Every year, there is one NHL team that no one wants to be matched up against in the playoffs. This team is usually playing its best hockey of the year going into the postseason and also has a confident goaltender.
Last year, this team was the Los Angeles Kings, who finished the regular season strong and then dominated the playoffs, becoming the first eighth seed to ever win the Stanley Cup.
In 2013, the team no one will want to play in the first round of the playoffs is the New York Rangers.
The Blueshirts haven't reached the postseason yet. They are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings with 42 points, and, according to Sports Club Stats, New York has a 79.9 percent chance of earning a playoff spot.
But if New York gets into the playoffs, the top seeds should be worried. The Rangers are not a good matchup for the rival Pittsburgh Penguins, who will likely finish with the top seed in the East. The Rangers were 1-0-1 against the Penguins last week and outscored them 7-2.
The Boston Bruins, who are the favorites to win the Northeast Division and capture the No. 2 seed, should be very concerned about playing the Rangers in the first round. Boston has won only three of its last 11 games against New York.
Let's take a deeper look at why the Rangers are a team that no one will want to play during the playoffs.
Deep Blue Line
The Rangers wouldn't be able to play their gritty, defensive style of hockey if they didn't have a deep blue line.
Michael Del Zotto, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, John Moore and Ryan McDonagh give New York an impressive group of defensemen, and if Marc Staal is ready to return from injury and participate in the playoffs, the Rangers will have five quality blueliners for the postseason, which is more than most teams.
Katie Strang of ESPN New York reported on Tuesday that Staal is back on the ice after suffering an eye injury from taking a puck to the face during a game on March 5.
Very few teams have the same defensive depth as the Rangers, and since there are usually fewer goals scored in playoff games compared to the regular season, having a group of defensmen who are willing to block shots, are talented enough to shut down opposing teams' best forwards and win the physical battles in all three zones gives New York a tremendous advantage over most teams.
A deep blue line with a good combination of shutdown defensive skill and scoring production proves why the Rangers are built for the playoffs.
To capture the Stanley Cup, teams must have enough depth on the back end. Just look at the last three champions (2010 Blackhawks, 2011 Bruins and 2012 Kings), who all had an elite No. 1 defenseman playing a major role in their playoff success, along with a few other reliable blueliners who excelled in their roles.
One of the most notable advantages that the Rangers have over top East teams like the Penguins and Canadiens is their toughness, depth and talent on the blue line.
Forward Depth, Including Lots of Toughness/Grit
Playing a tough, gritty team like the Rangers often turns into a grueling seven-game series, which takes a lot out of players physically.
Since the Rangers have a group of forwards who commit to playing defense, finish their checks, play a physical game and win puck battles, it's not difficult for them to wear down a less physical opponent over the course of a lengthy series.
The trade deadline additions of young center Derick Brassard and veteran winger Ryane Clowe have bolstered the Rangers' scoring depth, faceoff skill and grit in the bottom-six forward group. More importantly, these players' skill sets are a perfect fit in the team's defense-first, physical style of hockey.
The Rangers have a 3-1-1 record in April thus far with an average of 3.6 goals scored per game, which has helped them improve from 30th in goals scored to 23rd in just 10 days. Brassard and Clowe have played a major part in this increase in offensive production with a combined three goals and five assists in the four games they have played since the trade deadline.
Overall, the Rangers have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about their forward depth/talent for the playoffs. Here are a few reasons why:
- Rick Nash is an elite power forward who is playing the best hockey of his career. He leads the Rangers in points (35) and goals (17).
- Young center Derek Stepan is having a career year with 33 points (14 goals, 19 assists) in 39 games.
- Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Stepan and Brassard gives New York great depth down the middle.
- Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello bring exceptional speed and some additional goal scoring skill to the lineup.
- The Rangers' power play has improved in April with five goals in their last 13 opportunities with the man advantage.
The Rangers aren't a scoring powerhouse, but the improvement that this team has shown offensively in the last two weeks is an encouraging sign. There's no question that New York has a better and deeper group of forwards following its trade deadline moves.
An Elite Goaltender
Good goaltending is the key that unlocks the door to the Stanley Cup Final, and the Rangers have the best goaltender in the NHL.
Reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the strongest and most consistent performers for the Rangers this season.
Lundqvist has played in 34 of the Rangers' 39 games thus far with a 17-14-3 record, a .926 save percentage and a 2.13 GAA. Those are some impressive stats considering how poorly the Rangers have played at times this season and the lack of offensive support he's received from his team (NYR ranks 23 in goals scored).
Lundqvist is the type of goalie who is capable of winning a playoff series almost by himself. The good news for the Rangers is that Lundqvist is playing his best hockey of the year in the final month of the regular season.
He is 6-3-2 in his last 11 starts with a .935 save percentage. In 10 of those 11 games, Lundqvist allowed two goals or less for a 1.81 GAA.
Rangers head head coach John Tortorella was quick to praise (via Blueshirts United) Lundqvist's incredible performance after Saturday night's 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, saying, "That's the best I've seen him play since I've been [in New York]...I've never seen anybody prepare like he does and compete as hard as he does all the time."
Lundqvist is heating up at the perfect time, which is bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference. If you have a hot goaltender going into the playoffs, anything is possible, especially for a team like the Rangers that has so much talent.
Head Coach with Stanley Cup Experience
Coaching is a huge factor in playoff success, and having a bench boss with previous Stanley Cup-winning experience gives teams a huge advantage over its opponents.
Rangers head coach John Tortorella won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003-04 season, and he has led New York to the playoffs in three of his four seasons behind the bench, including a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
Being able to make adjustments within a game and during a playoff series is an important part of the postseason, and Tortorella's experience in the playoffs helps him identify what he needs to change to put his team in a position to win.
Of the 16 teams currently in a playoff spot in both conferences, less than half of them (seven) have coaches with Stanley Cup rings (as a head coach).
Tortorella understands what it takes for his team to be successful in the playoffs, and because his style of play hasn't changed since he arrived to New York, his players know exactly what their roles are and what's expected of them.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.