The playoffs will not be a referendum on the season in which Rangers won 52 games, finished with the seventh-best record in the league and easily secured their first playoff spot in five years.
This 82-game tour was a smashing success, with the Blueshirts exceeding all rational expectations under the leadership of a new regime with Chris Drury in the executive suite and Gerard Gallant behind the bench.
Nothing can undo that, like winning the first round in four games against Montreal in 1967 (Berenson!) after four years without a playoff, or winning the first round in four games against New Jersey in 2006 after seven Years of roaming the wilderness has not ruined these seasons or hindered progress.
However, there will be disappointment if the Blueshirts don’t get past the first round against the Penguins, which begins Tuesday at the Garden. Deep disappointment. The club’s performance from October to April raised expectations.
And rightly so, I might add, although Gallant did his best not to fall into the trap of setting this type of score bar for his team.
“I think we’re as good as anyone in the playoffs and I think anyone can beat us in the playoffs,” the coach said, assuring he wouldn’t make it to the back. “I really think, can we win against Pittsburgh? Yes I think so.
“Are we favored against Pittsburgh? Actually I do not care. I think we can do it, I don’t know if we can do it, but I think we have as good a chance as everyone else.”
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But the tournament will be very much a referendum on whether the blueshirts’ top players can adapt their games, which thrive on the regular freeway, to the stop-and-go, rush-hour driving that dominates the playoffs.
It takes a village to win the 16 games necessary to win the Stanley Cup, but it also takes a team’s elite players to be elite. That’s the responsibility, if not the burden, that Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Adam Fox, to name just four key athletes, will be grappling this postseason.
Or maybe this shouldn’t be framed as a responsibility or a burden. Perhaps this should be seen as an opportunity for these athletes to take the next step in their valuable careers by making a name for themselves when it really counts.
Neither of them did in the three-game qualifying round that swept Carolina under the bubble in Toronto 2020 that followed the league’s four-month hiatus in response to the pandemic. The impact of the looting, and the former front office’s inexplicable refusal to act, rippled through to last season and, as I’ve written many times, was at the root of the team’s problems.
But that was a one-time situation. It’s not fair to judge Panarin’s, Zibanejad’s, Strome’s or Fox’s readiness for these types of ventures based on reviews of their post-season work in 2020. Rangers’ best players in the bubble were probably Kaapo Kakko and Brett Howden. However, this will be a fair test.
“I don’t hear anything through the bladder in the dressing room, maybe I do [don’t understand] English enough,” Panarin, who is 100 percent healthy, said with a smile while speaking English. “We were probably trying to forget that, but also to learn something.
“It was a different situation playing in the bubble with no fans and all that stuff [was] the playoffs, but not the playoffs, [and we] played three games. It’s different at the moment.”
It’s always a challenge to play good-looking hockey in the playoffs. It will be for Panarin, who has 26 points (9-17) in 27 playoff games, not counting the bubble. The winger had 11 points in 10 games for Columbus in 2018-19 and had five points (2-3) in Tampa Bay’s shock opening round before scoring six points (3-3) in six games in the subsequent loss to the Bruns . He is aware of the fight and prepared for it.
Panarin was asked if he thinks the top players need to step up their games in the playoffs.
“Sure,” he replied. “I think we’re ready for that and deep enough in top players.”
But then the endlessly fascinating 30-year-old added a caveat. “I can’t say such a thing [I am going to elevate] because I try to play as hard as I can in every game, so it’s hard to keep improving.”
This will be a new experience for this group of rangers untested in this environment. You have to adapt to closed expressways and do grunt work. In particular, the ability of Panarin, Zibanejad, Strome and Fox to succeed in these conditions will largely determine the team’s success.
Rangers have made significant strides this year. Now we’re going to find out if this group can make the biggest move of them all.
https://nypost.com/2022/05/01/rangers-stars-need-to-carry-them-in-2022-nhl-playoffs/ Rangers stars must wear them in the 2022 NHL playoffs