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Long reign of Lundqvist keeps Rangers optimistic

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers were three wins shy of winning the Stanley Cup in 2014 and one win from going back to the Stanley Cup Final last season. Though that may look like regression, the fact is the Rangers remain one of the elite teams in the NHL and a championship contender.

Here are four reasons the Rangers should be optimistic about their chances:

Henrik Lundqvist remains elite: The most important reason for the Rangers' success the past two seasons is the fact their best player has typically been their best player in every game he's played. Henrik Lundqvist is unquestionably an elite goalie and easily the No. 1 reason for optimism in New York.

Lundqvist has all the physical tools required to remain elite for several more seasons, but he also has the motivation to do so because of how close he has been to winning the Stanley Cup. Lundqvist is constantly talking about his desire to win the Cup, and he's well aware that his window is slowly closing; he will turn 34 years old March 2.

Development of Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast: The young forwards grew into their roles last season and showed signs they can be impact players. Their improvement and development leads to bigger expectations this season. That's a good thing to have for players who are 23 (Hayes), 23 (Fast) and 22 (Miller).

Hayes was fifth among NHL rookies last season with 45 points playing primarily as the No. 3 center. He could shift to wing and assume a top-six role.

Miller had 23 points in 58 regular-season games, and eight points in 19 Stanley Cup Playoff games, including four in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. His work ethic improved last season, which was a reason he stayed in the lineup.

Fast didn't produce as much (14 points in 58 regular-season games, six points in 19 playoff games) but was relied on for being in the right position and for his two-way play. He is quick on pucks and typically makes the right play when he gets it on his stick.

Chris Kreider ready to break out: The forward has the tools to be the Rangers' next 30-goal scorer.

"I expect great things from him this year," coach Alain Vigneault said.

Kreider scored 17 goals in 66 games as a rookie in 2013-14 and 21 in 80 games last season. He scored seven goals in the playoffs. He should maintain his top-six role and appears to have figured out how his physical style of play can work in the NHL.

Kreider is the Rangers' fastest player and needs to be able to mix his speed, skill and power to add to his repertoire.

Mats Zuccarello's return: The Rangers missed the wing in the playoffs after he sustained a head injury early in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Zuccarello makes a big impact in the lineup with his speed, skill, creativity and vision. His loss seemed to affect Rick Nash, who did not get the same primary scoring chances without Zuccarello on his line.

Vigneault said Zuccarello has been given a clean bill of health. His return should mean big things for Nash and Derick Brassard. That was the Rangers' most dangerous line when they were together.

The loss of Martin St. Louis to retirement could open more power-play ice time for Zuccarello, who dropped from 17 power-play points in 2013-14 to six last season. He played almost 50 fewer minutes on the power play last season than he did in 2013-14.

"He's a big part of our team," Vigneault said.

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