GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The New York Rangers would be watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs if April had not been their best month of the season. It was, and now they feel they are good enough to play well into June.
It sure is amazing what some offense and a balanced lineup can do for a team's confidence.
"All of a sudden you start feeling good," left wing Carl Hagelin said Tuesday, two days before the Rangers open the playoffs at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals. "Most guys got into a rhythm. Before it was maybe three or four guys that played well, but we never had a full team effort. All of a sudden a lot of guys started feeling good about their game and this is what happens."
The Rangers went 10-3-1 and averaged 3.64 goals per game in April; they went 16-15-3 and averaged 2.26 goals per game through the end of March.
Derek Stepan had the best month of his career with 19 points, good enough to be named the NHL's Third Star of the Month. He scored the first goal in the game four times and had three game-winners.
Brad Richards, who struggled through March, turned his season around with 16 points in April, after totaling 18 points in 32 games through March. Ryan Callahan's 16 points in April more than doubled his production from the first two-and-a-half months, and Rick Nash had 14 points, the same as he did in March.
"We felt we were in the fight that we're going to be in as we start Thursday for the past month, trying to crawl in here," coach John Tortorella said. "I think our players have handled a number of different situations on a flat line -- not getting too high, not getting too low, handling momentum [swings] in games, finding ways to win. They're all things that are going to be needed in the playoffs."
But the story of the Rangers' turnaround from an inconsistent, incomplete team to one that believes it is a Cup contender can't be told without mentioning the NHL Trade Deadline.
The Rangers' metamorphosis started in late March, when they reacquired Mats Zuccarello, who was a bust in his first tour but now seemingly is much more poised and understanding of what the NHL game is all about and how to play it under Tortorella. Zuccarello plays on a line with Richards and Nash, and had eight points in 15 regular-season games.
General manager Glen Sather acquired Ryane Clowe from the San Jose Sharks for a pair of draft picks on April 2. Clowe, who could miss the opening of the first-round series because of an undisclosed injury, was the gritty, physical second-line wing New York didn't have. He had eight points in 12 games, including his first two goals of the season in his Rangers debut April 3.
The transformation was completed right around 2 p.m. ET on April 3, when the Columbus Blue Jackets helped make the Rangers whole.
The trade with Columbus brought to New York the third center they desperately needed (Derick Brassard), the defenseman they so obviously were missing (John Moore), and perhaps the confrontational forward they still need (Derek Dorsett). Marian Gaborik nearly helped the Blue Jackets get into the playoffs, but Brassard and Moore most definitely did for the Rangers.
Brassard five goals and six assists in 13 games, and Moore filled out the Rangers' bottom defense pair and proved to be much more of a trustworthy player than Roman Hamrlik or Matt Gilroy. His skating gave the Rangers a jump from the blue line they were missing when Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh were on the bench.
Dorsett is working his way back after breaking his clavicle March 7. He could play at some point in the first-round series.
"I don't think we had the middle of our lineup straightened out to where we got away with playing some minutes in a game but couldn't sustain through a 60-minute game the way we wanted to play," Tortorella said. "At the deadline it helped. I think bringing [Zuccarello] in has helped. I think it solidified our team and we've kind of grown since then."
How much did these moves make a difference in the Rangers? Well, consider it has taken until this point in the story to mention Henrik Lundqvist, who played every minute in April and posted a .932 save percentage, 1.76 goals-against average and two shutouts.
April was Lundqvist's best statistical month since January of last year -- and still he wasn't the biggest story. It was everything else.
"We've gotten better. You can just see it," Stepan said. "We just control games more for 60 minutes and we don't get hurt when we're not playing the way we need to. Our game is coming and we've got to try to continue to bring that into the playoffs if we want any chance."
They wouldn't have had any chance without a strong April. Now they feel May and June can be even better.
Confidence really is something.
"We're not always dead-on in our minutes in a game, but we've still found ways to win hockey games," Tortorella said, "and that's what we're going to have to do in the playoffs."