Opportunity is knocking on the doors of Madison Square Garden and the 2017 New York Rangers need to answer.
A bitter, six-game loss to the Ottawa Senators in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals cut short the Blueshirts’ seventh consecutive postseason appearance. As successful as they have been during that run, they have failed to taste Stanley Cup glory after topping out with a loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the 2014 Cup Final.
Rangers brass decided it was time for a change this past summer. They parted with several longtime Blueshirts, leaving voids to be filled by skaters young and old.
Here are three keys for the retooled Blueshirts, who host the Colorado Avalanche in Thursday’s season opener, as they look to get over the hump and win their first championship since 1994.
Changing of the guard
Dan Girardi, who was bought out in June, and Derek Stepan, traded to the Arizona Coyotes, were at the heart of the Rangers for much of their seven-year playoff run. Both men were last year’s assistant captains under Ryan McDonagh and carried a respected, veteran presence in the locker room.
The 33-year-old Girardi’s production had been in steady decline since his All-Star season in 2012, but the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk should upgrade the position.
Stepan, however, remained one of the team’s most important forwards. He was the Rangers’ No. 1 center, averaging 55 points per season over the last four campaigns. He logged plenty of ice time, skating 18:36 per game in all situations last season.
The Rangers look to others for leadership. Rick Nash and Marc Staal, both of whom are longtime roster staples, will take over as assistant captains this season.
Center of attention
With Stepan gone, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes will be leaned on to step up in the middle.
Zibanejad will slide into Stepan’s spot on the top line. Despite missing 25 games with a broken leg suffered in November, he put up 37 points on 14 goals and 23 assists. No goal was bigger or more memorable than his Game 5-winning overtime strike against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round that gave the Blueshirts a 3-2 series lead.
Hayes is coming off a 49-point season, the best of his three-year career. His production came while playing on the third line, so his ability to create on offense, now as the No. 2 center, will be vital.
Even after 43,629 minutes in net with the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist remains the team’s most important defensive cog.
However, Lundqvist’s goals against average rose each of the last two seasons. He also played through a knee injury for Sweden at the 2017 World Championships in May.
Giving the 35-year-old rest during the regular season has been a greater priority for coach Alain Vigneault. Antti Raanta made 26 starts in relief a season ago, winning 16 games. But with Raanta now in Arizona after being dealt in the Stepan trade, longtime Winnipeg Jets starter Ondřej Pavelec will have to pick up the slack.
Regardless, the Rangers will continue to lean on Lundqvist come playoff time.