The 2019-20 National Hockey League season is back on. The best part is that the New York Rangers are in the 24-Team Stanley Cup Playoff Bracket. With a best-of-five series against the Carolina Hurricanes looming, many questions are circulating around this young team. The biggest question of them all is if this young team is sustainable enough to make it past Carolina. Just how far can this team go?
After the decision to move away from franchise favorites like Ryan Callahan, Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, and Ryan McDonagh to a newer and younger nucleus, the Rangers have undergone some hard years. Since there last playoff appearance in 2016-17, they have held a record of 103-103-28 in 234 games. With head coach David Quinn at the helm, this team has improved their point total each year, from 77 in 2017-18 to 78 in 2018-19, and then 79 points this season.
It wasn’t all Quinn’s doing, however, as the Rangers front office was also able to pull together high-tier talent from free agency and the NHL Entry Draft. Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, Tony DeAngelo, Jacob Trouba, and Igor Shesterkin are all results of that. With those key pieces in place alongside experienced players, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Marc Staal and Henrik Lundqvist, they have found themselves out of their re-build. It could have taken multiple seasons to grow out of the re-build, but this young team was able to do it in just two.
The biggest question mark leading up to this playoff bracket is if the young and inexperience that seemingly helped the Rangers this season, will now hurt them. After going through 70 games, this team has seen ups-and-downs all over the roster, and there is no margin for error now that it is playoff time. It all starts at the top with Panarin and Zibanejad. This duo will have to continue what they had done over three months ago in the regular season.
Panarin, who is a candidate for the Hart Trophy this season, contributed 32 goals and 63 assists for 95 points in 69 games. Zibanejad, who rocked Madison Square Garden with a marvelous 5-goal game, lit the lamp a total of 41 times and added 34 assists for 75 points in only 57 games.
The edge in the first play-in series of the resumed hockey season is still in Carolina’s favor, but not by that much. The best-of-five, which saw the Rangers holding a 4-0 series sweep over their opponent-to-be, will likely come down to the wire. Both teams are rested, healthy, and motivated by the return to the game they love. It is one thing to just return to play hockey, but this is to play in a once-in-a-lifetime 24-team tournament for the Stanley Cup.
Obviously, advancing in this playoff tournament is the goal. But if the cards don’t fall in their favor, there is a chance to acquire another young talented piece in Alexis Lafreniere. Losing to the Hurricanes isn’t a guarantee, and so is the number one overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, if they do lose.
How Far Can This Team Realistically Go?
The Rangers gave their fans a breath of fresh air. They brought back excitement to Madison Square Garden that has long been forgotten from its two residing sports franchises. In a perfect world, the answer to the above question would be, “All the way”, but unfortunately this isn’t that.
Realistically, they have a 50-50 shot at beating Carolina in the play-in. With re-seeding likely to occur in the Eastern Conference, the next opponent will knock the Rangers out of the Playoffs. This season, the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers were 8-3 against the Blueshirts in the regular season. Whomever they are matched up against will be a tough match-up.
Nevertheless, that result should be considered positive. The future is very bright in New York, and adding a playoff series win under the belt of up-and-coming stars is very important. They may not go incredibly far, but winning the play-in series can be just far enough.
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