By Sean Hartnett
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The path to the Stanley Cup Final isn’t a straight one. It is a rocky road paved in blood, sweat and broken bones. Throughout the course of an 82-game season, sudden twists in the road test the character of a hockey club.
On Thursday night in Ottawa, the Rangers became the first team in the NHL to earn a playoff-clinching check mark next to their name. They have passed every test in front of them while remaining the league’s best team at 47-19-7, having collected 101 points through 73 games.
Incredibly, the Blueshirts have continued their hot play with elite goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, clutch winger Martin St. Louis and thriving defenseman Kevin Klein missing from the formula. The injury-hit Rangers have won 17 of their last 22 games and are favorites to capture the Presidents’ Trophy.
“We have something special here,” rookie forward Kevin Hayes said. “No matter who goes down, there’s a ‘who’s up next’ mentality. That’s what our older guys preach. You feel bad when guys go down, but we don’t feel bad for ourselves. That’s why we’ve been so successful.”
The impending return of Lundqvist and St. Louis will give the scorching Rangers a boost, as will the eventual return of Klein.
Lundqvist will return to game action this weekend. He sat on the bench as Cam Talbot’s backup in Thursday’s 5-1 victory at the Canadian Tire Centre. It’s unclear whether King Henrik will start in Boston on Saturday or in front of home fans on Sunday afternoon against the Washington Capitals.
St. Louis began skating with teammates on Thursday morning in Ottawa. It is unlikely that he will play this weekend. Encouragingly, St. Louis was able to skate and shoot during the Rangers’ hour-long practice session. The veteran winger sprained his right MCL on Mar. 15 when Florida Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov landed on his right knee.
Klein said last Friday that he broke a bone in his left forearm while blocking an Alex Ovechkin shot on Mar. 11. The Rangers initially said that Klein would miss 3-4 weeks due to an “upper-body injury.”
The Rangers’ success is based on every player buying into the team-first mentality. There’s no room for prima donnas or passengers inside the Rangers’ dressing room. A great hockey team is a collection of talented players all pulling in the same direction.
“The great thing about this group is that no one in here cares about personal statistics,” defenseman Dan Boyle said. “The only thing on our minds is trying to win games. There isn’t a guy in here on (his) own agenda, trying to pad stats.”
Winger Mats Zuccarello extended his points streak to four games in Thursday’s win.
“We’re a team that likes to play for each other,” Zuccarello said. “I’m happy for everyone in here. It doesn’t matter if you score when you lose. As long as we keep winning hockey games, it doesn’t matter who puts the puck in.”
The signs are encouraging for this Rangers team. Two key pieces in Boyle and recently acquired offensive-defenseman Keith Yandle have been trending in the right direction lately. Boyle’s performances have improved in the second half. Yandle is looking more comfortable and is executing crisp outlet passes. The 28-year-old has recorded four assists in three games.
“When you enter the playoffs, you want to have all four of your lines rolling and everyone contributing,” Hayes said. “That’s what we have going. Hopefully, it’s the start of more to come.”
Here’s the scary thing for opponents. The Rangers have done all of this without Lundqvist, St. Louis and Klein. Imagine what this team is capable of doing when its at full strength.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.