When the Rangers face the Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs starting Wednesday, it will be unchartered waters for many young Blueshirts.
Eight Rangers have yet to appear in an NHL playoff game: rookies Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello, as well as Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, Matt Gilroy and backup goalie Chad Johnson. And Rangers center Artem Anisimov has played in just one game, in 2008-09. Only three Caps have not played in the post-season.
Although much of the credit after the Rangers 5-2 victory over the Devils on Saturday went to the elder statesmen---Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal---just reaching Game 82 with a chance for a playoff spot could not have been accomplished without the performances of many of the youngsters.
Stepan, who left the University of Wisconsin and made the club on opening night, scored 21 goals and added 23 assists. Brian Boyle, who was all but written off by coach John Tortorella before training camp, erupted for 21 goals and 14 assists. Brandon Prust, pigeonholed as simply a fighter in Calgary, scored 13 goals---five of them shorthanded. Anisimov was 18-26-44 as a sophomore. Zuccarello had 23 points in 42 games and won three shootouts. Sauer blossomed into a rugged blueliner, with a team-high plus-20.
“I like the youth that we have infused,” said coach John Tortorella, but who is well aware that the playoffs are another challenge, at another level.
Under particular pressure will be the second d-pair: McDonagh, 21, who was Stepan’s teammate at Wisconsin, and Sauer, a 2005 second-round pick who overcame serious injuries to crack the roster at 23. McDonagh, said Tortorella, “struggled at first in the minors and has slowly come along. He and Sauer are two very important pieces for us to continue to build.”
“We really jelled well together,” Sauer said. “We both know that we can get involved in the offensive zone and if we get pucks through, things can happen. We’re are always talking out there, and when bumps happen, we get over it quick.” Safe to say there will be a few more on the road ahead.
Notes & Quotes
Henrik Lundqvist will start his 27th consecutive game in Game 1, and with Martin Biron sidelined with a broken collarbone, will carry the load. He is 14-16 in the playoffs, with a 2.66 GAA and three shutouts...The team’s 44 wins are tied for the sixth-most in team history…The Rangers scored 233 goals, 12 more than last season, and allowed 18 fewer…The Rangers will practice today and tomorrow at the training center and leave for Washington afterward.