Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s return to form greatly improves the New York Rangers’ chances of a deep playoff run.
by Christopher Wenrich
Oftentimes when discussing the franchise players of an NHL team, the conversation begins and ends with a forward. When discussing the New York Rangers, their franchise player is most obvious – goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
The Rangers signed Lundqvist to a seven-year extension this past December. The new deal quickly drew criticism as Lundqvist struggled in the month of December, posting a 4-4-2 record with a 3.08 goals against average (GAA) and an .889 save percentage (SV%) for the month. Backup goalie Cam Talbot performed admirably during Lundqvist’s struggles. In fact, it was Talbot’s play which carried the Rangers while Lundqvist struggled to regain his form.
Lundqvist regained his form and was his stellar self during the Sochi Olympics in February, leading Sweden to a silver medal. After his stellar play in the Olympics, Lundqvist retained his stellar form for the rest of the season. Over his final 33 games, Lundqvist was 21-9-3 with a 2.08 GAA, .931 SV% and three shutouts.
New York Rangers
214 goals for (18th)
190 goals against (4th)
18.2 PP% (15th)
85.3 PK% (3rd)
Although not an offensive juggernaut, the Rangers do have skill up front. Mats Zuccarello led the Rangers with 59 points in 77 games this season, while center Derek Stepan registered 57 points in 82 games. The Rangers’ offensive output could have been much better if not for the disappointing season by Rick Nash, who tallied a disappointing 26 goals and 39 points in 65 games played.
In need of offensive punch, the Rangers traded Ryan Callahan to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Martin St. Louis. St. Louis posted a dismal eight points in 19 games with the Rangers. Although St. Louis had a rough transition to New York, his high level of offensive talent is undeniable and will be needed in the playoffs. St. Louis had 24 points in 23 games when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup a decade ago.
Lundqvist is arguably the best goalie in the NHL and has an excellent group of defensemen in front of him. Dan Girardi dished out 191 hits in 81 games and also blocked 174 shots, 8th among NHL defensemen. Ryan McDonagh blocked 131 shots in 77 games and Marc Staal blocked 84 in 72 games.
McDonagh is perhaps the NHL’s most underrated defenseman, as he brings a superb two-way game to the ice. He is quick to read plays and close off the passing lanes while also providing excellent puck movement and offensive ability. McDonagh registered 43 points in 77 games this season. Casual hockey fans knowDuncan Keith, Shea Weber and Erik Karlsson, but McDonagh also deserves mention as an elite defenseman. He missed the last three games of the regular season after suffering a shoulder injury.
233 goals for (8th)
227 goals against (20th)
19.7 PP% (8th)
84.8 PK% (7th)
For their first dozen games this season, the Philadelphia Flyers looked as bad as the Buffalo Sabres did all season. Head coach Peter Laviolette was quickly fired after losing the first three regular season games by a combined score of 9-3, and was replaced by Craig Berube.
After their first 15 games, the Flyers were 4-10-1 and looked nothing like a playoff team, but finished with 16 wins in their final 27 games. Despite the team’s slow start, Claude Giroux was once again among league leaders in scoring. Giroux registered 28 goals, 58 assists (4th) and 86 points (3rd) in 82 games. He also ranked fourth in the NHL in power-play points with 37.
Jakub Voracek (62 points) and Scott Hartnell (52 points) reaped the benefits of playing on Giroux’s line. Giroux’s presence on the power play also benefitedWayne Simmonds, who scored career-bests in goals (29), assists (31) and points (60) this season. Simmonds’ ability to crash the net and screen the goalie will be vital to the Flyers’ chances of scoring goals against Lundqvist. Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier continue to improve, while Vincent Lecavalier and Matt Read bring more goal-scoring depth to the team.
It might be harsh to say the Flyers’ defense is terrible, but they are far from spectacular. Luke Schenn delivers highlight-reel hits and has improved his play in the defensive zone; however, he has untapped offensive potential. Veterans Kimmo Timonen and Mark Streit set the tone for the defense with their puck movement, which established the Flyers among league leaders on the power play. It was no coincidence that the Flyers’ hot stretch run coincided with Streit’s own hot streak, which helped him to compile 44 points.
The Flyers made a prudent move during trade deadline week in acquiring defenseman Andrew MacDonald from the New York Islanders. MacDonald has been superb defensively for Philly and has shown the ability to make smart decisions with the puck. Between his time with the Islanders and Flyers this season, MacDonald led all NHLers with 242 blocked shots in 82 games. Montreal Canadiens’ defenseman Andrei Markov was a distant second with 180.
Steve Mason was solid in goal for the Flyers, having gone 33-18-7 with a 2.50 GAA, a .917 SV% and four shutouts. While Mason’s numbers may not rank among the elite, he was strong in goal for the Flyers and stole some victories in games they had no business winning. The Flyers’ defensive lapses contributed to Mason’s non-elite numbers, but he also made up for their play many times.
Injuries could play a factor in the series. Mason – upper body injury – did not travel to New York for game one Thursday night and is questionable for game two. The pressure falls on backup Ray Emery, who had less than a spectacular season. Emery had success and playoff experience with the Ottawa Senators earlier in his career, but has been a fringe backup since then.
Despite the Flyers’ star power in Giroux, their offensive depth, and the solid play of Mason, the Rangers should win this series. It will likely be the best series in the first round of the Eastern Conference. If Lundqvist and the Rangers defense can keep the Flyers off the scoreboard, the Rangers will likely eliminate the Flyers in four or five games. If the Flyers can get to Lundqvist with some three-goal games, the series could go the distance. The Flyers made an admirable turnaround after a horrid start to the season, but the Rangers may be the worst first-round match they could have received.