The New York Rangers
were the last NHL team to play a home game due to renovations on Madison Square Garden that carried into October, but they became the first Eastern Conference team to clinch a playoff spot with a 4-2 home win against the New Jersey Devils
on Monday night.
Here are six reasons the Rangers find themselves in the postseason with a little less than three weeks left in the regular season:
1. The stellar season of Henrik Lundqvist:
Will he win the Hart Trophy? Probably not, with Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin
dominating like he has, but that doesn't make Lundqvist's best NHL season any less impressive. Helped by a lighter workload made possible by backup Martin Biron
playing so well, Lundqvist is putting up career bests in goals-against average (1.89) and save percentage (.934) and has a League-high eight shutouts. He has 33 wins and plenty of time to eclipse his single-season best of 38 set in 2008-09. On a team that wins with defense, Lundqvist has been the rock-solid backbone.
2. The growth of Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto:
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 6 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 27
SOG: 109 | +/-: 23
The season-long theme of injured defensemen started with the loss of Marc Staal
in training camp and continued with the prolonged absences of Michael Sauer
and Steve Eminger
. A team losing 50 percent of its defense corps could mean trouble, but McDonagh, 22, and Del Zotto, 21, have played like seasoned veterans. McDonagh took over Staal's spot on the top unit, posting 6 goals, 21 assists and a plus-23 rating through 72 games and is 13th in the NHL in ice time at 24:57 per game. Del Zotto has 7 goals, 28 assists and a plus-24 rating in 67 games on the second pairing. Without their emergence, the Rangers would have been lost.
3. The effect of Brad Richards:
Many will look at his immense contract and below-average numbers and think he hasn't been what the Rangers wanted. Richards is on pace for 62 points, tying for the fewest of his career, but his presence in the young locker room has had a calming, steadying effect, as evidenced by the team's lack of any true, extended slumps during the season. Del Zotto credits the mentoring of Richards for his breakout season. Richards' eight game-winning goals also show he's coming through when needed most.
4. The emergence of Ryan Callahan, goal scorer:
There isn't a coach in the NHL who wouldn't want Callahan on his roster. He brings leadership, toughness, speed, energy, the willingness to get in front of any shot and tremendous smarts and skills on the penalty kill. This season, Callahan added goal-scoring ability to his resume, and he's headed toward his first 30-goal campaign (barring injury), with 26 in 66 games. Scoring goals isn't exactly the Rangers' forte, so getting them from Callahan has been a big reason for the team's success.
5. The great health of Marian Gaborik:
Right Wing - NYR
GOALS: 35 | ASST: 31 | PTS: 66
SOG: 243 | +/-: 16
Whether he admits it or not, Gaborik wasn't as healthy last season as he is this season. He played only 62 games in 2010-11, and even when he was in the lineup, he didn't have the same jump in his stride or power in his shot. This season, Gaborik has been 100 percent since the start of the season. His 35 goals are tied for third in the NHL and what the Rangers need and expect from him. He's even getting more goals from around the front of the net, something he didn't so much in the past.
6. The penalty kill saving the power play:
With the man-advantage, the Rangers are the second-worst team in the NHL at 14.5 percent. But the penalty kill has been excellent, killing off 86.6 percent of opposition power plays, the fifth-best mark in the League. It's one thing to have a single special-teams unit in the bottom of the League, but having two would be devastating. Throw in the fact the Rangers have seven shorthanded goals, tied for sixth in the League, and the penalty kill has been terrific.
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo