Today was a little less tense than previous games. No longer were playoff hopes on the line. Still, it was an important game. Playoff seeding was on the line, and a loss would have locked the Rangers in as the eight seed. Johan Hedberg was in goal for the Devils, instead of the usual appearance from Martin Brodeur, but it was still a similar result to the previous matchup. The Rangers scored early, put consistent pressure on the Devils in the offensive zone, and limit their own mistakes. Henrik Lundqvist got his second shutout, but for most of the game was along for the ride. The game was never really in doubt. A good win, both for playoff seeding and also to end the season on a high note. Let's look at some post-game thoughts.
Glen Sather and John Tortorella: Let us give credit to those who deserve it. Jeff Gorton, Jim Schoenfeld, and the rest of the coaching and scouting staff deserve their share of applause as well, but these two clearly are the most influential figures. They received (somewhat deserving) criticism when the team struggled, but they made a slew of bold moves to turn things around. Though it was too late to earn home-ice advantage, these two headed a group that managed to push every right button. And as a result the Rangers are going into the playoffs with more momentum than just about any other team in the Eastern Conference.
Derek Stepan: Henrik will always be the team's MVP, but ignoring him, it's hard to argue that Derek Stepan hasn't been the Rangers' best skater this season. He capped off what has been far and away the best season of his career with a goal and an assist today. Callahan did a lot of the work on his goal, but Stepan has developed an instinct to head towards the net and find the openings. Callahan found him, and he put a great shot past Hedberg to put the Rangers up early. His best play was on Callahan's goal, though. Shorthanded, he knocked down a Zidlicky pass attempt in the neutral zone, then dug his skates into the ice hard to get to the puck before forcing it to Callahan, who went on the break and scored. He finishes the season with 18 goals, a career high, and 44 points; more than Anze Kopitar, Daniel Sedin, and Joe Thornton, and as of now only one behind Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin. Even with Brad Richards turning on the jets, Stepan will enter the playoffs as the team's most important center.
Rick Nash: Though he is entitled with the way he has consistently produced, Nash wasn't playing his best games the last 3 or 4 games. Today he himself back back on the road, scoring two goal-scorer's goals on wrist shots from the slot. He finishes the season with
20 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games. He's been everything the Rangers were hoping for when they acquired him, and now he'll look to get involved in playoff hockey for only the second time in his NHL career. If the Rangers are going to make a run, they're going to need him to be the elite offensive player that he is.
Steve Eminger and John Moore: One of the glaring weaknesses of last year's team during the playoffs was a lack of a capable third pairing. One of the more remembered events of last year was Stu Bickel sticking to the bench despite a triple overtime game in Washington. Things started the same this season, with a revolving door of Gilroy, Hamrlik, Bickel, and so on getting opportunities. Eminger is finally healthy, whereas last season at this time he was not. And John Moore has been a breath of fresh air. While the top guys are still going to be whom Tortorella relies on most, I do not think he should or will feel uncomfortable going with a third pairing in the playoffs, and perhaps it will be a difference for this year's team. If Marc Staal can come back then Tortorella has a decision to make on who sits between Stralman and Eminger.
Mats Zuccarello: The signing of Zuccarello midseason was met with a lot of cynicism from the most pessimistic fans and skepticism from the most optimistic. He has clearly surpassed virtually everyone's expectations, and that probably includes Sather and Tortorella. He finally battles for pucks in the neutral zone and in corners. Today he had what I believe was his best shift as a Ranger. He carried the puck end-to-end and pentrated the Devils' blue line. He kept possession and made a pass down low to Richards, who the found Zuccarello in the corner. With the Devils' committing to Zucc, Nash was left wide open the slot, and he had had nothing to do but slot it into the open net. Unless he has a complete meltdown in the playoffs, I imagine that Sather will make it his mission to give The Hobbit an extension. And one he fully deserves.
Now the Rangers must play the waiting game. Ottawa needs at least three points in its remaining two games or else the Rangers get the sixth seed. In which case, we meet up with the Capitals yet again. If Ottawa is successful, however, it will be down to either Boston or Montreal.
At this point, the struggles in the first half of the season are irrelevant, outside of seeding. Everyone starts at zero again. We're going to have the best goaltender no matter what team we're up against, and this team picked the right time to get into a groove. We have four complete lines, three complete defensive pairings. If Staal and Clowe and perhaps even Dorsett can get healthy then the Rangers have a legitimate chance to do some damage in the playoffs.
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