"You don't lose to play somebody else. If you do that, bad things happen. You play to win. We're not scared of anybody." That was what New York Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said after the Rangers 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in the final game of the regular season.
The last part of the quote brought about the expected chest beating and head nodding you would expect from a portion of the fanbase who has continued to claim this team doesn't have the flaws the analytical community claim they do. And while many people (myself included) would have rather avoided the bracket that includes both Washington and Pittsburgh, I can't put any fault on the Rangers for playing things the way they did.
I never expected the Rangers to lose intentionally -- you know, the way the Islanders did Sunday against the Flyers -- but I was a little surprised they didn't rest more of their top players once the win over the Blue Jackets solidified a playoff spot. Especially after Ryan McDonagh got hurt. And then Dan Girardi got hurt. And then Eric Staal got hurt -- although Alain Vigneault says he was kept out the rest of the Red Wings game for precautionary reasons and that he's good to go.
The Rangers knew what they were getting themselves into. Pittsburgh, the hottest team in the NHL, was waiting on the other side of those wins, and the Islanders saw it and shrank from the challenge. The Rangers saw it and didn't change anything -- which is admirable, but also incredibly dangerous.
Confidence is a really good thing in hockey. It's actually been the foundation for a lot of my anger towards the way Vigneault has handled Oscar Lindberg, Kevin Hayes and Dylan McIlrath (among others this year), because it's such an important aspect to development. Confidence for a hockey team going into the playoffs isn't a bad thing, but overconfidence can be something that sneaks up on you and becomes your biggest enemy at the worst times.
With McDonagh's injury it becomes admittedly tougher for Vigneault to protect his already flimsy defensive corps. To his credit, though, before the injury Vigneault had started the process of sheltering Girardi and Staal and promoting the likes of Keith Yandle, Kevin Klein and even Dan Boyle with McDonagh in the top four. It went well. The top four was better, and Girardi did fine with the easier assignments.
That's obviously changed. Brady Skjei seems to be the next guy up (poor McIlrath, but I do understand this line of thinking from Vigneault) and probably needs to be sheltered himself. This creates a problem for Vigneault with no real solution other than the promotion of players into roles they're not handling well.
This isn't to say that Florida wouldn't have posed their own problems. The Panthers would have been an easier matchup, but there's an enormous difference between easy and easier. Confuse the two at your own peril. As I've said: I think the Rangers can beat any team in this league but I also believe, at their worst, they'd lose a playoff series to the Edmonton Oilers.
The Rangers wanted this. They clearly think they can beat anyone in this league. And with their high-powered offense and elite goaltender, they might be able to. But the road to the Stanley Cup is a hell of a lot tougher when it runs through Pittsburgh and Washington (although I think an emotional Flyers team might make a great first round series with the Capitals) and that's the bed the Rangers have made for themselves here.
To this point: Don't underestimate the Penguins. A lot of fans (granted: many of the non-analytic group) seem to think the Penguins coupled with their injuries are ripe for picking. I will remind them that even with the injuries they've been one of the best teams in the league. That the addition of Carl Hagelin (and subsequent subtraction from New York) gives them an added layer of depth they didn't have last year, and they're a very different team under Mike Sullivan. They're a tough matchup.
The Rangers wanted this. They think they're the best team in the league and good on them for thinking it.
Now they just need to put their money where their mouth is.