1. It sure isn’t an easy closing three.
Wednesday they’re in DC, where the Capitals are looking to lock down the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice throughout the playoffs. Saturday they’re in Ottawa, where the Senators could still be playing to get into the playoffs and to get into the Atlantic Division’s 2-3 seed series rather than having to face Washington as the second wild card in the East. Sunday the Rangers are home against Pittsburgh, who could need the game to get home-ice in its likely first-round showdown with Columbus.
And by the way, though the Rangers have clinched a playoff spot and the first wild card in the East (and a trip over to the Atlantic bracket starting in Montreal) there remains a mathematical, though absurd, possibility they can catch Columbus and have to face Pittsburgh again. That would require the Rangers to close 3-0 (all of the wins in regulation or OT), the Jackets to go 0-4 (all of the losses in regulation) and for the Rangers to close the gap in goal differential (which is 20 in Columbus’s favor), the third tiebreaker.
That’s not happening.
2. The Rangers need, first and foremost, for Henrik Lundqvist to find his level of play.
He was considerably better in Sunday’s win over Philadelphia (eliminating the Flyers) than he had been in his previous starts coming off that hip injury. Lundqvist will start against the Capitals, then one of the two weekend games. He’s obviously their most important player.
3. They also need to get Ryan McDonagh healthy.
His undisclosed injury kept him out on Sunday, although he could have played if it was a playoff game. According to coach Alain Vigneault, he is close to 100 percent. But he won’t play until he is 100 percent, which is wise.
4. Get some rest.
Monday was an optional practice. The Rangers have the luxury of having a bunch of extra players – three forwards, three defensemen – and now would be a great time to give some veterans a breather, especially with a back-to-back on the weekend.
5. In terms of their game, the Rangers need to regain some structure in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill.
Their scoring is returning – three or more goals in five straight games and 10 of 13 – and they’re third in the NHL in goals per game, trailing only Pittsburgh and Washington.
But as the offense returned, the defense (team defense, not just the defensemen) suffered and fell back into bad habits, especially around the front of their net. It could be a short postseason if those aren’t fixed.
6. Figure out the lines.
The trio that carried the Rangers most of the season – J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Michael Grabner – haven’t even been together much lately. Miller’s game has slipped, Hayes and Grabner’s production have slipped (Grabner couldn’t possibly remain on that scoring pace). The three of them had a (being generous here) difficult game in Anaheim.
Jesper Fast, a defensive conscience whom Vigneault completely trusts, has spent time on that line in Miller’s spot, while Miller has yo-yoed on other lines, including the fourth.
The Derek Stepan–Chris Kreider–Mats Zuccarello threesome needs to play a half-court game, as they did in dominating the Flyers. Kreider gets his breakaways, but the strong suit of Zuccarello is slowing down the game and using his passing vision and ability. Stepan also doesn’t score a lot on the rush and Kreider’s a tremendous down-low presence. Zuccarello is also a strong forechecker.
The Rangers, as some, including Rick Nash, have said lately, are best when they get pucks behind defensemen and play straight-ahead hockey. They hadn’t been doing that at home (where they snapped an eight-game losing streak) and handled Philadelphia by doing so.
Mika Zibanejad and Nash are gelling, and the experiment continues to find their other winger, likely from up-and-down rookies Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich – one of whom spends time on the fourth line from time-to-time or in the press box in street clothes.
Obviously, the best-case scenario, if everybody’s healthy, would be for Vesey or Buchnevich to grab a spot in the top nine – and to be responsible enough for Vigneault to trust them to eat minutes in the first Stanley Cup tournament of their lives.
If either can do that, that leads to more decisions with the fourth line, and perhaps strengthens the fourth line at the same time, allowing Fast to drop down to play with Oscar Lindberg.
Then the other decision would be whether Buchnevich or Vesey, neither a prototypical fourth-line type, gets to play that role in the playoffs or if Vigneault goes with Tanner Glass, a straight-ahead forechecker who gives the Rangers some bite, but most certainly diminishes the overall skill if he plays over any of the other candidates.
7. Then come the defensemen.
With nine players here – including a top seven for six spots, it creates some interesting decisions.
Assuming McDonagh’s healthy, who’s his partner? Dan Girardi, his regular right-sider, is back and playing well, but how many minutes and how much responsibility do you want to pile on that high-mileage body against speedy opponents?
Marc Staal took some turns there in Girardi’s absence and was fine, but Staal on the second pair is a necessity for depth.
Brady Skjei, the rookie who is just starting to realize the tip of his potential, played on McDonagh’s right during the playoff series against Pittsburgh last Spring. Pairing them would give the Rangers a superb skating, puck-moving, forecheck-beating duo. But again, would the Rangers be better served depth-wise by splitting them up? Vigneault did indicate Skjei’s minutes and role could expand in the playoffs.
Kevin Klein, who along with Girardi is the only righty in the top seven, is back healthy and is an experienced playoff performer. Brendan Smith, who has had more ups than downs since coming from Detroit at the deadline, also has much playoff pedigree. Nick Holden’s game has slipped since the eye-opening start he had as a Ranger.
So it’s McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Skjei, Klein, Smith and Holden for six spots. Who comes out? And where/how do the six line up?
8. Given what happened Sunday, when the Flyers nearly wiped out a 4-1 deficit in the closing minutes, the Rangers might want to spend some practice time defending 6-on-5 and 6-on-4 situations.
9. I still think the Rangers, despite their difficulties in the last month, are on even-footing with Montreal when they stick to their gameplan and when Lundqvist is on his game, and better than the other teams they will/could meet in the Atlantic bracket.
And, as I’ve said before, the NHL’s best road team will have road-ice advantage.