The New York Rangers set new franchise records with 53 wins and 113 points in the regular season, capturing the coveted Presidents Trophy and gaining the status as the team to beat in the upcoming postseason. But rather than rest on those laurels and the intimidation factor that comes with them, the Rangers have said they are starting from scratch.
"Everything we've done, the Presidents' Trophy and everything, that's gone," New York center Derick Brassard said following the 4-2 regular season finale victory over Washington. "When the buzzer sounded in the third period, everything's gone. Now we have to look forward to the playoffs."
It’s perhaps the right attitude to have before facing Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round beginning with Game One on Thursday. The Penguins are looking to build off the solid amount of momentum they generated after needing three victories in their last four games to make it into one of the Eastern Conference’s two brackets as a wild card.
The late surge capped a difficult 4-9-2 finish for Pittsburgh, a stretch that was marred by injuries to top defensemen Chris Ehrhoff, Kris Letang and Derrik Pouliot. The injuries resulted in a major uptick in minutes for the remaining defensemen including Ian Cole, Rob Scuderi and Paul Martin in Saturday’s win over Buffalo.
The Penguins are now largely back at full strength and feel they are at their best when they can have solid six-man rotation on defense.
“Five ‘D’ is always hard, especially back-to-back with travel,” Cole said to The Gazette. “I think there might be some times you might have a little more gas in the tank later on in a shift, for sure. But, like I’ve heard before, no one’s going to complain about too much ice time. We had a job to do, we tried to do it to the best of our ability.”
Pittsburgh’s next job will be upsetting an incredibly deep Rangers squad that will also roll out top goaltender Henrik Lundqvist with Cam Talbot acting as maybe the best insurance policy in net of any team in the postseason.
Led by left wing Rick Nash’s 69 points (42 goals, 27 assists), the Rangers finished the regular season with the third-highest scoring offense in the NHL and the third-stingiest defense. Brassard is right behind Nash with 60 points, and acts as New York’s top playmaker with 41 assists. But all told seven Rangers wound up with 45 or more points, and three with no fewer than 21 goals.
New York’s hoping for a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, one that will largely rest on Lundqvist rounding into form. Missing two months of the regular season due to a neck injury, the Swede is two years removed from his incredible play back in 2012 when he gave up 1.97 goals a game for a .930 save percentage.
But the postseason is where Lundqvist’s star has shown especially bright. In 79 career starts, Lundqvist has managed a .927 save percentage and 2.24 goals against average. In the last two years he’s let up only 2.14 goals a game, and in 2014’s run to the Cup Finals he averaged better than 27 saves a game for a 13-11 record.
Lundqvist avoided another injury scare against Ottawa last week. A Senators forward fell on his left knee, and Lundqvist clutched the area while writhing in pain before finishing the game and allowing Rangers fans a huge sigh of relief.
Still, the Rangers have the second-year keeper Talbot waiting in the wings. Starting 34 games and earning a 21-9 record, Tablot finished the season with a .926 save percentage and a 2.21-goals-allowed average with five shutouts.
Whoever is in net for the Rangers must contend against a Penguins offense that might not have played up to snuff during the season, ranking No. 19 in goals scored, but still sports centers Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Brandon Sutter, and Patric Hornqvist coming up the right wing.
Crosby wound up third in the league in points (84) and assists (56), while rocketing in 28 goals, and Malkin equaled those scoring efforts while assisting another 42 goals. Hornqvist finished second on the team with 25 goals, and Sutter chipped in another 21.
The full television schedule for the seven-game series is below, with times and channels for the possible Games Five to Seven to be announced.
Game One: Penguins at Rangers, Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on NBC Sports
Game Two: Penguins at Rangers, Saturday at 8 p.m. on NBC
Game Three: Rangers at Penguins, Monday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports
Game Four: Rangers at Penguins, Wednesday April 12 at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports
*Game Five: Penguins at Rangers, Friday April 24 TBA
*Game Six: Rangers at Penguins, Sunday April 26 TBA
*Game Seven: Penguins at Rangers, Tuesday April 28 TBA
Prediction: With Lundqvist in top form, Rangers take the series in five games.