Which Rangers' Team Shows Up Now that Games are Meaningful?

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Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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Last season at this time, most honest Rangers’ fans knew that a first-round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins was going to be a bloodbath. And not the kind where your team has plenty of rest for their second-round appointment after a sweep of an inferior team, but rather one that ends with a quick trip to the golf course. That team’s defense was so awful that only a Herculean effort by Henrik Lundqvist kept even making the Stanley Cup Playoffs a possibility. The offense was good, but could in no way offset the blown coverages in the highest of scoring areas in front of the crease.

Fast forward 365 days and who knows what to expect? There is a huge disconnect with where the team is currently at that goes well beyond the final three regular season games which were completely meaningless as the Rangers were locked into the first Wild Card spot. It goes back further than the five or six games prior where all but the math dictated that the Rangers would finish exactly where they did. In fact, you have to go back 20 games, one full quarter of the NHL season, to find meaningful games for this year’s edition of the Broadway Blueshirts. It was that long ago that the Rangers’ playoff path through the Atlantic began looking like a certainty. Sure, an epic winning or losing streak at that point could have changed things, but anything close to .500 hockey was going to put them right where they ended up.

Due to a series of minor injuries and the outright resting of top players, as we look ahead to tomorrow night’s matchup against the Atlantic winning Montreal Canadiens, it is very difficult to guess what sort of series we’ll see. We know that Montreal won all three games the two teams played this season. We all know the house of horrors the Bell Centre in Montreal has been for the Rangers over the past decade or so. We all know how great Carey Price can be in net.

But which Rangers’ team shows up? The one who slept walked through almost the last two dozen games, affording Montreal an easy out and likely trip to the Conference Final to match up with whichever powerhouse battles it’s way out of the Metropolitan? Or do the Canadiens instead square off with a very well-rested version of the New York Rangers squad that dominated the score sheets for the first half of the season, with one of the deepest forward corps in the league?

What of the Rangers’ defense? For the first time since the trade deadline, the back end will be healthy enough that a season long top-six defender will be a healthy scratch each game. By no means a strength of the Rangers, this is probably the best, healthiest and well-rested version of the team’s rearguard since Anton Stralman left for Tampa Bay three years ago. Can they mesh well enough to make last year’s defensive zone coverage look like a bad dream rather than a reoccurring nightmare?

When the defense breaks down, which Henrik Lundqvist will be there to be the last line of defense? Hank, too, has had a lot of time off this season even as he’s produced his worst campaign statistically in his Hall of Fame career. Will he be able to recapture his play from the regular season last year or will his slide continue?

Tomorrow night may not give us the answers to these questions. Rangers’ Coach Alain Vigneault saw fit to continue to rest players in the final game of the regular season against Pittsburgh rather than assembling his full squad for what would have amounted to a final scrimmage in what was a meaningless game for both teams. So the now healthy lineup that faces Montreal in game one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be a group that hasn’t played in a game together in over a month, thanks to injuries and the resting of players.

It may take until the second game until we find out of the Playoff Rangers are a team that can score goals in bunches, defend well enough and are backstopped by one of the league’s’ greats. Or if they’re a team that, despite their forward depth, now struggle to score against an elite goaltender, while their blueline is inept and their aging once great netminder has had his championship window closed for good.

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