Had the New York Rangers fallen to Phoenix last night at Madison Square Garden, the main story would be the ill-advised (no pun intended) decision of Head Coach Alaine Vigneault to play a visibly incapable Martin St. Louis and Derek Stepan.
Instead, today's headlines read of another third period comeback that resulted in a critical two-point OT victory for New York in an ever-tightening Eastern Conference playoff race.
In the past 10 games, the Rangers are 7-3-0 and winners of four straight going into the most anticipated game of the season Wednesday against the rival Philadelphia Flyers.
While steadfast goaltending by franchise-best Henrik Lundqvist has assuredly been the catalyst in this late-season surge, the Rangers ability to fight thru adversity and prevail late in games has led this victory run.
Three non-King related keys to this late season push:
- Ryan McDonagh: Not enough can be said for this continuously emerging young defender. While has already shown himself to be amongst the top two or three American defenders, McDonagh is quickly entering into the "best in the NHL" conversation. Not only is he the leader in minutes for the Rangers, he is also the most defensively responsible Blueshirt. Combine that with some budding confidence in the offensive zone and you have the most complete Rangers defender since Brian Leetch. Last night's OT winner is just the beginning.
- Benoit Pouliot & Derick Brassard: Both players were high draft picks that came to the Rangers as underachievers that needed a change of scenery. However, they have found a terrific niche and been steady contributors the second half of the season. Pouliot's size and willingness to battle in the slot has finally emerged and become an advantage for the Rangers while Brassard's has gained enough confidence to begin shooting rather than passing. Each will be key components for the Rangers the rest of the season, especially while St. Louis continues to press for his first Rangers goal.
- Marc Staal: Questions have arisen whether Staal could regain any semblance of his All-Star form following a myriad of injuries and concussions. Up until the Olympic break, those questions seemed to have a bleak answer. Instead, Staal has regained a reliable defensive presence and is playing with more instinct rather than structure. His confidence has steadied a weaker and uncertain bottom four defensive core. If he continues to take shape into the pre-concussion Staal, the Rangers will have three legitimate defensive pairings to go into the playoffs with.
It's easy to look optimistically at how this Rangers team has come together over the past two months, but there are still many hurdles to climb to get to the postseason. That starts with Wednesday's divisional matchup with the Flyers.