By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
Here they come, thundering down the stretch.
No, this is not an early Kentucky Derby preview (although that will be coming soon enough). We are in the final few weeks of the regular season, and despite a 1-0 loss earlier this week to the Chicago Blackhawks, the New York Rangers appear to be in their best position to win a Stanley Cup since the Holy Grail season of 1993-94.
If the Rangers are going to win a championship, they might as well come away with the Presidents’ Trophy, too, so they can have home-ice advantage in every round of the playoffs. It’s not a necessity, but it’s an advantage that would play well in Alain Vigneault’s hands.
This would be particularly true of an Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Montreal Canadiens. The Rangers are two points behind the Habs for the lead in the Eastern Conference, but they have three games in hand on Montreal.
A meeting between those two would be epic, and while the Canadiens would be inspired to beat the Rangers because New York won that same battle a year ago, the Blueshirts are simply the better team.
If the Rangers finish first overall, they would take on the the conference’s second wild card team. Boston and Ottawa are currently engaged in a fight to the finish for that spot, and the Rangers should be hoping that the Bruins find a way.
It was just two years ago that Boston beat New York in five games in the second round. The Rangers were lucky to win the one game that kept them from getting swept, but the current version of the Bruins is nothing like that team. They don’t have two powerful lines doing the scoring, and the third and fourth lines that were so instrumental in Boston’s ability to grind out edges are mere shells of what they were.
Yes, the Bruins still have Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask, and that’s a substantial trio, but Chara is now 38 years old and discernibly slower along the blue line than he was in previous seasons.
The Senators have been resurgent during the season’s second half, and have perhaps as much speed as the Rangers. They are on an amazing 13-1-1 run since Feb. 18, riding the remarkable play of rookie goaltender Andrew Hammond.
But as great as Hammond has been, he is not going to provide the Senators with an edge against the Rangers. By that time, Henrik Lundqvist will almost certainly be rolling along in top form and ready to do his thing in the playoffs.
Assuming Lundqvist is in goal against Ottawa, he will have to be ready for Erik Karlsson, Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek and Kyle Turris, because that group will generate scoring opportunities — far more than the struggling and slowish Bruins.
But the Senators do not have the defensive prowess to hang with the Rangers. They are a nice story right now, but they don’t have what it takes to beat a complete team like New York over seven games.
The real reason that there is legitimate hope for the Rangers winning their first title in 21 years — a mere drop in the bucket for Blueshirts fans as far as droughts go – is that the Eastern Conference has caught up to the West this season.
It seemed like Chicago, Los Angeles, Anaheim, San Jose and Vancouver had the edge on the best Eastern Conference teams for years. A team from the East has won just one Stanley Cup since 2009, as Western teams have had the better combination of speed, talent and grit.
That’s no longer the case. That conference’s two glamour teams – the Blackhawks and the Kings – just aren’t the same as they were. Chicago is unlikely to survive the first two rounds of the playoffs without injured superstar Patrick Kane, and its defense is often inconsistent.
The Kings have not been the same defensive team without suspended Slava Voynov, and are outside the playoff structure right now. Darryl Sutter’s team may yet make it, but they are not the same group that pulled off championship runs in 2011-2012 and last season.
The Rangers have their own issues and there are times when they simply don’t put the puck in the net enough, but the big picture shows they are tied for fourth in the league, averaging 2.96 goals per game.
They have a big stud in Rick Nash, who has been dominant, and a supporting cast of Derick Brassard, Marty St. Louis (though currently injured), Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes that is more than good enough.
Hayes may be the X-factor in the playoffs. At 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, he is the rare combination of size and creativity. When he is going at full speed, he is very difficult to stop.
Can a big, nasty team possibly slow down or intimidate the Rangers? Possibly to the point where it could steal a game or two in a series.
But the Rangers are too good and too experienced to get beaten by physical or emotional intimidation.
The Rangers got close last season, and that’s not good enough this time around. Look for some 21-year-old bills to get paid later this spring.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy