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Rangers stars need to carry them in 2022 NHL playoffs

The playoffs will not be a referendum on the season in which the Rangers won 52 games, finished with the seventh-best record in the league and clinched their first playoff spot in five years with ease.

This 82-game tour was a smashing success in which the Blueshirts exceeded all rational expectations under the leadership of a new regime featuring Chris Drury in the executive suite and Gerard Gallant behind the bench.

Nothing can undo that, just in the way that the first-round, four-game sweep by Montreal in 1967 (Berenson!) after four years out of the playoffs or the first-round, four-game sweep by New Jersey in 2006 after seven years wandering through the wilderness neither ruined those seasons nor impeded progress.

There will be disappointment, however, if the Blueshirts do not advance past the first round against the Penguins that commences at the Garden on Tuesday. Deep disappointment. The club’s performance from October through April has elevated expectations.

And properly so, I might add, even if Gallant did his best to avoid being trapped into setting that kind of results bar for his team.

“I think we’re as good as anybody in the playoffs and I think anybody in the playoffs can beat us,” said the coach, guaranteeing he would not make the back page. “I truly believe, can we win against Pittsburgh? Yeah, I believe that.

“Are we favored against Pittsburgh? I don’t really care about that. I think we can make a run, I don’t know if we’re going to, but I think we have as good a chance as anybody else.”

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Rangers center Ryan Strome and left wing Artemi Panarin celebrate at goal.
corey sipkin

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But the tournament will in large measure be a referendum on whether the Blueshirts’ top players can adapt their games that flourish on the regular-season Autobahn to the stop-and-go driving in rush-hour traffic that dominates the playoffs.

It takes a village to win the 16 games necessary to hoist the Stanley Cup but it also takes a team’s elite players being elite. That is the responsibility, if not burden, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Adam Fox, to cite four critical upper-echelon athletes, will confront this postseason.

Or maybe this should be framed as neither a responsibility nor a burden. Maybe this should be perceived as an opportunity for these athletes to take the next step in their estimable careers by making their mark when it truly counts.

None of them did in the three-game qualifying-round sweep by Carolina under the bubble in Toronto in 2020 that followed the league’s four-month pause in response to the pandemic. The effects of the trouncing and the past front office’s inexplicable refusal to respond to it, carried into last season and, as I wrote many times, was at the root of the team’s problems.

But that was a unique situation. It is not fair to judge the readiness of Panarin, Zibanejad, Strome or Fox for this type of undertaking off evaluations of their postseason work in 2020. The Rangers’ best players in the bubble were probably Kaapo Kakko and Brett Howden. This, though, will represent a fair test.

“I don’t hear anything in the locker room about the bubble, maybe I [don’t understand] English enough,” Panarin, who is at 100 percent health, said with a smile while speaking English. “We probably tried to forget that, but learn something too.

“It was a different situation, playing in the bubble without fans and all that stuff and it [was] the playoffs but not the playoffs, [and we] played three games. Right now it’s different.”

It is always a challenge to play looking-good hockey in the playoffs. It will be for Panarin, who has 26 points (9-17) in 27 playoff games not counting the bubble. The winger recorded 11 points in 10 games for Columbus in 2018-19, putting up five points (2-3) in the shocking opening-round sweep of Tampa Bay before posting six points (3-3) in the ensuing six-game defeat to the Bruins. He is aware of and prepared for the battle.

Panarin was asked whether he believes that the top players have to elevate their games in the playoffs.

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Mika Zibanejad
corey sipkin

“For sure,” I answered. “I think we’re ready for that and are deep enough in top players.”

But then the endlessly intriguing 30-year-old added a caveat. “I can’t say something like [I am going to elevate] because I try to play hard every game as much as I can, so it’s hard to elevate more.”

This will be a new experience for this band of Rangers, who are untested in this environment. They will have to adapt to closed express lanes and do grunt work. The ability of Panarin, Zibanejad, Strome and Fox, in particular, to thrive under these conditions will in large measure dictate the team’s success.

The Rangers took significant steps this year. Now we will find out whether this group can take the biggest step of all.

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