. Was April an illustration of who the Rangers are?
For nearly three months, the Rangers were among the worst teams in the NHL when it came to putting the puck in the net. But in April, they caught fire after shaking up their roster at the NHL Trade Deadline. Derick Brassard and Ryane Clowe provided scoring punch at even strength and on the power play, and John Moore has contributed as the team's sixth defenseman. With Lundqvist in net, three goals will usually be enough, but if the Rangers revert to their early-season scoring form, it will be a quick exit.
3. Will the effective Brad Richards show up?
Even when Richards looked lost most nights during the first half of the season and beyond, the idea was he's a proven playoff performer who will eventually get it together. During the final six games of the regular season, Richards began to look like his old self and he'll need to continue to play that way for the Rangers to have success. He scored big goals through the 2012 postseason, and he'll need to do it again in 2013.
4. Can the Rangers score a power-play goal?
Every team in the NHL would like to score more with the man advantage, but it seems the Rangers need it more than any other team. They have scored a power-play goal in 18 games this season and have a 13-2-3 record in those games -- and that's after an 0-2 start in that situation. The Rangers are in the middle of the pack offensively, but near the top of the League in 5-on-5 goal differential, which makes them dangerous if they can squeeze in one goal on the power play.
5. Will less experience be a problem?
The Rangers entered last postseason as a mostly green team yet managed to reach the conference finals. But between trades and free agency during the past year, they've lost much of their overall postseason experience. They have eight players (Rick Nash, Brassard, Moore, Derek Dorsett, Darroll Powe, Arron Asham, Taylor Pyatt, Mats Zuccarello) who weren't on last year's postseason roster. Nash, Brassard, Moore and Zuccarello have five postseason contests combined. Seven players to leave in the past year (Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust, Ruslan Fedotenko, John Mitchell, Mike Rupp) have 324 games of postseason experience combined. How that changeover affects the Rangers when the puck drops on the playoffs may play the biggest hand in the team's postseason fortunes.