GREENBURGH, N.Y. — If experience truly is the best teacher, then the Rangers are practically Rhodes Scholars. More intriguing is that they have done most of their learning as one tightly knit class, which is how they will enter the Stanley Cup playoffs Wednesday night.
That is what makes this spring potentially so promising or poignant. It could be that their communal savvy will lead them past the Canadiens and into a deep run. It also could be that this is the last ride for a core group that has been together for the past five springs.
No team in the NHL’s Eastern Conference has won as many playoff series since 2012 as the Rangers’ nine (against five defeats). For that matter, no New York team in any sport has been as consistently good over that span. Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello all have been on the Rangers that whole time — doing a lot of growing and winning together.
“I think that’s the best part about hockey,” Lundqvist said Tuesday, after the final practice before the first game in Montreal. “The tougher the things you go through, the pressure adds up and you go through it as a group. That’s what it’s all about: how you handle that, how you handle the adversity, the ups and downs. You get the most of that in the playoffs. You have that emotional roller coaster. It’s how you deal with it as a group. I enjoy that part.”
But reality says that change must come if a team goes only so far, over and over. These core Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final three years ago but never have held the Cup. Their common hunger might be one of their greatest assets this postseason.
“The guys can feel it, the guys who have been around for a handful of seasons now,” said McDonagh, who was a 22-year-old kid five years ago and is now the long-term team captain. “With last season not ending the way we wanted it to, it has kind of stuck in our minds for sure. We don’t want to have that same kind of feeling.”
Management rejected the notion of major changes after a first-round exit against the eventual champion Penguins. It instead made a few additions around the core and had a fairly solid season, easily making the playoffs in an intensely competitive division.
Alain Vigneault, another sign of stability in that he has been coach since 2013, said, “They’ve played together and they’ve played well. I think we’re probably, as a team, we’re one or two as far as most games played in the playoffs. So there is a tremendous amount of experience in this group, in big games, that we can lean on. And they can lean on each other. I think that’s huge.”
Stepan acknowledged the value of experience, but cautioned, “Every year is a new year and every playoff series has something you can learn from.”
It is only rational to wonder what the roster will look like if the team does not go far this year. It is just as rational, despite the obvious group dynamic, to focus on one individual.
“Around age 16 or 17, as a goalie, you understand your position. You understand what you have to do, especially in the playoffs,” Lundqvist said. “In the end, it comes down to what we can do as a group. But I know as a goalie, obviously, you need to do your part really well for the team to have a chance. You try not to make it bigger than it is. You focus on your job, what you need to do and see it as a great opportunity.
“We know,” the 35-year-old goalie and longest tenured Ranger said, “what’s ahead of us here.”
No one knows, though, what might be ahead of them after the season.