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SportsColumnistsSteve Zipay

As always, expectations high for Rangers come playoff time

Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers

Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers makes a save in the second period against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Mar. 27, 2016 in New York City. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

With the NHL playoffs approaching, Van Morrison’s lyric always seems apropos:

“You make it to spring/And there’s no bed of roses/Just more hard work and bad company . . . ”

Sixteen teams endure long seasons and then face a grueling wall to climb: No bouquets, no cakewalks and nasty matchups.

For the Rangers, who in the last four springs have advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals three times, survived once, and then fell to the Kings in five games, the thorny path beckons again.

In the third season on Alain Vigneault’s watch, the expectations are higher: Anything less than another visit to the Cup Final has to be considered disappointing for this group, particularly since the Rangers went all-in at the trade deadline, pushing the limits of the salary cap by obtaining Carolina captain Eric Staal for a playoff run.

All that being said, what will the Blueshirts need to prosper in the playoffs?

As always, it starts with Henrik Lundqvist. Now 34, he may have to return to at least close to the form that earned him the Vezina Trophy in the 2011-12 season, when he posted a .930 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against-average. He ranks second in the league in shots faced, will log another 3,600-plus minutes, and make 1,800-plus saves this season, but the save percentage has dipped slightly to .921 and the GAA has risen to 2.44. Lundqvist remains capable of stealing games, which he may have to do in order for the Rangers to go deep.

Part of the reason for the goaltending numbers is, as mentioned numerous times in this season’s narrative, an alarming inconsistency on the blue line, particularly from veterans Dan Boyle and Dan Girardi, and to some extent, gamer Marc Staal. All have struggled defending against speedy young forwards on the rush. Girardi remains fearless in shot-blocking, but has decision-making issues with the puck, and is often soft in clears. The entire group needs to be crisper and more assertive. One possible answer: occasionally using improving rookie Brady Skjei, who has no playoff experience, but size, quickness and skill (and a goal and two assists on Friday with Hartford), and plays in the Vigneault puck-moving style.

Don’t discount scoring. Eric Staal, along with Rick Nash, simply have to contribute, and to a large extent, Keith Yandle must continue to effectively quarterback the power play, a role which he has finally secured in the last six weeks. His 19 assists with the man-advantage put him the top six among defensemen before yesterday’s games. Staal appears more comfortable since the Feb. 28th trade and is pumped for his first playoff appearance since 2009. Nash has nine goals in 56 playoff games with the Rangers; No. 61’s production has to improve.

And finally, the Rangers, collectively, have to be better on the road. Even if they leave Columbus with a win in their final away game of the season on Monday, the Rangers will finish a middling 19-17-5 outside of Madison Square Garden. Last season, they were 28-11-2.

Playoff matchups

The most favorable matchup in the first round? Probably against the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers. For that to happen, the Rangers would have to drop to the Metropolitan Division wild card, and cross over to open in Sunrise against Jaromir Jagr & Co.

That also would mean that the Rangers stay in the Atlantic Division for the second round of the tournament — because of the NHL’s no reseeding rule that should be changed. Under this scenario, they could possibly avoid playing the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Capitals, until the Eastern Conference Finals.

Least favorable? Nobody wants to play the sizzling Penguins in the first round, although that matchup remains a strong possibility for the Rangers. The Penguins did suffer a blow on Saturday, when it was revealed that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury suffered a concussion, with no timetable for his return. The Islanders and Rangers have one more tilt in the regular season, on Thursday, as a prelude to what would an intense matchup, not to mention a terrific revival of the New York rivalry.

Heard around . . .

The Rangers likely will play Game 1 of the first round on Wednesday, April 13, at home or on the road, rather than Thursday the 14th. The Capitals, guaranteed of home-ice advantage, cannot play that Wednesday. The NBA Wizards close their season at Verizon Center . . . March misery: The Rangers scratched out a 6-5-3 record last month, with 15 points in 14 games, going 3-2-1 at home and 3-2-2 on the road . . . Assuming the Rangers have clinched a playoff spot, backup Antti Raanta is likely to start in either Columbus on Monday or at MSG against Tampa on Tuesday. Henrik Lundqvist presumably goes against the Islanders at home on Thursday, and depending on seeding, perhaps Raanta gets next Saturday’s matinee finale against the Red Wings.

MAKING THE POINTS

Compared to the last seven seasons, the Rangers will finish somewhere in the upper half in points.

Season Points Playoffs finish

2015 113 Conf. final, L to Lightning

2014 96 Stanley Cup final, L to Kings

2013 56* Conf. semifinal, L to Bruins

2012109 Conf. final, L to Devils

2011 93 Conf. QF, L to Caps

2010 87 Did not qualify

2009 95 Conf. QF, L to Caps

*Lockout-shortened 48-game season

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