It took more than three months to get the season started finally, but now as we head to the eve of the season opener against the Bruins, there is plenty of optimism around, and one goal in mind: win the Cup.
With 34 fewer games this year, and an abbreviated camp and no preseason, it’s likely going to be more a survival of the fittest. Injuries are going to play a key role this year, and if the Rangers hope to win the Cup they’ll need to keep their team healthy.
The unusual season is likely to have a negative effective on offense if the similarly abbreviated 1994-95 season is anything to go by. That season saw the league’s average goals per game drop from 6.48 in the year the Rangers last won the Cup, down to 5.97, or roughly an 8 percent drop off. A similar league-wide impact would see around a 0.43 goals per game drop. As an aside, the league did recover back to 6.27 in 1995-96, but was on an overall downward trend.
Perhaps one of the biggest culprits was the power play, which saw the league average dive from 18.64 o 17.73 percent – also similarly recovering slightly in 1995-96 to 17.93, though the league did decline from there into the 16.5 percent range before recovering after the last lockout.
In some ways the drop might seem surprising, but it perhaps demonstrates the increased importance of offensive preparation and the associated confidence, particularly on the power play.
With offenses potentially struggling, teams who can master the defensive side and win close games should benefit, and that should hopefully give the Rangers an advantage. Last year were 21-5-7 in games decided by one goal, good for 4th in the league. Likewise they were fourth in the league with a 13-7 record in games decided by two goals.
With that context in mind, let’s take a look at the 2012-13 Rangers…
Goaltending: The Rangers go into 2012-13 with Lundqvist coming off his best season to date. His 1.97 GAA and .930 Save Percentage were easily career bests, as was his 39 wins. The stats, coupled with an Eastern Conference title helped the Rangers netminder to his first Vezina trophy.
His 10-10 record in the post-season on the face of it wasn’t as impressive, but his .931 save percentage and a 1.82 GAA were again easily his best. Unfortunately a couple of games in the Devils series and a lack of offensive support cost him the chance to get to his first Cup Final.
In relief, Martin Biron had modest stats of 2.46 and .904, but finished with a solid 12-6-2 record in his 21 appearances. Biron might get a few more starts than you’d expect this year due to a more compressed schedule, around 12-15 games.
Between the two, the Rangers will be looking for them to match their results from last season. For Lundqvist it could be hard to match his career best performance given the configuration of the games, but if he can stay close, it’ll give the Rangers a chance. Biron needs to continue to find a way to win games in relief.
If either goaltender gets injured, particularly Lundqvist, the Rangers could be in for difficulties with no NHL experience down in the AHL, though at least Biron could fill in as starter for a short period.
Offense: The Rangers will be looking for new addition Rick Nash to bolster an offense that relied largely on Marian Gaborik – 41 goals, Ryan Callahan – 29 and Brad Richards – 25. If patterns hold true, Gaborik will have a down season this year, which means it’ll be more important for Nash to contribute.
Likewise the team will be looking for increased production from Carl Hagelin, who’ll get a chance to play on the top two lines after scoring 14 goals last season after being a mid-season call-up. The addition of Chris Kreider to the line-up in his rookie season is also hoped to be a positive addition, though he’ll need to step up after a modest start to the year with the Connectricut Whale.
Role-playing additions Taylor Pyatt, Arron Asham and Jeff Halpern will also be looked to contribute to replacing the loss of Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko both in terms of offense and character. Better years from Mike Rupp – who is reportedly recovered from a knee injury – and Brian Boyle will also help.
While winning close games shows the Rangers ability to play under pressure, it also shows they have difficulty closing out games. This was particularly the case in the playoffs, where 13 of their 20 games were decided by a single goal.
The Rangers will be particularly relying on the additional fire power of Nash to win games, and hopefully shorten series which ultimately wore out Lundqvist and the Rangers’ defense last year.
Defense: The Rangers blueline is a year older, and has Marc Staal healthy. Last year the team went into the season in disarray on defense, with more questions and answers thanks to concussions to Staal and Mike Sauer. What emerged was the emergence of the pair of Dan Girardi and sophomore Ryan McDonagh, along with steady improvements from Michael Del Zotto and free agent Anton Stralman.
There is no real change to the blueline going into Saturday’s season opener, other than the hope that a healthy Staal will help fortify an already strong set of top four defenders. The return of Steve Eminger and Matt Gilroy coupled with Stu Bickel‘s second year, provides a little bit more depth than they had last year with proven NHL experience even if they’re likely to see limited action.
Power Play: If there’s one area of improvement that the Rangers could focus on in 2013, it’s the power play. Even after the addition of Brad Richards and a healthy season from Marian Gaborik, the Rangers were only able to muster a 15.7 percent conversion rate, a weak 23rd in the league.
They did manage to lead the eight teams that made it to the third round of the playoffs with a 17.8 percent conversion rate, which provides some hope they can get things together, particularly with the addition of Nash. Whether he’ll make a real difference remains to be seen, he’s managed just six PP goals in three of the last four seasons, which would have ranked fourth on the Rangers last year.
Penalty Kill: It’s hard to see how the Rangers improving much on the PK, finishing the year fifth in the league with an 86.2 percent record. The team gave up six fewer goals despite facing three more kills – 260 versus 257 – over the 2010-11 season.
The PK did drop off a little in the playoffs, resulting in an 84.1 percent rating, putting them 10th out of the 16 playoff teams.
It’s possible the Rangers lose a little ground in this area, with Prust – 3rd, Dubinsky – 5th, Fedotenko – 6th and Anisimov – 7th all used regularly at forward on the PK. Hagelin will pick up some of the slack, and Nash also has played some PK time with Columbus, although not as a preferred PKer. Neither Asham nor Pyatt killed penalties last year for the Penguins and Coyotes respectively.
Character: Perhaps the biggest loss of the off-season was Brandon Prust, who took his willingness to drop the gloves – tied for the league lead with 20 fights – as well as his ability to score a big goal, or help kill off a penalty.
Competition: As has been the case for several seasons now, the Rangers start off in one of the toughest divisions, all the more challenging when 20 of the 48 games or 41.67 percent of the games are against those division rivals – versus 29.27 percent in a normal season.
The Penguins are widely favored to win the Eastern Conference thanks to a healthy Sidney Crosby, while both the Rangers and Flyers also are getting some attention. The Devils beat the Rangers in last season’s ECF and remain a significant rival, despite what the critics might say, and the Islanders always get up to play their “big brothers”.
The fierce competition and schedule focus on division games mean the Rangers could face a much tougher road to gaining a seed than they did last year, and it’s not out of the question that they end up battling for a 5th-8th seed, rather than in the top four.
With that said, a lower seed may not be as big a deal as it would be typically, as the Rangers appear to be better prepared to play in the playoffs this time around, and just need to play well enough to earn the opportunity.
As Los Angeles showed last year, it’s possible to win even after an indifferent or challenging regular season.
Prediction: Rangers will finish the season in 5th seed and will again make it to the Eastern Conference Finals