New York Rangers thriving on list of Stanley Cup contenders

(Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)

They have the best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference, and have lost just three games in regulation all season. They also just wrapped up a nine-game winning streak and employ arguably the best goaltender in the world. So are the New York Rangers the favorite to win the Stanley Cup this season?

We’re not talking about actual odds or anything like that — this is simply a look at which club seems most poised to win it all as the first quarter of the NHL’s regular season wraps up. There are a variety of legitimate contenders, with some playing great hockey right now, and others still rounding into form. But, at the moment, it’s hard to argue with the resume New York brings to the table.

The Montreal Canadiens may already have the Atlantic wrapped up, as they’ve been phenomenal so far, they’re getting Carey Price back and no one else in their division seems awake at the moment. Out west, the Dallas Stars are surging, but they’re going to have their hands full all year long in the Central. And the Los Angeles Kings look a lot better after a sluggish start, but still haven’t quite reached their full potential just yet.

Those teams are all dangerous, but the Rangers are certainly right there with them. In fact, they may even have the advantage in certain areas. Few (if any) clubs can match the goaltending that New York gets on a nightly basis — other than Montreal, of course. Henrik Lundqvist is the definition of consistency between the pipes.

In a league where the list of Vezina candidates is peppered with different names seemingly every season, King Henrik has finished among the top six in voting every single year since the 2005 work stoppage. And he plays even better on the biggest stage, boasting a virtually flawless record in Game 7 situations.

Strong goaltending is the first key to making a deep playoff run, and that’s simply not an issue for the Rangers. They also have plenty of postseason experience to draw from in big games, having won a total of eight playoff series over the last four years. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s two rounds that they advance through per year. Put another way, they’re basically averaging a trip to the Eastern Conference Final.

It’s not just one or two players that have that experience — it’s the majority of the lineup. So it’s not as if they’re going to rely on a few guys to show them the way when April and May roll around, because they’ve pretty much all been there before. The learning curve can be steep in a best-of-seven format with the season on the line, and this group has already been taught most of those lessons.

NHL: MAY 10 Round 2 - Game 6 - Rangers at Capitals

Beyond goaltending and experience, New York boasts a pretty solid defensive corps. If you need proof, look no further than the backup goalies, who seem to thrive whenever they have to step in.

Antti Raanta has been excellent when called upon this year, sporting a 4-0 record with a 1.25 goals against average and .955 save percentage in four games. He was decent during his time with Chicago, but he wasn’t playing at this level. Meanwhile, Cam Talbot looked unbeatable when Lundqvist was sidelined last year, but can’t seem to find his game at all in Edmonton right now.

Is the defense the very best in the NHL? Maybe not, but they’re in that top tier. And when you pair that with an elite netminder, you have a distinct advantage over most opponents on any given night. At that point, the offense just needs to be serviceable to deliver wins.

Thing is, this offense is significantly better than “serviceable.” In fact, it currently ranks fifth in the league with a 3.10 goals per game average. Mats Zuccarello is putting up roughly a point per game, Derick Brassard has picked up right where he left off after his career year in 2014-15 and, in general, the Rangers have one of the more balanced attacks in the NHL. Rick Nash only has two goals and they’re still cruising through games. What happens if he starts to heat up?

Oh yeah, they also have one of the best coaches in the world behind the bench. Not only has Alain Vigneault already taken home the Jack Adams Award once in his career, he’s routinely in the discussion to win it again. So they’ve got that going for them too — which is nice.

There will obviously be plenty of competition (the Washington Capitals are lurking not that far behind New York in the Metro, and seem built for the playoffs this time around), and it’s still relatively early in the season. But it’s impossible to ignore the Rangers’ attributes at this point.

If there was a “knock” on them entering the 2015-16 campaign, it was that they might be due for a letdown season at some point after making so many deep runs — sort of like the Los Angeles Kings experienced last year. But this group hasn’t ever actually hoisted the Cup yet, so they’re still extremely hungry.

It’s unlikely we’re going to see any sort of mental letdown any time soon.

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