Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat—the Rangers are making the playoffs. At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion. Sports Club Stats has the Rangers at a 99.9% chance of making the playoffs with the Blueshirts currently sitting in the first Wild Card spot with 75 points. That’s 14 points ahead of their nearest competition, the Philadelphia Flyers, who have 61 points. Missing the playoffs would take a monumental collapse that I think even the Rangers are not capable of.
The organization knows this as well, so they should be doing what any organization does when they are faced with a certainty—planning. Planning can manifest itself in a few ways. The most obvious would be searching for ways to strengthen the roster by dealing from a strength (offense) to shore up a weakness (defense) as Phil Kocher detailed in a fantastic article. However, there’s another way to plan, and that is to optimally plot a course through the playoffs that provides the greatest opportunity for success. The Rangers must find the metaphorical “path of least resistance.”
For the uninitiated, the current playoff structure (for the Eastern Conference) is as follows:
- 8 teams make the playoffs
- The top 3 teams from each division (M1, M2, M3, A1, A2, A3)
- The two next highest teams in the conference, regardless of division, form Wild Card 1 and 2 (W1, W2), respectively
- The team with the most points in the conference (in this case, M1) plays W2. The other division leader (A1) plays W1
- M2 plays M3 and A2 plays A3
- The winner of M1 vs. W2 plays the winner of M2 vs. M3 and the winner of A1 vs. W1 plays the winner of A2 vs. A3 (there is no re-seeding)
- The winner of those series are considered the “Division Champions” of each respective division and they play each other in the Conference Final.
Yes, it’s very confusing.
As mentioned previously, the Rangers currently find themselves in the first Wild Card position. They also find themselves at a crossroads. On the left is a sign for the scary Metropolitan Division reading “Beware: Here Be Dragons.” On the right is a sign for the Atlantic Division reading “Free Hugs.”
The Metropolitan Division is a knife fight, especially with the Washington Capitals on a tear of epic proportions. They’re so far and away the best team in the NHL it’s not even funny. Below them, tied for second and third, are the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins—the former being owners of a 16-game winning streak this season and the latter being the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Luckily, the Rangers have essentially a zero percent chance of playing the Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. However, the second and third spot are very much in play as the Rangers currently are tied with the third place Blue Jackets, the Rangers having played one more game, and are two points behind the Penguins.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Division is basically a tire fire. Leading the way are the Montreal Canadiens who, after a very hot start, “seemed to have lost their identity,” according to Carey Price.
Carey Price: "We seemed to have lost our identity." #Habs
— Kyle Bukauskas (@SNkylebukauskas) February 13, 2017
The Canadiens have dealt with this situation by firing Michel Therrien and hiring Claude Julien. You read that right, the third place Boston Bruins, a team that is basically in playoff position by default, fired Claude Julien in a panic move, only to let him go to their division rival. Then you have the Ottawa Senators in second place, a team with a -1 goal differential, who up until recently were backstopped by Mike Condon (!) who is 16-9-0 with a 2.53 GAA and a .913 SV%.
The path is clear. The Rangers need to make like the Pilgrims and set sail across the Atlantic in search of a much friendlier environment. Let the Capitals, Penguins, and Blue Jackets duke it out and beat each other up. The Rangers should be trying to face the softest possible competition for the longest amount of time. It shouldn’t matter to anyone, especially not a Rangers fan, which teams the Rangers play against on their path through the playoffs. The playoffs are a game of survival and it makes no sense to willingly fight the toughest guy in the prison yard when you can achieve the same end by fighting the weakest.
One might remember that the Rangers faced a similar situation at the end of last season when them and the Islanders each had just one game remaining with seeding implications on the line. The Rangers decided to play their entire roster, sans a couple of injured players, against the Detroit Red Wings and went on to win that game. The Islanders, meanwhile, rested John Tavares among several other players, and changed their goaltender at the beginning of the second period when the score was 2-2 like it was an exhibition game. Their loss in that game solidified their spot in the first Wild Card position and meant they would play the Florida Panthers in the first round as opposed to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the eventual Cup-winners, who the Rangers lost to in five miserable games.
The Rangers would be wise to not make the same mistake twice. They should use their remaining time wisely to prepare for the playoffs. Experiment with line pairings. Try tweaks with the structure to improve the defense. Be liberal with resting players, especially workhorses like J.T. Miller and Dan Girardi, the latter of whom always has issues come playoff time with keeping up with the pace of play. Don’t worry about wins and losses. Try to find a balance between the team feeling confident in itself, but also setting themselves up for success in the long-term.
None of this is to propose that the Rangers lose games on purpose. That is anti-competitive and players will never buy into the idea of throwing games for any reason whatsoever. I’m merely suggesting that the Rangers take less of a focus on winning and put more of an emphasis on shoring up their game. If that results in tons of wins, so be it, but there’s no reason to voluntarily go through the best teams in the league when it can easily be avoided.
Right now, the Atlantic Division is a placid body of water with a better situation on the other side. The Metropolitan Division is a city that’s tearing itself apart from the inside. Be smart, escape the turmoil, and set sail for the Atlantic.