2011-2012 season preview: New York Rangers

2010-2011 record: 44-33-5, 93 points; 3rd in Atlantic, 8th in East

Playoffs: Lost to Washington 4-1 in Eastern quarterfinals

Much like in previous seasons, the Rangers landed the big prize in free agency. Only difference is that this time it’s a guy (Brad Richards) that makes them immediately better and they didn’t give up on their farm team to fill out ranks. Has Glen Sather finally figured it all out? We’ll see, but the Rangers figure to be a strong team in the East.

Offense

It all starts with Richards and Marian Gaborik. With these two stars paired up on the first line, it gives the Rangers a definitive offensive threat for all situations. Worries will surround their collective ability to stay healthy, but when these two are on the ice, opponents will have to be ready. They’ll also have an outstanding second line with equally maturing and improving studs like Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.

If the Rangers can get more out of Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov they won’t need to make Henrik Lundqvist crazy by forcing him to hold opponents to one goal a game. Guys like Mike Rupp, Brian Boyle, and Brandon Prust will make sure they have lockdown forwards again. If Boyle can score 20-plus goals again, they’ll have offensive threats on all four lines.

source: Getty ImagesDefense

Marc Staal’s health will be an issue to watch all season as he’s the guy that makes it all go there. Dan Girardi has morphed into the Rangers’ best defensive blue liner, absorbing pucks like he’s a mobile goalie. Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer provide solid depth and Steve Eminger is an OK veteran. How they round things out could be an issue, however. Young guys like Michael Del Zotto, Tim Erixon, and Brendan Bell will all get shots to stick around. If the Rangers have a weakness it’s that they don’t have a true power-play quarterback.

Goalies

Lundqvist is one of the best in the league and he’s the guy that makes it all happen for the team. He’s calm, cool, and confident and has been ever since becoming a star in the NHL. Having a healthy Martin Biron to back him up again will help keep Lundqvist from getting worn out. Lundqvist is a Vezina threat any year and with the Rangers’ improvements in offense, he can help make any defensive deficiencies go away.

source: Getty ImagesCoach

If you didn’t know John Tortorella already, you haven’t been paying attention. Don’t worry, with the Rangers being in the Winter Classic and also set to be on HBO’s 24/7, you’ll get to know a lot about him. Tortorella’s the best guy to have in New York and he’s done a solid job of keeping order in Manhattan. With his old pal Richards (they won a Cup together in 2004 with Tampa Bay) expect Tortorella to have things rolling just how he wants. If he doesn’t, bring on the profanity and press conferences.

Breakout candidate

The Rangers had a host of these players last year in Stepan, McDonagh, and Zuccarello. This time around, if there’s a guy that’s going to breakout it’ll be Erixon. With the Rangers essentially holding an open audition for the sixth defenseman spot, someone’s going to show they’ve earned it and the former Flames draft pick has all the upside to do it. Del Zotto still struggles defensively and Bell needs to do more to show he can cut it in the NHL. Let Erixon get a shot and see what he can do and he could surprise everyone.

source: APBest-case scenario

Richards’ arrival helps get Gaborik back above the 40-goal mark and ignites a power play that was mostly feeble last season. Dubinsky and Callahan continue to lead the way and give the Rangers the second-line push to create more offense. Wojtek Wolski avoids slumps and plays the kind of hockey the Rangers need — to score and set up goals. Lundqvist wins the Vezina as the Rangers bully their way deep into the playoffs and help make Sather look like a psychic.

Reality

The Rangers have things in place to be a very good team. They should absolutely be a playoff team and stressing out at the end of the season shouldn’t happen again.  As long as Richards and Gaborik stay healthy and keep the offense rolling, they’ll be a tougher team to handle. The forward roster is deep, and while there’s still questions on defense, Lundqvist makes it all stand up. The question for New York is just how they can manage as a playoff team.

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.