The New York Rangers face the Pittsburgh Penguins in a key game in the fight for playoff positioning. There’s a lot at stake, but with each game, the playoff picture gets clearer.
There was only one game of consequence on Monday night as the Carolina Hurricanes trounced the Washington Capitals, 6-1. That result widened the gap between the Rangers and Capitals, but also gave the Canes the best record in the Eastern Conference, one point ahead of the Florida Panthers. Here are the standings for the East teams headed to the playoffs:
- Caroline Hurricanes: 95 points with 16 games to play
- Pittsburgh Penguins: 90 points with 15 games to play
- New York Rangers: 89 points with 16 games to play
- Washington Capitals: 84 points with 14 games to play
- Florida Panthers: 94 points with 17 games to play
- Tampa Bay Lightning: 88 points with 17 games to play
- Toronto Maple Leafs/Boston Bruins: 87 points with 17 games to play
There are three fabulous games on the schedule tonight, with the Rangers’ tilt with the Penguins at the top of the list. In one other game, the Bruins host the Maple Leafs in a fight for third place (they are tied). The third match features the Hurricanes visiting the Lightning.
Met Division rivals’ remaining games
The good news for the Rangers is that they have one of the easier schedules of the teams vying for playoff positioning.
New York Rangers: They have16 games remaining with 10 at home and six away. Six of the 16 games are against playoff teams (Pittsburgh 2, Carolina 2, Boston 1, Washington 1).
Pittsburgh Penguins: They have 15 games left with eight at home and seven on the road. 10 of those 15 games are against playoff teams (Colorado 2, Rangers 2, Boston 2, Minnesota 1, Washington 1, Edmonton 1, Nashville 1).
Carolina Hurricanes: They have 16 games remaining with eight at home and eight on the road. Only five are against playoff teams (Rangers 2, Tampa 1, Minnesota 1, Colorado 1).
Washington Capitals: They have 14 games left with six at home and eight on the road. Nine of those games are against playoff teams (Toronto 2, Rangers 1, Pittsburgh 1, Boston 1, Minnesota 1, Tampa 1, Vegas 1, Colorado 1).
Obviously, the Rangers have to continue to win (and there is no reason to believe that they won’t). But, in looking at the schedules for the rest of the games, the path to a second place finish is theirs for the taking.
The Hurricanes are the odds on favorite to finish in first place, but Pittsburgh has a rough schedule with tougher competition and the Capitals’ remaining schedule is brutal. The New York can go a long way towards making second place even more likely by winning tonight in Pittsburgh.
We all know the Blueshirts have had their issues beating the weaker teams while they excel against the better teams, especially most recently. Despite that disturbing habit, you have to like the Rangers’ odds of getting home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
Who to root for
Besides cheering on the Rangers, the first round matchup to watch is for which teams will face the wild card teams. The team that finishes first in their division with the best record in the East will play the second wild card team. The other division champion will play the first wild card team. Today, that means Carolina-Washington and Florida-Boston.
Common sense dictates that the Rangers would prefer to see the Hurricanes forced into a first round battle with the Boston Bruins. Then again, be careful who you wish for.
There is still a slight risk that the Rangers could fall behind the Capitals in the standings, but it would take a total collapse by the Blueshirts and for Washington to go on quite a roll. If the Rangers were to play .500 hockey the rest of the way, they would finish with 105 points. The Caps would have to take 22 of 28 points to beat them.
Ranger fans are in a rare position this season. It’s almost more interesting to see what happens with the other teams fighting for a playoff spot instead of what the Blueshirts are doing. It’s a nice position to be in.