By Brian Monzo
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In about a week the Rangers will host a to-be-determined team at Madison Square Garden in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With their win over the Flyers last night, the Rangers have clinched the first seed in the Eastern Conference for the first time since 1993-1994. If I recall, big things happened that season.
The Rangers started their season in Europe and went 0-1-2 on that trip. They came back to the U.S. and lost in Long Island before heading to Canada for a long trip against Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary. They lost to Edmonton, but had dramatic wins over the Canucks and Flames to start their run to the top of the East.
Were there doubts? Absolutely. I don’t think anyone thought the Rangers would catch the Bruins early in the season, or hold off the Penguins late in the season. But John Tortorella wouldn’t allow the team to take their feet off the gas pedals. Even in the last few weeks, where it looked as though the team may be fading, they would find ways to win games. They only lost three games in a row in regulation one time the entire season.
This team defines the word “team.” Every player has a role, and is expected to work hard and fulfill their role every game. You can look at Carl Hagelin coming in early in the season, and as a rookie he is closing in on 40 points. For the most part, whenever backup goalie Marty Biron was called on, he answered well. Without a doubt Brandon Dubinsky has struggled to score, but has given his best game in and game out.
However, to me, these are the five reasons why the Rangers are the top seed in the Eastern Conference:
Pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh:
Marc Staal missed the early part of the season with concussion issues. That forced the Rangers to find a new top pairing on the blue line. Veteran Dan Girardi was a minutes eating defenseman all season. He blocks shots, plays hurt and earned his first trip to the NHL All-Star game. Sophomore Ryan McDonagh was coming off a solid rookie season. He was put in a tough spot to start the season, but has delivered with a remarkable season. McDonagh has seven goals, added 25 assists and is a +27 on the season. Watching him game in and game out, he has moments that he resembles another U.S. born defenseman that wore the same jersey. Of course I am talking about Brian Leetch. McDonagh has shown moments where he bursts into holes with speed that make his potential very exciting. They have perhaps become one of the most reliable defensive pairings in the league right now.
Callahan was given the honor of being the captain of the Rangers in the offseason. He has been exactly what everyone has expected — a true leader. Callahan has put up career highs in every offensive category, and with 29 goals has a chance to score 30 for the first time in his young NHL career. Callahan is an energizing player and is noticeable every game in some capacity. If the Rangers are going to continue to be successful moving forward in the playoffs, Callahan is going to be a very big reason why.
A lot of expectations were rightfully given to Brad Richards when he signed a long-term deal with the Rangers as a free agent last summer. He was the biggest fish out there, and the Rangers landed him. For the early part of the season, he was very good. During the middle part of the season, he had gone nearly invisible offensively. If the Rangers were struggling, he would have been a goat. In the late part of the season, he has been dynamic, and has nearly reached his normal ratio of points in a season. However, even in the games he was struggling, opposing teams needed to pay attention to him, making him a valuable asset on the team. Of late, he has been the Brad Richards that everyone has expected to see in NY. It’s worth noting that nine of his 25 goals have been game-winning goals, including the game-winner in January’s Winter Classic in Philadelphia.
So many people were down on Marian Gaborik last season when he scored just over 20 goals in an injury-ridden season. It’s no secret that when healthy, Gaborik is a premier goal scoring forward in the league. This season, Gaborik has been healthy, and has put up 41 goals to this point. His speed is brilliant and his shot is lethal. The addition of Richards forced teams to focus on more than just Gaborik, which has given him some favorable matchups. With the game on the line, there is no player I would rather have with the puck then Gaborik.
The true king of the city is Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist is the probable Vezina Trophy winner, at least in my opinion (though Rangers rarely win awards in the NHL). His has a career high 39 wins, a GAA under 2.00 and a save percentage over .930. Sick. His biggest save came late in the Winter Classic when Danny Briere was awarded a penalty shot and Hank made a huge save to ensure the win for the Blueshirts. His last 20 games haven’t been ideal for his expectations, but he seems to be getting hot right when it matters. Like every team, when a goalie gets hot any team can win a championship. It appears he is getting hot at the right time. For the better part of the season, there was talk of Lundqvist perhaps winning the Hart Trophy as the league MVP. Evgeni Malkin of the NHL darling Pittsburgh Penguins will likely win that, but that indicates how good Lundqvist has been. He is the Rangers most important player, and will continue to be moving forward.
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What do you think is the biggest reason that the Rangers clinched the top seed? Sound off with your comments below…