The New York Rangers are the fourth-youngest team in the NHL and the youngest team left in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but winning two consecutive seven-game series has them growing up very quickly.
Brad Richards is one of the few Rangers with an extensive resume of postseason success and has been a beacon of stability in his first season with New York. He was just 24 years old when he won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004; that's about two years younger than the average of age of this season's Rangers team.
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Richards said Sunday that getting to the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils is part of a process that can turn a wide-eyed team into a more-grizzled group.
"Definitely, you grow as a team getting through rounds, Richards said. "The level, how hard we had to work, the bounce-back, some of the ups and downs to be here today, be in the Eastern Conference Finals, you definitely got better. So, yeah, that's just the way it goes in playoffs. Every team kind of grows as you go."
For the core players such as Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan Callahan, this is their first trip to the third round. Since coach John Tortorella took over at the end of the 2008-09 season, the Rangers had two first-round exits and missed the postseason altogether in 2010.
The Rangers progressed at a glacial pace, but the patience has paid off this season.
"It's something that we've been building towards and working towards," said Callahan, who is in his first year as captain. "You could see the progression year after year, us getting a little bit better. Obviously we haven't made it past the second round in a couple of years. It shows we stuck with it, stuck with our game plan.
"Guys are more comfortable under this system, used to it, brought some new guys in that obviously have helped. It shows we're going in the right direction and what we're doing is working."
Richards has served as a mentor and advisor for many of the club's younger players, and he knows that with so many players making their first deep run in the postseason, it's hard to grasp the fact that they are only halfway to their ultimate goal.
"It's probably an ongoing battle," Richards said. "The difference now is there's only four teams left. Sometimes you start looking at that. We just played two series. We have to play two more to win it. So, you know, we know how hard and how long it took to do those two. The level is going to go up with these four teams left."
The 27-year-old Callahan echoed that sentiment.
"We're excited to be at this point. We're only halfway there," Callahan said. "We know there's a long road ahead of us still. To be playing at this time of year is a good feeling and something you work towards all year."
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