It’s been five years since the Rangers last played in the Stanley Cup playoffs (not counting that three-game cameo in the play-in round in the Toronto bubble in 2020). So as the Blueshirts return to the postseason with their first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, here are 5 storylines to keep track of in Year One, A.T.R. (After The Rebuild).
Will Igor Shesterkin be fresh? The 26-year-old goaltender had a magnificent season, posting the league’s best goals-against average (2.07) and best save percentage (.935) on his way to a 36-13-4 record. The Moscow native is the odds-on favorite to win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie, and he’s certainly proved himself a worthy successor to Henrik Lundqvist. But the 53 games he played in the regular season were way more than he’s played in a single season. The Stanley Cup playoffs can be a long grind. The teams that get to the final will play playoff hockey for two months. Can Shesterkin’s body hold up to that, and without any breakdown of his game?
Are the young playoff debutants ready? It’s crazy that 24-year-old defenseman Adam Fox isn’t considered a young guy on the Rangers. That has something to do with being the reigning Norris Trophy winner, no doubt, but the Jericho native just finished his third season in the NHL and has played, officially, in three playoff games — those three bubble games in Toronto in 2020. That’s the same as 21-year-old Kaapo Kakko. Twenty-two-year-old Filip Chytil has played four seasons. The point is, zero non-bubble playoff games for all of them. The same goes for defensemen Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, Braden Schneider and forwards Alexis Lafreniere, Kevin Rooney, Dryden Hunt, and goalies Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. That’s more than half the game roster with only bubble playoff experience or no playoff experience at all.
Are Artemi Panarin and Andrew Copp good to go? Coach Gerard Gallant has been insistent that they weren’t badly injured after both players left Tuesday’s loss to Carolina early in the second period. And Gallant has been adamant that the players will be more than ready to play in Game 1 Tuesday. But it was Gallant who initially said Kakko was a day-to-day injury when he didn’t play against Arizona in late January. He amended that a few days later to say Kakko would be out about three weeks. He missed 11 weeks. This is the playoffs. Coaches aren’t just cagey and evasive when asked about injuries; they flat out lie at times. Let’s see if Panarin and Copp practice Sunday and Monday, and let’s see how effective they are on Tuesday, if they do play.
How much can the Rangers draw on Barclay Goodrow’s playoff experience? The Rangers traded for Goodrow, and signed him to a six-year, $21.85 million contract to provide leadership for the young group and teach them how to do the little things that win playoff games and series. Over the season, Goodrow played on every line, 1-through-4, and played every forward position. He killed penalties, got some power play time, scored a career-high 13 goals, and his three fights were tied for second-most on the team, with enforcer Ryan Reaves. So he did a little bit of everything. What can he do in the playoffs?
What will we see from veterans Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider? They are the only two survivors of the rebuild. They were young men in 2017, when the Rangers lost to Ottawa in six games in their last playoff appearance, and they’re older now. Both are really appreciative of being able to play playoff hockey in a Rangers uniform again. Kreider is coming off a 52-goal season that shattered his previous career high in goals. Zibanejad scored a career-best 81 points in 81 games.