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Play on road helped power Rangers to playoffs

Performance away from Madison Square Garden, goaltending tandem key reasons New York clinched postseason berth

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The New York Rangers have been one of the premier teams in the NHL despite the fact goalie Henrik Lundqvist, easily their best player, has not been at his absolute best this season.

The Rangers are going to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the seventh consecutive season. They clinched a berth into the playoffs by getting a point in a 5-4 overtime loss against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on Tuesday. 

The Rangers, who have 97 points with five games remaining, are in line for their third straight 100-point season.

New York is in position to be the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference, which would get it a first-round matchup with the Atlantic Division champion. The Rangers have the fourth most points in the conference, but the top three teams all play in the Metropolitan Division.

Here are five reasons the Rangers clinched a playoff berth:

 

1. Road dominance

The Rangers have lost seven consecutive games at Madison Square Garden (0-5-2) and whenever they're asked how they can break out of the home slump, the answer is inevitably the same.

"Let's just go out and play the game that we've been playing on the road," center Derek Stepan said.

If they could do that, they would have clinched a playoff berth long before Tuesday. The Rangers lead the League in road wins with 27 and points with 56. They haven't lost two in a row in regulation on the road since Dec. 1 and 6. They are 20-5-2 on the road since.

"Every night on the road, we're solid," forward Rick Nash said.

Video: NYR@LAK: McDonagh buries PPG through heavy traffic

 

2. Goalie duo

It's normally the Lundqvist show with the Rangers, but this season it was more the Lundqvist-Antti Raanta show, because the Rangers needed their backup to play big, and he has.

Raanta has played a career-high 30 games and is 16-8-2 with four shutouts, a 2.26 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. Lundqvist hasn't put up his typical numbers this season, but he has 30 wins for the 11th time in 12 seasons (the one time he didn't was the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, when he had 24 wins) to go along with a 2.74 GAA and a .911 save percentage.

Raanta didn't allow more than two goals in six straight starts from Oct. 30-Nov. 27. He played four straight games from Dec. 8-13 because Lundqvist was struggling and needed time to get his game back. Raanta went 3-1-0 with two shutouts and a .966 save percentage.

Video: NYR@LAK: Raanta makes 30 saves to blank the Kings

Lundqvist eventually responded and found his game, but a muscle strain in his hip put him out for eight straight games from March 9-25. Raanta went 3-3-2 with a .914 save percentage to keep the Rangers in good standing while they waited for Lundqvist to return, which he did Sunday.

Prior to the injury, Lundqvist was 12-5-1 with one shutout, a .930 save percentage and 2.26 GAA in his previous 19 appearances. He has been rusty in his return with 10 goals against on 68 shots against the Anaheim Ducks and Sharks.

"There's no doubt with the condensed schedule, the number of games you have to play in a short amount of time, two goaltenders that give you a chance to win is a must," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We're very fortunate we're a team that has that."

Video: NYR@SJS: Lundqvist makes a pair of solid saves

 

3. Grabner's goals

That left wing Michael Grabner has one goal in his past 18 games should be alarming, but not totally shocking when you consider the law of averages. The odds were slim Grabner was going to keep scoring at the pace he was on through the first four months of the season.

Grabner had 26 goals in 53 games by Feb. 9. He led the NHL with 25 even-strength goals and was fourth in total goals at the time. His offense was unexpected and necessary. 

Through Feb. 9, the Rangers were 15-3-0 when he scored. He had six multiple-goal games.

He has cooled off, and not surprisingly the Rangers offense has dipped. The Rangers were averaging 3.41 goals per game in their first 53 games with Grabner in the lineup. They have averaged 2.61 goals per game in the 18 he has played since.

Video: TBL@NYR: Grabner cashes in on Garrison's miscue

 

4. Progression from Miller and Hayes

Vigneault talks about forwards J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes as young players going through the process. That process has to be close to over, because Hayes and Miller have had big seasons.

Miller is second on the team with 54 points (22 goals, 32 assists), two fewer than Mats Zuccarello. Hayes, scratched at times last season, has 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) in 72 games, 13 more points than he had in 79 games last season.

Video: NYR@SJS: Miller hammers home one-timer for PPG

Miller and Hayes have been on a line with Grabner for a good portion of the season. It has been the Rangers best line a lot of nights because of Grabner's speed and Miller's and Hayes' ability to see and make plays. 

"I still think there is a lot of things I can improve on and be more consistent at," Miller said, "but I'm playing with good players, a good hockey team, in a good system and with good coaches. I think this year is going well, but I don't want to be comfortable."

Video: NYR@DET: Hayes buries Miller's pinpoint feed in 2nd

 

5. Following the leader

The Rangers wouldn't be where they are without captain Ryan McDonagh, their do-it-all defenseman. 

McDonagh leads the Rangers in ice time, averaging 24:23 per game, more than two minutes higher than what he averaged last season (22:21). He has played 25 or more minutes in 26 of his 76 games. He has led the Rangers in ice time in 68 games.

He has been on point with his production, too. McDonagh has 40 points, including a career-high 35 assists. He is three points away from tying his career high (43 in 2013-14). He has a career-high 14 points on the power play, second on the team behind Derek Stepan (17). 

"He's got all the tools in the bag to be a top defenseman on any team in the League," forward Rick Nash said. "His skating ability keeps him out of trouble. If he makes a mistake, if he cheats on the offensive side, he can get back so easy because he's such a good skater."

Video: NYR@DET: McDonagh crashes net, finishes SHG in front

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