The New York Rangers are better suited to win the Stanley Cup this season because they're faster and more skilled than they were last season, when they went to the Stanley Cup Final. This is the best Rangers team since the 1993-94 season, when they last won the Cup.
Everything the Rangers do starts with speed. It fuels their overall game. They are arguably the fastest team in the NHL from front to back.
New York pushes the pace to create odd-man opportunities off the rush with quick puck movement. It puts the opponent on its heels. When the Rangers do that, it allows coach Alain Vigneault to roll four lines and three defense pairs, keeping everybody into the game and fresh.
The results are telling. The Rangers were among the teams that scored first most often in the League and won games when they had the lead after two periods. They got off to fast starts with their speed and didn't give up the lead because they were able to give everybody ice time.
New York has arguably the deepest group of defensemen in the NHL with Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein. It's not only a deep group, it's a mobile group; the Rangers' speed game starts with these six defensemen.
McDonagh, Boyle and Yandle are three of the best skating defensemen in the NHL. Staal has a long reach he uses to fend off attacking forwards. He creates turnovers, which in turn fuel the Rangers' counterattack.
Girardi is steady playing big minutes. Klein, who is hopeful to play in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round after sitting out the last month of the regular season with an arm injury, has an underrated shot, and though he plays safe, he's calculated with his pinches, which tend to lead to scoring chances.
Up front, the Rangers have enviable ingredients with depth down the middle and speed and size on the wings. They have four centers who don't play alike, giving them balance. All four can skate and steal the puck.
Derick Brassard is a playmaker with excellent stick skills and a strong shot. Derek Stepan is a playmaker with a high hockey IQ and a strong 200-foot game. Kevin Hayes is a big, powerful center who has emerged as an offensive threat in the second half. Dominic Moore is perfect as a fourth-line center because of his ability to start shifts in the defensive end and finish them in the offensive end by winning faceoffs.
Rick Nash has been the Rangers' best scorer all season despite not having one great weapon at his disposal. He has been a difficult mark for opponents because he is scoring goals in a multitude of ways, but mostly because he's checking to create his own chances. Nash is among the best in the League at turning strong defense into a Grade A scoring chance.
Mats Zuccarello has been a good complement to Nash because of his speed and ability to make plays in tight spaces, something Nash does well too. Brassard has been the glue in the middle on what has been a strong line for the bulk of the season.
Chris Kreider surpassed 20 goals for the first time in his NHL career by using his speed and power as a combination that makes him a headache for the opposition. Kreider is the Rangers' most skilled forward, making him doubly dangerous when you factor in his speed.
The Rangers are so deep up front that late in the season Vigneault had Martin St. Louis playing on the third line with Hayes and Carl Hagelin. It has chemistry because of the speed it has on the wings and the size Hayes brings to the middle.
Vigneault deserves credit for the emergence of Hayes and J.T. Miller this season. The coach showed patience with each player, and it's paid off.
Miller has gone from being a scratch to the fourth line, the third line and eventually the second line with Kreider and Stepan.
Hayes spent the first half developing his defensive game, and once he got comfortable with that, his offense came through. Vigneault let him go through the natural growing pains as the third-line center, a position he maintained throughout the season.
The Rangers' most important player is goalie Henrik Lundqvist. A big reason New York is better suited to win the Stanley Cup this season is Lundqvist is fresh after missing seven weeks with a vascular injury.
The Rangers gained confidence they could win without Lundqvist during that time. New York went 18-4-3 without him from Feb. 4 through March 26. Cam Talbot stepped up and played well in Lundqvist's absence, and in the process the Rangers figured out how to win without their best player. They became a better team because of it, one that is ready to win the Stanley Cup.