The Real Stretch Run for the Rangers

It seems like just yesterday I turned to the start of the Rangers’ season to console me after the Yankees ended the their season without a trip to the postseason and the Giants were off to an 0-4 start. The Rangers didn’t exactly make me forget about an 85-win Yankees team or a winless Giants team as they lost seven of their first 10 games and were shut out four times in those 10 games. But since that 3-6-0 road trip to open the season and the 2-0 loss to the Canadiens in the home opener in Game 10, the Rangers have been a pretty good team (they are 36-22-4 since the 3-7-0 start).

At times they have made me believe they are capable of competing against the Bruins or Penguins in a seven-game series and at other times they have made me think they will miss the playoffs in a Game 82-shootout setting like they did to finish the 2009-10 season. I have learned not to be surprised by the Rangers over the years and even with a team that rosters Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, I’m still not surprised by the inconsistent efforts.

After losing back-to-back road games to Carolina and Minnesota (and scoring only one goal in each game), it seemed Rangers fans would have to endure the usual March charades from the Rangers that would force them to play for their season in the final week of the season. With Columbus continuing to win and Philadelphia laughing at the gauntlet portion of their schedule that was supposed to keep them from making a playoff push, the dreaded “Games in hand” phrase that always seems to work against the Rangers at this time of the year began to make its annual appearance on every TV graphic. But over the last five games, the Rangers have looked more like that team that is capable of competing with the Bruins and Penguins and less like the team that let their season come down to an Olli Jokinen shootout attempt.

Three weeks from today the 2013-14 regular season will be over, and three weeks from today there’s a chance the 2013-14 Rangers’ season will be over too. The Rangers have 10 games to earn their way into the playoffs and to make sure I’m not hate-watching the NHL playoffs during my favorite time of the year. In those 10 games, we will get the answer to a few questions I have about the state of the Rangers down the stretch.

Are We in the Middle of One of Rick Nash’s Patented Streaks?
Rick Nash has played 99 regular-season games for the Rangers. He has scored 44 goals in those 99 games. That looks like steady production and without watching him you might think he is a model for consistent goal scoring in the NHL. But while Nash’s final numbers will look the way his final numbers have looked since he entered the league over a decade ago, he is anything but consistent, which makes him the perfect Ranger.

Let’s look at Nash’s 2012-13 regular season:

In seven games from Jan. 19 to Jan. 31, Nash had one goal.

In 12 games from Feb. 2 to March 8, Nash had eight goals.

In eight games from March 10 to March 24, Nash had one goal.

In eight games from March 26 to April 8, Nash had seven goals.

In nine games from April 10 to April 27, Nash had four goals.

And now let’s look at what Nash has done this season:

In 11 games from Nov. 21 to Dec. 10, Nash had six goals.

In 11 games from Dec. 12 Jan. 4, Nash had one goal.

In 11 games from Jan. 6 to Jan. 26, Nash had 11 goals.

In 15 games from Jan. 29 to March 16, Nash had two goals.

In the last three games, Nash has three goals.

Nash has admitted he is a streaky goal scorer and this season, like last, has once again shown that. His 23 goals have come from two 11-game stretches with the rest of them coming in this current three-game streak. Nash scores in spurts and when he does, they aren’t usually in short spurts like three games. They are usually for a couple of weeks. The Rangers need an extended Nash scoring streak that continues through the end of the regular season and into the postseason, which is what didn’t happen last year. (More on that later.)

And how about Nash even deciding to mix it up in his Columbus homecoming? When I told David Singer, founder of HockeyFights.com, on our podcast last week that the Rangers were going to need to get tougher and some Rangers would need to appear on his site in the coming weeks to make the playoffs, I didn’t mean Rick Nash. But Nash has proven to be a leader for this team and it his decision to become one on the ice and the scoresheet couldn’t have come at a better time.

How is Anton Stralman Still in the NHL?
It’s scary to think if John Moore wasn’t currently battling a concussion that Antron Stralman would still be in the lineup. If you’re Raphael Diaz, who is only playing because of Moore’s concussion, you have to be thinking that you’ll never get into a game as long as Moore, Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein are healthy.

