The New York Rangers rapidly ascended from a middle-of-the-road Eastern Conference club to the NHL's elite this season, and as they embark on these 2012 NHL playoffs, they're without a doubt the favorite to come out of the East.
They're even a favorite to win their first Stanley Cup since 1994, and they've put together an impressive season with a balance of timely scoring, extremely solid defense and, of course, the best goaltending in the entire league.
We asked Joe Fortunato of Rangers blog Blueshirt Banter to answer a few questions about the team as we prepare for the playoffs.
1) What's the biggest reason you have confidence in the Rangers heading into the postseason?
There are really two things that have me confident in the New York Rangers heading into the postseason. The first is, of course, Henrik Lundqvist. He's putting up remarkable numbers, especially when you consider the fact that two of the defenseman in front of him are both 21-years-old and are playing well over 20 minutes a night. The second has to be the team's attitude. The Rangers have clearly bought into John Tortorella's system and they have shown the ability to outwork any team in the NHL, even if they're not as talented as the opposition. That, along with Lundqvist being rested for the playoffs for the first time in his career, gives the Rangers two advantages they simply haven't had post-lockout.
2) What's the biggest question mark surrounding the team heading into the playoffs?
The power play, no question about it. The Rangers' power play was astonishingly third-worst in the NHL for most of the season, and only recently has it become more successful. Even with the last-season surge, the Rangers are still only converting 15.9% of the time, the lowest of any Eastern Conference playoff team. If the power play runs cold, the Rangers' offense tends to run cold, which makes every game a dangerous one.
3) If there's one player on the Rangers that will have a breakout playoff campaign, who will it be?
This is a tough question, because there are a plethora of players who could break out in the playoffs. I would have to give the nod to Brandon Dubinsky, though. He's playing much better than the first three-quarters of the year, and seems to be finding his game again. He's always done a good job in the playoffs for the Rangers, and with all the frustrations he has had this year it might be a good thing for him to get a "fresh start" when the games finally count.
4) When all's said and done, the Rangers' playoff chances hinge on ...
Henrik Lundqvist. He is the best goaltender in the NHL hands down. He can easily steal a game, or even a playoff series if he has to. He's been keeping the Rangers alive all year, no reason to assume he can't do the same this year. And while the Rangers have tons of players who can be considered "difference makers," Lundqvist is truly the only player the Rangers couldn't survive without.
5) Give a prediction. How far will the Rangers go in these Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Stanley Cup champion? First round exit? Both are possible, it's the playoffs. I would have to think the Rangers make a very deep run. My heart is telling me that the Rangers can win the Stanley Cup finals. My brain is less confident, but agrees that the team has the talent and the mindset to do it. Still, this is a special team. I'll predict that the Rangers take home the glory, or at least give a deep run.
For more on the New York Rangers, check in with Blueshirt Banter.