Rangers miss playoffs, struggles against East elite among reasons

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The New York Rangers were eliminated from contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden on Monday. 

The Rangers (26-21-6) missed the playoffs after reaching the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season as part of the NHL Return to Play Plan. They were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the best-of-5 series. 

Here is a look at what happened in 2020-21 for the Rangers and why things could be better in 2021-22. 

The skinny

Potential unrestricted free agents: Phillip Di Giuseppe, F; Brendan Smith, D; Jack Johnson, D
Potential restricted free agents: Pavel Buchnevich, F; Filip Chytil, F; Brett Howden, F; Julien Gauthier, F; Ryan Lindgren, D; Libor Hajek, D; Igor Shesterkin, G
Potential 2021 Draft picks: 9

What went wrong

Struggles vs. East’s best: The Rangers have had problems against the top four teams who reached the playoffs from the MassMutual East Division, going 10-15-4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Capitals, New York Islanders and Boston Bruins, including 2-5-1 against the Islanders and 2-4-2 against the Penguins. They have two games left against the Bruins and one against the Capitals.

Slow starters: New York won one of its first six games (1-4-1) and four of its first 14 (4-7-3). Center Mika Zibanejad, who missed the start of training camp because he had COVID-19, scored three points (one goal, two assists) in his first 15 games and 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in his first 27. 

Down and out: The Rangers are 6-14-4 in games when they give up the first goal, 5-11-4 when trailing after the first period and 1-14-0 trailing after two. Translation: They’ve struggled to handle in-game adversity, such as when they give up early goals and have to play from behind.

Reasons for optimism

Youth gone wild: Left wing Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, has been a more impactful and productive player in the second half of the season. Right wing Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, was a better all-around player in his second season, especially away from the puck. K’Andre Miller, a first-round pick (No. 22) in the 2018 NHL Draft, proved as a rookie defenseman he can play 20-plus minutes per game against top lines and not be worse for wear. Led by Lafreniere, 19, Kakko, 20, and Miller, 21, the Rangers potentially could have at least eight players who are 22 years old or younger on the roster next season including Nils Lundkvist, a 20-year-old named the best defenseman in the Swedish Hockey League this season.

Star power in leadership group: The young players will grow around forwards Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Zibanejad, and defensemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, who could be a Norris Trophy finalist. One of them could be the Rangers next captain. They haven’t had one since trading Ryan McDonagh to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 26, 2018.

Shesterkin shines: Any questions about the future of the Rangers’ goaltending in the post-Henrik Lundqvist era were answered by Shesterkin. He built on his strong performance last season (10-2-0, 2.52 goals-against average, .932 save percentage in 12 games, all starts) with more sustained success. He is 15-13-3 with a 2.53 GAA, .918 save percentage and two shutouts in 33 games (30 starts), and the No. 1 goalie now and for the future.

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