The Rangers won’t want to respond to questions when they take the ice for their morning skate at the Garden before facing the Canadiens tonight, but now hear this, ladies and gentlemen of all ages — the Blueshirts’ Magic number is five points to clinch the Eastern Conference title following last night’s Penguins’ loss to the Islanders at the Coliseum.
Any combination of points equalling five which the Rangers, who own the tiebreaker, earn or the Penguins lose over the final five games, and the regular-season Cinderella story will be complete.
But wearing glass skates to the ball will be no guarantee of success. That’s why coach John Tortorella will spend the final nine days of the season seeking to minimize concerns entering the playoffs.
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WINNIPEG, CANADA - MARCH 28: Spencer Machacek #46 of the Winnipeg Jets battles against Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers as they follow the play up the ice during third period action at the MTS Centre on March 28, 2012 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Lance Thomson/NHLI via Getty Images)
One primary concern, that the effectiveness of Marc Staal as it relates to constructing a formidable second pair on defense, was at least somewhat alleviated in the wake of an impressive and assertive performance in Wednesday’s 4-2 victory in Winnipeg. Staal earned the Broadway Hat for that game one night after he was benched for the final 10:30 against the Wild and got just 12:28 of ice overall.
Paired primarily on Wednesday with Anton Stralman through the first two periods, then with Michael Del Zotto after Stralman was eliminated from the equation for all but one shift in the final 13:05, Staal played with a hard edge and at a tempo that have both come and gone as he has attempted to reacclimate himself after missing training camp and the first 36 games of the season with post-concussion symptoms.
Staal was engaged in physical battles throughout while also up the ice supporting the puck in the offensive zone in a welcome display of authority.
The Rangers were able to cope with Staal’s absence into January just as they have been able to cope with Michael Sauer’s absence since the solid second-pair defenseman went down for good with a concussion he sustained on Dec. 5.
But just as there is no doubt the Blueshirts will miss Sauer in the playoffs, they will miss Staal, too, if the alternate captain isn’t able to at least resemble the top-pair, 25-minute force he was prior to being injured in Raleigh on Feb. 22, 2011.
Tortorella has said he will use the final games to experiment with the pairings behind the Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi matchup tandem, but the decision essentially can be distilled to whether it will be Staal or Stralman skating with Del Zotto on the second pair.
Tim Erixon, scratched the last two games, was returned to the AHL Whale yesterday, so if the answer in Staal, that means the right-handed shooting Stralman would have to move to his off side on a third pair with Stu Bickel.
Even so, if Staal is sound and demonstrates the rest of the way he can handle the minutes, the question of whether it’s the alternate captain or Stralman getting the second-pair assignment isn’t much of a question at all, is it?
Marc Staal, Rangers, Rangers, Winnipeg Jets, Anton Stralman, John Tortorella, New York Rangers, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Michael Del Zotto, Michael Sauer, Penguins, Winnipeg