At long last, the playoffs start Tuesday for the Rangers, who are finally headed back to the NHL’s Sweet 16 for the first time since 2017, set to host the Penguins at Madison Square Garden in Game 1 of the first-round best-of-seven, first round series.
The return comes after a three-and-a-half-year rebuild that started with The Letter in February, 2018 and effectively ended when GM Chris Drury hired coach Gerard Gallant last summer.
But here’s the question for Drury, Gallant and the Rangers, who posted a 52-24-6 record this season:
Now that they’re in it, can they win it? Can a team fresh out of a rebuild, and appearing in the playoffs for the first time in five years (not counting that three-game sweep loss to Carolina in the bubble play-in experience in 2020) actually win the Stanley Cup?
NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp doesn’t see why not.
“We always talk about . . . you have to lose before you win,’’ Rupp said in a telephone interview with Newsday. “But maybe sometimes . . . that just makes us feel better about losing that first time. Like, ‘Hey, we lost last year. So now we're ready to win.’ [But] maybe it's more smoke than the truth, you know? I mean, you can certainly win without having playoff experience.’’
Rupp, who won a Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Devils in 2003 — he scored the Cup-clinching goal against Anaheim — played for the Rangers in 2011-12 before going into the TV business after his career ended in 2014. Last season, as the Rangers were wrapping up their rebuild, he predicted they would win a Stanley Cup within four years. And he’s not backing away from that.
“I think in the next couple of years, they’re going to be playing for a Stanley Cup,’’ he said.
The way they are playing now, though, and the way goaltender Igor Shesterkin has played this season, Rupp wouldn’t be surprised if this was the year.
“They check a lot of boxes,’’ he said. “And the ones that aren't checked, as far as maybe playoff experience, or playoff success, or maybe playoff failure that you can learn from, they've got an ‘X’ factor in Shesterkin.’’
Just as goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is the most intimidating weapon the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning have, so too does Shesterkin make the Rangers a team nobody wants to face in the playoffs, Rupp said.
“This is a team that can run itself through [the playoffs] with their goaltender,’’ he said. “They don't NEED their goaltender to save the day, but they have one capable of doing it. That's why I just think this Rangers team, yeah, I do think they're a contender now.’’
With a solid base already in place when he took over as team president and GM last May, Drury hired Gallant and made some key additions last summer, most notably bringing in two-time Stanley Cup winner Barclay Goodrow.
But Drury outdid himself when he brought in four new players at the trade deadline: Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun. Vatrano and Copp have been perfect fits within the top six forwards, and Motte looked like a great pickup for the fourth line and penalty kill units before going down with a long term upper-body injury. Braun looks to be insurance against an injury on defense.
The thing is, all of the trade deadline pickups will be unrestricted free agents this summer. And with their salary cap situation going into next season, the Rangers may not be able to keep any of them — not while re-signing unrestricted free agent-to-be Ryan Strome, as well as RFAs Kaapo Kakko and Sammy Blais, among others.
So it may be that this year — Year One of the post-rebuild era — is the best chance the Rangers will have over the next few years of making a run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Can they do it?
Rangers vs. Penguins
(Best-of-7; all games on MSG-TV)
Game 1: Tuesday, at Rangers, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Thursday, at Rangers, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Saturday, at Penguins, 7 p.m.
Game 4: May 9, at Penguins, 7 p.m.
x-Game 5: May 11, at Rangers, TBA
x-Game 6: May 13, at Penguins, TBA
x-Game 7: May 15, at Rangers, TBA