With the NHL back from the Olympic break, it’s time to turn our focus toward the stretch-run of the season. Just about every team across the league has plunged into the fourth and final lap of the mile, but objectives vary. For some teams, this is the race that matters. They’ll push the pace to the finish line in a fight for home-ice advantage in the playoffs, and look to pull over for a pit stop before the March 5 trade deadline. For other teams, aspirations are more farsighted. The field out of reach, they’ll look to pawn off some assets while they still can, and start building a core that can propel them in the future.
The New York Rangers, firmly within the former group, have their eyes on the prize. Thanks to a sizzling stretch of play leading up the Olympic break, aspirations have been reignited at The Garden and the Blueshirts are now focused on making a deep playoff run this spring. It’s somewhat meaningless to say the Rangers are in win-now mode – it’s not really a mode but a way of life under GM Glen Sather – but the team likes it chances. (With Henrik Lundqvist in goal, the Muskegon Lumberjacks might like their chances, too.) Meanwhile, the team is actively shopping its best all-around player in Ryan Callahan and top-pair defenseman Dan Girardi. If that sounds completely counterintuitive, it’s because it is. Gear up for a wild ride to the finish.
Without further ado, here are five stretch-run storylines to watch for the New York Rangers. (Click here to check out the Islanders.)
1. Where does Ryan Callahan end up?
St. Louis? Vancouver? Nowhere, but New York? Ever since contract negotiations between Callahan and the Rangers hit a snag back in January, this has been the hottest question in the NHL. Some are convinced the team will move him before the deadline. Others – like me – aren’t so sure. I understand the risk in holding onto him, but what about the risk in letting him go?
The Rangers have emerged as one of the stronger teams in the East over the past month and a half, and are closing in on Cup Contender status. A fast start out of the break – which would mean wins over Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston – and the Blueshirts will officially enter the ring of Teams-You-Can-Put-Some-Money-On. With the pieces all coming together at the right time, it’s hard to imagine Sather turning around next Wednesday and trading the club’s captain. Sorry boys, you’ll just have to figure it out.
This is a GM as shortsighted as they come, possessed more with winning today than planning for tomorrow. He’s yet to win a championship in New York, and time isn’t exactly on his side. If the Rangers pick up where the left off when play resumes on Thursday, Sather will probably convince himself that standing pat is the right thing to do. The hell with the future, let’s go win a Cup right now.
2. Where does Dan Girardi end up?
3. Will Chris Kreider reappear any time soon?
It’s been an interesting season so far for Kreider. He was called up from the AHL in late October and made an instant impact, registering 17 points in his first 20 games. Vigneault, recognizing the kid’s game-breaking talent, promoted him to the first line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash in the middle of December, and watched him embark on another hot streak that lasted to the middle of January – 10 more points in 14 games. And then, poof, Kreider vanished.
He has just three points since January 12, which brings his season total to 30. Kreider has played 52 games thus far for the Rangers; 90 percent of his offensive output is packed within a 34-game sample. Think about what that pie would look like: two pieces swelling with fruit, the other piece bare to the bone.
Will Kreider even things out in the final month-and-a-half of the season? The Rangers have to hope so. Nash may be the motor that gets that line going, but Kreider is the engine that makes it fly. When he’s a threat he draws attention away from Nash, and visa versa, opening passing lanes up for Stepan. The two wingers are a formidable duo when they’re both playing well – in that pick-your-poison kind of way – but it hasn’t happened often this season. Some of that is simply due to coincidence, and so one has to think it’s only a matter of time before they catch fire at the same time. Either way, expect Kreider to shed the invisibility cloak when the puck drops Thursday night.
4. Can the Rangers improve their play at home?
Well it’d be hard not to. It’s no secret the Blueshirts have struggled to win at The Garden this season, but take in the numbers anyway: 14-14-3 at home, 18-10-0 on the road. Ignoring the NHL’s arcane point-percentage system, the Rangers have won 45 percent of their home games and 64 percent of their road games. What the numbers depict is an abnormally poor home record for a team inside the East’s top-eight and an abnormally lucrative road record for a team outside the top-three.
In all likelihood both anomalies will regress to the mean, but if the Rangers can continue their winning ways away from MSG and put up merely average numbers at home, they’ll continue to surge up the standings. (Wo, wo, wo!! Slow down. We don’t actually want home-ice advantage.) And they’re already trending in that direction. Over their recent 16-6-1 surge, the Rangers have gone 8-4-1 at home. Their struggles at home, which boiled over in mid-December, may well be behind them.
5. Who finishes as the leading scorer on this team?
Not the guy at the top right now. Mats Zuccarello (43 points in 58 games) will miss the next two weeks due to a broken hand suffered in Sochi, and thus the tortoises behind the hare have a chance to catch up. (In fairness, when the teams leading scorer has a point-per-game pace of .74, they’re all tortoises.) The popular pick to overtake Zuccarello might be Brad Richards, the team’s second leading scorer, but if there’s one guy bound to break out in a big way down the stretch it’s Stepan.
The 23-year-old center looked primed for a career year this season after bursting onto the scene in 2012-13 with 44 points in 48 games, but Stepan has fallen back to a point-per-game pace of .59 this year. Some of this owes to his inability to bear down in front of the net – Stepan, it seems, is looking up at the rafters more than anyone else on this team – but it’s also a result of his linemates struggling to score themselves.
As a playmaker, Stepan racks up most of his points through assists, and thus his numbers aren’t totally in his control. When Nash was struggling to score in December, Stepan’s name wasn’t showing up on the score sheet; when Nash caught fire in January, it was popping up like graffiti. With Nash back on his game and Kreider due to break out again soon, Stepan stands to benefit immensely. Look for him to be the leading scorer on this team when it’s all said and done.