The New York Rangers are on their way to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time until the 2014-15 season. The Rangers host the Tampa Bay Lightning, the back-to-back 2019-20 and 2020-21 Stanley Cup champions for round 3 which begins tomorrow night. The Rangers still have a challenging road ahead but the organization made significant progress from the roster reconstruction they initialized several seasons ago.
Part of the vision for the franchise revival included the acquisition of grit and physicality. Any hockey fanatic could tell you that both qualities are required for regular-season success but the need is substantially amplified in the postseason. Throughout the past few seasons, the front office chased after sturdy players and pursued tough performers to strengthen the roster and add depth. With the pieces acquired, the Rangers bulked up just in time for a Cup run that has respectable legitimacy.
One advantage the Rangers had this postseason was their healthy mix of tough forwards and blueliners. The presence of these valiant Rangers is critical to the team’s success and any absence deeply threatens their chances of advancing. Additions like Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves, and Tyler Motte make the team feel more well-rounded. Yet, the team as a whole doubled down on playing with pep. Rangers’ defensemen Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba are pre-existing players who placed the majority of the grit on their own shoulders in previous seasons. Yet, to no surprise, the physical players were not exempt from injury.
Lindgren is continuing to eagerly play through reports of a lower-body injury and seems unable to avoid further injury scares game to game. Motte, injured during the regular season, was able to participate at the end of the Round 1 series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Goodrow, who was out during Round 1 with a lower-body issue sustained in Game 1 was able to rejoin his team for Game 6 and 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 2.
It Comes With the Job Title
The ideal physical player is not just someone who fights or lays hits. Blocking shots, constantly in the face of the opponent, and staying in the dirty areas of the ice are important expectations of the desirable hardnosed player. It is certainly a lot to ask of a player but remains a prominent part of the complex formula to win a Stanley Cup.
Goodrow is an excellent example of what it means to play with grit. He is a reliable shot-blocker and does not shy away from putting his body on the line, even after just coming back from his injury that was caused by a blocked shot. Goodrow’s reunion already played a massive role in the team being able to close out this Hurricanes series. One of Goodrow’s main appeals in the first place was the crucial role he played to help the Lightning before he was traded to the Blueshirts in July 2021.
In his three games this postseason, he already blocked seven shots and is averaging almost 17 minutes of ice time. The 28-year-old provides a little bit of everything. His knowledge regarding his former teammates in the series ahead will be another invaluable quality of the forward. He also boasts the ability to play up and down the lineup.
35-year-old Reaves, who is one of the smartest enforcers in the league also found his way to New York, and he happens to come with ample playoff experience. But of course, this is no coincidence. The organization has been trying to pin down Reaves for a few years now, and his veteran knowledge is just icing on the cake. He was also traded in July 2021 from the Vegas Golden Knights. His primary role is to force opponents into thinking twice when it comes to messing with the young team, who also do not happen to be the biggest.
Penalty killing is another specialization typical of edgy skaters. This is where Motte’s importance really comes into play. Not only does he bring a feisty punch to the bottom six, but he also provides assistance to the special team units. As already displayed in both rounds, particularly round 2, the next series may boil down to a battle of the special teams, and the team with the best penalty kill and power play will move on.
The postseason began without the 27-year-old’s presence in the lineup and it was immediately clear that his penalty killing skills were dearly missed while he was out. Although his contribution to the penalty kill should be praised, just his mere skillset as a bottom-six player helps tremendously round out the team’s depth. The forward has been an excellent addition to the Blueshirts since he was snagged at the March 2021 trade deadline from the Vancouver Canucks.
The two defensemen play with a natural edge to their game that has been appreciated from the day they became Rangers. Lindgren, another fearless shot-blocker, is having a strong postseason performance despite nagging injuries. The sole act of him playing through pain is an intangible quality that does not go unnoticed by his fellow Rangers.
A player like Lindgren is invaluable to the team dynamic, other than how he helps his teammates on the ice. The young defender plays a large role in cultivating that crucial tight-knit team climate. This sense of closeness goes a long way, and there is no denying it has helped this team.
Trouba, on the other hand, has been at the center of many controversial, but ultimately, legal hits this playoff run. The important part about Trouba’s game is that although he plays with a snarl, the intent to injure is not there. His brand of play brings the hard-hitting, retro style of hockey to the team. There is also a level of respect that comes with the blueliner’s game, you will not see many opponents challenge the veteran or hit back. Both of their importance to the defense corps is beyond words.
A Preview of Round 3 Against the Lightning
Just as it was with the first two rounds, physicality will be needed against the veteran Lightning squad. It is not a secret that the “no quit” mentality and relentless style of hockey the Rangers play enabled the team to get to this spot, to begin with. It will not be easy for the Rangers (who already endured two Game 7s) as the opponents get tougher and players continue to get battered up, but just as they have done this whole season, they will lean on their bountiful talent and persist.
It is no coincidence that the Rangers sought after depth when they acquired grinder-type players. To replace the grit in case of injury, a team must have several options at their disposal. Injury is an inevitable part of the game, especially as the season prolongs and players are so willing to take necessary action to help their team.
The Lightning came off a sweep of the Florida Panthers and though the team had time off, they are looking to use that momentum to tackle the Rangers. Both teams have a flair for offense, but like any championship series – it will come down to defense and all positions chipping in.
Thanks to a decently physical series against Pittsburgh and Carolina, the Blueshirts are already primed for the next round. The Rangers will need to find a way to crack the well-oiled machine that is the Lightning and wearing down the opponent will play a role in that. Of course, the bite of a healthy Goodrow, Reaves, Motte, Lindgren, and Trouba will make the difference in the Round 3 series.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.