May 16, 2013

Eventually, Rangers' best players must step up, lead offense

By Jesse Connolly

Rangers captain Ryan Callahan and winger Rick Nash combined for just one goal in the first round against the Capitals. (Getty Images)

As the three highest-paid members of the New York Rangers, it comes with no surprise that a lot is expected out of Brad Richards, Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan. On the books for a collective salary of $23.6 million this year -- had there been a full 2012-13 season, of course -- the trio is paid handsomely.

Thanks to Richards’ frustrating, inconsistent campaign, only two wound up living up to their contracts during the regular season. Following a seven-game, opening-round series against the Washington Capitals in which all of their top guns were silenced, one couldn’t blame the Rangers for feeling like none of them lived up to their offensive responsibilities.

Callahan, who brings more to the table with his hitting and sound two-way game, led the pack with a goal and two assists, finally tallying in New York’s 5-0 victory in Game 7 down in Washington. In the Blueshirts’ first three games down in D.C., they managed a total of just two goals.

Nash, the former captain of the Blue Jackets that was dealt to Broadway last summer, didn’t put a single puck past Caps goalie Braden Holby in the conference quarterfinals, finishing the series with just two assists to his credit. No. 61 had 21-21-42 totals in 44 regular-season games, making for an impressive first year as a Ranger.

Richards had the toughest go of it during the regular season and the Blueshirts’ opening-round series. Signed through 2020, the talented center saw his numbers decline during the lockout-shortened campaign, as he finished with 11-23-34 totals in 46 contests. He followed that up with just a single point against Washington -- a goal scored on a broken play with Holtby way out of his crease during Game 4. Richards was also under .500 on faceoffs, winning 38-of-80 (47.5%) in the series.

Add it all up and you’ve got some pretty underwhelming numbers from the three, as they combined for just two goals and four assists. That’s six points from your most important players over a seven-game series. Their futility led to the Rangers going 2-for-28 on the power play, good for a 7.1 percent success rate that ranks 15th among the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs.

You must be wondering, right about now, how the hell the Rangers are now here in the second round.

Henrik Lundqvist is certainly chief among them, as the reigning Vezina Trophy winner shutout the Capitals in Game 6 and again in Game 7 to backstop his team to a series victory. The Rangers’ defensemen, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh in particular, did a phenomenal job of shutting down the opposition, especially Alex Ovechkin (zero goals in the series).

The Blueshirts also got key contributions from fairly unlikely sources. Another former Blue Jacket, Derick Brassard, was out of this world in the opening round with nine points. Mats Zuccarello was second on the squad with five points. Former 20-goal scorer Brian Boyle stepped up and chipped in two goals, as did Arron Asham.

But eventually, any team that truly aims to capture the Cup is going to need its best players to, well, be its best players.

Richards and Nash didn’t live up to that billing in the first round, and Callahan didn’t produce anywhere near the rate he did during the regular season. The Rangers will be hard-pressed to make it through another series without their key cogs chipping in more.

Luckily for New York, they’ll have a golden opportunity to get off to a good start against a Boston team that’s traditionally strong on the back end. The Bruins will be without Dennis Seidenberg, Wade Redden and Andrew Ference for Thursday’s series opener. In their place will be Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton -- two players that made their NHL playoff debuts in the B’s opening-round series against Toronto -- and Torey Krug, who’s about to get his first taste of NHL postseason play.

After having a hard time against Washington’s unspectacular band of blueliners, the Rangers need to take advantage of Boston’s inexperienced defenders. If the time comes, and Boston’s veterans get healthy and are fit for duty again by the time this series is over, New York will have to continue to produce.

Strong team defense, superb netminding and timely goals from unheralded forwards are the reasons the Rangers are still alive. If they want their quest for the Cup to continue, it’s time those unlikely goal-scorers got a little more help from their teammates who are paid to pave the way.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