Rangers Season Preview: “What Might Have Been” Could Be This Year

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
John Greenleaf Whittier, from his poem “Maud Muller.”

To this day Rangers fans hark back to that Brad Richards’ playoff overtime breakaway against Martin Brodeur that just missed torpedoing the Devils last Spring.

Ah, what might have been had the Blueshirts sharpshooter beaten New Jersey’s netminder. But the goal never happened and a Cup march was aborted by a rookie named Adam Henrique.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Game Six of the third round is ancient history. Now the robust Rangers are determined to turn “what might have been” into a Stanley Cup reality this Spring.

Everything about the 48-game schedule favors the Rangers who are bursting with enthusiasm — and talent.

Chase up and down the lineup — from Vezina Trophy-winner Henrik Lundqvist to playoff rookie sensation Chris Kreider — and you’ll find something to shout about. But none more than the biggest fish Glen Sather caught in the off-season — Rick Nash.

“Rick has proven he can score,” says the general manager. “He’s a five-time All-Star, and only 28.”

Nash’s blockbuster shot is just one part of the New Yorkers arsenal. Sather added grit and gumption with the acquisitions of Arron Asham, Jeff Halpern and Taylor Pyatt who’ll complement that already solid offense spearheaded by Richards, Marian Gaborik and Ryan Callahan, just to name a few.

“We have the team to do it,” opines Lundqvist. “Now we have to execute.”

Let’s check out the club that many savants — but not all — figure can go all the way to the Canyon of Champions.

The Lundqvist-Marty Biron tandem ranks with the best — if not the NHL’s best between the pipes. Coming off the Vezina win, Henny has reached the prime of his career yet remains super-motivated to accomplish what has eluded him so far; a march to the Final round and some champagne thereafter. If there’s a caveat, it has to be Lundqvist’s inability to go the route. When all was was said and done last Spring, it was Brodeur who out-goaled The King in the clutch. Henny knows that he still has somethingmore to prove.

At age 30, Lundqvist came away with super-duper numbers. He won 39 games and sported a .930 save percentage and 1.97 goals against average; not to mention eight whitewash jobs. A shortened schedule is right up his alley and that means Biron — who won a dozen games last year — is likely to get only cameo appearances.

If Tortorella’s collection of backliners doesn’t top the league “Superior” list, I’d like to know where there’s a better, more diverse quartet than Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto. The most impressive aspect of their top rating is that the best is yet to come from a unit that’s still on the young side. If McDonagh improves just a notch he’ll be a Norris Trophy candidate but, then again, that’s what some voters were saying about Girardi last season. Then again, had Staal not been sidelined, many observers believed that he was destined for a career year. That should happen this semester.

The reserves aren’t bad eitther. Anton Stralman, Stu Bickel and Matt Gilroy could well be peering in their rear view mirror at hulking prospect Dylan McIlrath who’s still rough around the edges with the accent on rough. Rapidly-improving Del Zotto likely will quarterback the power play. His 10 goals and 31 assists in 2011-2012 testifies to his growth as a key figure on the blue line. Steve Eminger rounds out a crew that actually has reached the surplus level; and you know what that means; trade possibilities.

In terms of strategy, expect the tandems to maintain the team tradition of blocking shots at all costs. In 2011-2012, the Rangers blocked an average of 16-plus shots per game and topped that in the playoffs.

Now that Gaborik’s shoulder surgery has been successful, the fire power up front is impressive. Nash (“I’m embracing the Rangers”) is bubbling with enthusiasm and will be skating alongside the best linemates of his career. It would be natural for him to skate with number one center Richards who totaled 66 points last year playing in all 82 games. Then Brad added 15 in 20 post-season contests.

Apart from the marquee forwards, Torts will have an impressive collection of Young Turks including Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin, but the spotlight, more than anything, will be on Kreider. The 2009 first-rounder jumped from Boston College’s NCAA championship game on to playoff heroics. His five goals in 18 post-season matches ranks as the most ever for a skater who had not appeared in a regular season game. Plus, his 6-3, 230 pound frame has enabled him to brush past barricades that stop smaller stickhandlers.

In his first season as captain, Callahan demonstrated that he fully deserved the “C” and all signs suggest that he’ll be even better and that spirit will pervade the entire roster; especially on the third and fourth lines. That features fighting Mike Rupp, Taylor Pyatt, Brian Boyle, Hagelin, Asham and Halpern.

Unquestionably, the new model Blueshirts, man for man, will be as tough as any foe. Fighters include Rupp, Asham and Bickel. If Micheal Haley makes the varsity, that gives Torts even more punch. This is a big club made bigger by Nash, Kreider and Pyatt. Guaranteed, the Rangers will not be pushed around.

The exits of Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko means that Tortorella will have a new penalty-kill combo; likely led by Hagelin and Pyatt should be effective. Naturally, the key to effective PKs is the goaltender and that’s already in place. We know that Lundqvist can’t double on the power play — 23rd out of 30 last year — but the addition of humongous Nash and Kreider should push the PP into the Dandy Dozen bunch; maybe even Top Six.

Like the leopard, Torts is not going to change his spots nor his style for that matter. He’ll be the same pressure-cooker coach he was winning a Cup in Tampa and sparking his club deep into the playoffs last Spring. Best of all, he has more of his kind of players then ever before and that’s only to the good. Newsday’s Steve Zipay opines, “Most admire Tortorella’s driven-to-extreme persona.”

The sport’s bible, The Hockey News, offers the best, concise commentary: “Sather’s plan to build through the draft has paid off faster than expected.”

Barring an unexpected — and now unforeseen — breakdown, the Blueshirts should steamroll through to the Conference title and reach the Cup Final. I see no reason why a Stanley Cup will be denied this time around.

“What might have been” will be this year!