What would you say if I told you back in October that the Rangers would be tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals with the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning? What if I told you they would have a home-ice advantage in the Conference Final or be one of the last three teams remaining with a chance at that cup and would be playing to the middle of June? I certainly wouldn’t have believed it. I thought this team could make the playoffs, but not a trip to the Conference finals that could have them playing on Flag Day. It would be shocking, alarming, surprising, appalling, etc.
That would have been my reaction in October, not after 82 regular-season games that resulted in 52 wins and 110 points. All eight Eastern Conference playoff participants eclipsed 100 points. A 100-point regular season is still a benchmark of a good season, and a case could be made for any of the eight teams that made the tournament go on a deep run.
The Eastern Conference was that deep this season. The Florida Panthers had an explosive offense that seemed unstoppable in the regular season. The law of averages would suggest that the Toronto Maple Leafs should eventually get off the schneid with their incredibly talented roster. The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins both have a pedigree of cup-winning Hall of Famers who knows what it takes to go deep into June. The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the more formidable defensively structured teams to play against and have been on the precipice of making deep runs for a few seasons now. The Lighting is on the heels of back-to-back cups, so why not them again. Even the eight-seeded Washington Capitals caught fire towards the end of the season and pushed Florida to the brink in the first round.
That said, everyone outside of the Garden Faithful seems shocked, appalled, and downright upset that the Rangers are still playing. No one lucks their way into 110 points in the regular season. Certainly, some analytics from the regular season don’t flatter the Rangers, and no one should argue that. Those numbers and charts are essential and probably influenced Chris Drury to go out and add Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte, and Justin Braun at the deadline. The post-deadline Rangers have been a very different team.
However, we’re not just witnessing the mid-season additions excel; we’re seeing the season-long maturation of an entire team. What you see in October through January can just be thrown out the window. It’s similar to the 2007 New York Giants. Their first two regular-season games were a complete catastrophe on defense as they surrendered 80 points. Fast forward to February 3rd, and that same defense that was an utter disgrace in September was stifling the undefeated Patriots and Tom Brady on their way to Super Bowl 42. It happens with offensive lines all the time in football; as the season progresses, the continuity and talent merge and suddenly become dominant. That hasn’t happened for the Giants’ offensive line for a decade, but it happens for other teams that know how to draft and develop lineman; sorry, back to your regularly scheduled hockey.
Players never stay the same, they’re always getting better or worse. With such a young team, it makes sense that most of this core should progress and improve as the season continues. The fact that they’re doing it in the midst of their first-ever playoff run defies everything the Stanley Cup Playoffs have ever taught us.
In case you were wondering, if Game 7 is necessary, it will take place on June 14th (Flag Day), the 28th anniversary of the last time the Rangers hoisted the Stanley Cup.