Rangers Skidding Like a Fox Into Postseason

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Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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There are eight games remaining on the schedule for the New York Rangers before the NHL regular season ends. If you examine their record down the stretch, their laundry list of injuries and their players’ overall lack of production you might think they were a playoff bubble team trying but failing to gain ground. However, this is a hockey team with playoff aspirations and not just to make it to the dance, but to go a long way, perhaps even all the way to the prize that has eluded one of the NHL’s winningest franchises in both the regular season (5th) and the postseason (6th) over the past decade.

Over their last 20 games, the Rangers are 10-7-3 with 49 goals for and 50 against. Playing that out over a full season, that would be equal to about 94 points, which would have had them on the outside of the playoff race looking in at the end of last season, two points behind the Philadelphia Flyers who finished with 96 points. During that span, their leading goal scorer and co-point producer was Oscar Lindberg (5g, 6a, 11p). Mats Zuccarello (4g, 7a, 11p) had one fewer goal but the same points total. Among their forwards over that time, J.T. Miller and Pavel Buchnevich scored just two goals each, while Derek Stepan, Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast had just one a piece.

They’ve also suffered from quite a few injuries in the last 20 games. In addition to Henrik Lundqvist, who has missed the past six games with a hip injury, they’ve also been without Kevin Klein (16 games), Dan Girardi (13 games), Jesper Fast (7 games) and Michael Grabner (5 games) over that time frame.

Complicating the matter is that at the start of that period, the Rangers were 4th in the Metropolitan division and also the Eastern Conference sitting at 71 points, but just two points behind Columbus for third and three points behind Pittsburgh for second. They were 11 points in front of Boston for the final Wild Card spot. As has been often discussed, the Metropolitan division is a buzz saw, so a first Wild Card finisher would likely benefit from an easier matchup in the first two rounds of the playoffs by way of escaping to the Atlantic bracket.

As of today, that 20 game stretch has pushed them to six points back (with two more games played) of Columbus in the third spot in the Metro and 12 points up on Boston for the final Wild Card spot. If the playoffs started today, the first round matchups in the Eastern Conference along with each teams’ points in the standings would be:

Washington (102) vs Boston (82)
Pittsburgh (101) vs Columbus (100)
Montreal (91) vs NY Rangers (94)
Ottawa (88) vs Toronto (83)

That also means, should the Rangers advance past Montreal, they would then face the winner of Ottawa and Toronto, rather than a likely matchup against Washington had they managed to push their way into the second or third spot in the Metro. That’s a second-round opponent who captured between 14 and 16 points less in the standing during the regular season.

So are the Rangers, who haven’t won at home in seven games (0-5-2), skidding into the postseason because of slumping scorers and a rash of injuries or are they resting older players including Lundqvist down the stretch for “injuries” that wouldn’t have kept them out of the lineup had their playoff position conditions not been so perfect? That’s impossible to know, for sure. What we can see, though, is some of the choices Head Coach Alain Vigneault has made as far as his healthy scratches. Steven Kampfer and Tanner Glass have played in eight and seven games, respectively over the span. Glass in favor of Buchnevich, Brandon Pirri and Matt Puempel and Kampfer over season-long seventh defender Adam Clendening.

Some of these decisions were said to provide more grit as other teams were fighting just to get into the playoffs.

However, they run counter to the Rangers identity, one that these depth players aren’t likely to change if they hope to have success in the playoffs. In fact, the 2.50 GA/GP over the last 20 games is a slight improvement over the 2.59 GA/GP over the 54 games prior. Where the Rangers have fallen off is in producing at a 2.45 GF/GP over that span, as opposed to the 3.39 GF/GP over the 54 games to start the season.

If your defensive game is improving slightly but your offensive production has dried up considerably, why then would you insert defensive minded players over more offensive ones? The answer is likely that Vigneault is all too aware of the playoff implications of winning too much at this time of year. At the moment, the Rangers magic number over the final eight games of the season for the first Wild Card spot is six points. Any combination of them acquiring those six points or the Bruins (or Islanders, who have the same potential point total) losing them means the Rangers can’t finish lower than seventh. In the meantime, six points would tie them with Columbus if the Blue Jackets lose all of their remaining ten games in regulation, something very unlikely to happen.

Last season, where the Rangers were in an almost identical situation, they locked up the third spot in the Metropolitan division in the final game of the regular season, while the rival New York Islanders slipped into the first Wild Card behind them. The Rangers were bounced in the first round in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Islanders managed to get into the second round of the playoffs by defeating the then top team in the Atlantic, the Florida Panthers.

The final third of this season then doesn’t seem to be so much of a skid, as a pulling back on the reigns by a coach who knows all too well how things turned out last time. Expect more players to get rest in these final nine games and don’t be too shocked or concerned if the Rangers finish out the season going something like 3-5-0. That’s the magic equation towards escaping the Metropolitan juggernauts until it can no longer be avoided in the Conference Final.

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