Prior to Moore’s concussion, Stralman was still dressing and still part of the Top 6 defensemen on the team despite doing nothing and I mean actually nothing to earn or deserve to be in the lineup. He has become the new Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers (who is having his own trouble staying in the lineup in Nashville) in that he isn’t an offensive defenseman (or at least he doesn’t produce like one) and he clearly isn’t a defensive defenseman since I would consider him the biggest defensive zone liability in the entire NHL.

Stralman hasn’t looked like an NHL player since the Olympic break and nowhere near the type of player that should be considered for an extension. He hasn’t even been the type of player that should be involved in contract extensions rumors (whether true or false) the way he was a few weeks ago. If Raphael Diaz is back out of the lineup once Moore is back and Stralman doesn’t see the press box for at least one game then there’s a serious problem. And if you see Diaz in line to buy beers between periods at MSG as a healthy scratch, let him know he’s doing the right thing.

Is Martin St. Louis Ever Going to Score?
In 10 games with the Rangers, Martin St. Louis’ production line looks like something Brian Boyle would post: 0-3-3. If you believe in being snake-bitten, then St. Louis is certainly that. And if you believe in being due, then St. Louis is certainly that as well.

During the playoffs last year, the Rangers got past the Capitals in the quarterfinals despite getting just two assists from Rick Nash in seven games. If the Rangers could overcome a 2-0 series deficit and eventually win a Game 7 without their best player scoring a goal, I thought they would be able to make another conference finals appearance and possibly even a Cup appearance once Nash got hot and started scoring, since he would have to get hot and start scoring eventually … right? Wrong. Against the Bruins, Nash had one goal and two assists in the five-game series loss and if it weren’t for Tuukka Rask giving the Rangers the weirdest/craziest goal of all time in Game 4 (and possibly betting against his team in the game), the Rangers would have been swept thanks to a lack of scoring from their pure scorer and too much scoring on his own net from Dan Girardi.

Now even though my theory about Nash eventually getting hot and carrying the Rangers never came to fruition last May, I’m putting it out there again, only this time it’s for St. Louis. At some point, St. Louis is going to get hot and start scoring. His 976 points in 1,051 regular-season games and 68 points in 63 playoff games tell us he’s going to. I just hope his “due” isn’t supposed to come in the playoffs and we never get to experience it because his lack of production over the final 10 games keeps the Rangers out of the playoffs.

Is Henrik Lundqvist Playing for the Rest of the Season?
Before the season, Alain Vigneault said he wanted to keep Henrik Lundqvist to 60 games. Lundqvist has played 55 games so far and that would mean he would only play five of the remaining 10 games, and that’s not going to happen. And I’m fine with it.

Here is how many games Lundqvist has played in each season of his career and how many he didn’t play in:

2012-13: 43/5
2011-12:  62/20
2010-11: 68/14
2009-10: 73/9
2008-09: 70/12
2007-08: 72/10
2006-07: 70/12
2005-06: 53/29

With 10 games left and the Rangers trying to make the playoffs let alone trying to not be a wild-card team, I’m not sure Vigneault can start Cam Talbot until the Rangers have the “x” next to their name in the standings representing a playoff berth has been clinched. And really how can you give Lundqvist a night off when he is 6-2-0 and has allowed just 11 goals in those eight games since March 7?

Maybe when Vigneault said he would try to limit Lundqvist’s starts he thought his Rangers team wouldn’t be fighting for a playoff spot over the final 10 games of the season (if he thought this then he clearly wasn’t in tune with what was going on in New York while he was in Vancouver). But now Vigneault has no choice but to play and ride Lundqvist down the stretch, and in his first season he learned you can’t try to plan ahead for how you will or won’t use Lundqvist over the course of a season.

Once again the Rangers getting to the playoffs will come down to Henrik Lundqvist. I guess I wouldn’t want it any other way since it’s the only way I know.

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