Returning to the Stanley Cup finals and winning after losing the previous year is a rare, difficult feat the New York Rangers hope to accomplish.
They’re healthy. They’re deep. And after leading the league with 50 wins and 113 points, the battle-hardened Rangers enter the postseason as the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
But should they be?
After all, returning to the Cup finals one year after coming up short in your first crack at it has proved to be one of the toughest tricks in hockey. During the past 45 years just four teams have earned that elusive second chance. Only two—Wayne Gretzky’s 1983-84 Oilers and Sidney Crosby’s 2008-09 Penguins—made the most of it.
You don’t need to be a stats nerd to do the math. It’s basically a once-in-a-generation feat.
And the elements that set those two teams apart from the rest don’t exactly line up with New York’s strengths.
Those Penguins? Like the Rangers they were a lousy possession team (47.6%, 24th) that was strong at five-on-five (1.18 ratio, tied for fifth). And like the Rangers, who made a bold move at the trade deadline to add Keith Yandle and improve an already strong blueline, the Pens were energized by the late acquisitions of Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Craig Adams.
But those new players, along with the midseason change behind Pittsburgh’s bench that saw Dan Bylsma replace the despised Michel Therrien, were essentially window dressing. The Pens already had their edge: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their primes. Just 21 and 22, respectively, the two young superstars combined for 29 goals and 67 points in just 24 games that spring. They were unstoppable.
Those ’84 Oilers had a few weapons, too. Led by a 205-point season from Gretzky and 100-points-plus efforts from Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier, Edmonton scored a mindboggling 446 goals during the regular season, more than any team before or since.
Like Crosby’s Pens, the Oilers’ stars were in early bloom. Kurri was 23 at the time. The others were 22. They lost only three games while advancing to those Cup finals, where they avenged their loss to the four-time champion Islanders and began a dynasty of their own.
Maybe the youth of those teams was coincidental. Plenty of young clubs have fallen short over the years.
Or maybe it was the key to unlocking consecutive deep runs.
Maybe under normal circumstances. But during a spring where no series win will genuinely be considered a shocking upset, New York is as likely as any team to be left standing when it’s all over.
After all, invaluable experience comes with grey hairs. During the past three seasons only the Kings have won more playoff series (10) than New York’s six. Knowing what it takes to clamber out of a tough spot could give the Rangers the edge they need in a tight series.
And New York can count on contributions from young forwards Chris Kreider (23) and Kevin Hayes (22). Both add to the speed that makes the Rangers so dangerous and they bring depth to the core that was so successful last year.
But there are challenges ahead. If any team fits that Penguins/Oilers template it’s the Lightning. The Bolts led the NHL in goals per game (3.16) and were second to the Rangers in five-on-five ratio (1.28). And their stars are right in that young-and-hungry sweet spot. Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson are 24. Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman, 23. Nikita Kucherov is just 21. After suffering an embarrassing first-round sweep by Montreal last year, they’re primed to take the next step.
The Senators fit that Nickelodeon demographic, too. Five of their top-six scorers are under 26, including Calder Trophy candidates Mark Stone (22) and Mike Hoffman (24), top center Kyle Turris (25) and the sublime defenseman Erik Karlsson (25).
The Capitals boast high-end offensive stars in 53-goal man Alex Ovechkin and NHL assist leader Nicklas Backstrom, along with a deep, diverse blue line and a newly minted world-class keeper in Braden Holtby. The Canadiens can go a long way on the back of Carey Price, their unparalleled goaltender, and P.K. Subban, who is arguably the best defenseman in the game.
Any of those teams could derail New York’s bid to return to the finals. And if the Rangers manage to clear those hurdles, they’ll have to stare down the survivor of an equally wide-open tournament out west where the wild card Jets are suddenly dark horse favorites to knock off the top-ranked Ducks and where the return of Patrick Kane could tip the scales for the Blackhawks over the gritty Predators and heavy-hitting Blues.
Clearly there’s more than history standing in the way of the Rangers. Watching them take their crack at a special place in the record book will be one of the most compelling storylines of this playoff season.