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Hartnett: Rangers Are Equipped To Handle Key Injuries Heading Into Playoffs

Stars -- Like Richards And St. Louis -- Are Aligning At Precisely The Right Time
Brad Richards, No. 19, celebrates his goal with his teammates during the Rangers’ game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on April 8, 2014. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Brad Richards, No. 19, celebrates his goal with his teammates during the Rangers’ game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on April 8, 2014. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

When the Stanley Cup playoffs come around, every team’s resolve will be tested by injuries.

The big fear among the Rangers’ fan base is whether the Blueshirts are built to handle the possibility of essential defenseman Ryan McDonagh (left shoulder, day-to-day) and emerging winger Chris Kreider (left hand, out indefinitely) missing the start of the playoffs.

McDonagh appears to be further along in the process than Kreider. Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault admitted that he’s split on whether he would consider playing McDonagh before the playoffs.

“I’m 50-50 on that,” Vigneault said. “He’s going to have to be 100 percent, which he should be. I’m still 50-50 on that.”

Vigneault did not give a timetable for Kreider’s return to the lineup. The 22-year-old winger is expected to miss the entire first round of the NHL playoffs at minimum.

Both players took part in Tuesday’s optional skate, though neither was made available to the media after practice. McDonagh was able to use both arms and spent much of practice lightly flicking one-timers to Martin St. Louis. Kreider wore a brace on his left hand and was only make use of one hand.

According to Vigneault, McDonagh would need to be completely healthy to play in either of the Rangers’ two remaining regular season games. The Rangers close the home portion of the schedule on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres before finishing up at Bell Center in Montreal on Saturday.

BLUESHIRTS PULLING TOGETHER

At this time of the season, the team that perseveres through adversity is the one that will stand alone by the end of the playoffs. The Rangers are certainly in the mix of teams capable of seriously contending for the Cup.

Tuesday’s one-sided 4-1 victory over Carolina was evidence that the Rangers are primed for a deep playoff push. Although the Hurricanes are a very ordinary opponent, the way the Rangers operated on even-strength and power play situations could be devastating for opponents should the momentum continue into the playoffs.

The Rangers had been a lowly 5-for-52 on the power play over their previous 17 games. Right now, it looks like they’ve flipped the switch. There is a lot of movement and telepathic passing going on with the man advantage — and it’s not just the cohesive Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello unit getting the job done.

The Nash-Stepan-St. Louis line has been exceptional of late. Vigneault has seemed to strike the right balance with Jesper Fast added to the mix on the right side of a line with fellow speedster Carl Hagelin and playmaking center Brad Richards.

Vigneault said the Rangers are playing strong hockey ahead of the playoffs because they’re out-chancing opponents.

“We talked about, before the game, that we have been playing good hockey for a long time and we want to go into the playoffs feeling good about our game,” Vigneault said. “For the most part tonight, that’s what we did. Offensively we had one of our best scoring-chance nights for the year. We are going to be over 20 and that’s a lot of scoring chances in a game. We kept them close to 10 I think, so it’s a good night.”

Alternate captain Richards said the Blueshirts haven’t lost a step despite the significant injuries to Kreider and McDonagh.

“It’s important for any good team to have guys fill in like no one has missed a beat,” Richards said. “Hopefully we get those guys back sooner than later. They’ll be big parts of our team. In the meantime, it’s good to see guys fill in, and move around the lineup, and we still get wins.”

McDonagh has stated that he believes he could be ready for the first round, which would be huge — and there is more than enough scoring to go around to make up for Kreider’s absence should he miss the first round or longer.

Nine Rangers have registered at least 14 goals this season. The last time that happened for the Blueshirts was in their magical Stanley Cup season of 1993-94.

RICHARDS, ST. LOUIS ACTING AS LEADERS DO

Last summer, it was widely assumed that general manager Glen Sather would exercise his final compliance buyout to free the organization’ of Richards’ annual $6.67 million salary.

After all, Richards was struggling mightily to be what he once was and was relegated to the press box during the final days of John Tortorella’s reign.

For the majority of this season, Richards has produced offensively, with 51 points in 80 games being a respectable tally. That said though, there have been some flaws that have carried over in Richards’ game from Torts to Vigneault. Slow legs, a lack of back-skating and inability to win key draws continued to plague Richards until recently.

On Tuesday, Richards was strong in the face-off circle, was ripping shots and had renewed life in his legs. The 33-year-old produced a vintage performance, scoring two power play goals and operated in-sync with St. Louis on the power play. Rangers fans don’t expect Richards to have monster games every night, but he’s doing a lot of useful things that were once absent from his game.

After a long goal drought, St. Louis is piecing his game back together. Tuesday’s three-assist performance was without a doubt St. Louis’ best performance as a Ranger. The 38-year-old winger said he feels the difference is that he’s reacting naturally instead of thinking too much.

“The last five, six games I’ve felt more like myself,” St. Louis said. “I feel like I’m more playing the game and not trying to be at the right place. You come to a new team, you try to do everything the right way, and you get away a little bit from what makes you a player. You’re thinking a little too much instead of reacting, but I find myself more and more comfortable each game in doing that.”

Linemate Derek Stepan never doubted that St. Louis would eventually find his best game.

“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Stepan said. “He’s a guy that a lot of guys in this room watched growing up. He just gets it. It was just a matter of time before he had a game like this. Moving forward, I don’t expect anything less. He’s just a pro, and he’s a high elite pro.”

The playoff résumés of Richards and St. Louis are distinguished. Their big-game experience and ability to produce when the pressure is at its highest in playoffs is invaluable.

ZUCCARELLO WINS EXTRA EFFORT AWARD, STAAL RECEIVES ‘GOOD GUY’ AWARD

Prior to Tuesday’s game, winger Mats Zuccarello was awarded the 2013-14 Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. Since 1988, the award has been voted on by Rangers fans and given to the player who goes “above and beyond the call of duty.”

In 1986, McDonald was shot three times in the line of duty, leaving him a quadriplegic. He remains the most seriously injured New York City Police Officer to survive his injury. It’s always a stirring and emotional moment when Officer McDonald and his NYPD son, Conor, arrive on ice to present the award.

Zuccarello is indeed a worthy winner, given the obvious desperation in his game and ability to play much larger than his 5-foot-7, 179-pound frame. The 26-year-old has set new career highs in virtually every statistical category this season, registering 19 goals and 38 assists for 57 points in 74 games. Former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan had won the award in four of the previous five years.

“It’s humbling,” Zuccarello said. “A lot of good players show up every night and work 100 percent here. For fans to vote for me, it’s good for me. Thank you to everyone.”

Veteran defenseman Marc Staal was awarded the John Halligan ‘Good Guy Award,’ as voted on by the New York chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers of America.

The award is given out to the player deemed to be most cooperative with the media. Staal often makes the job of those covering the Rangers easier because of his openness and ability to analyze and dissect individual plays.

Despite suffering a multitude of injuries and concussion issues over the years, Staal has continued to make himself available to the media as frequently as possible.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey

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