The New York Rangers may have to make a choice on Friday that could haunt them for years to come. They could be in the unique position of deciding who their first round playoff opponent will be and if they make the wrong choice it will lead to a long summer of second guessing and recriminations.
When they guaranteed a second place finish with their 4-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, it left the team with the opportunity to rest their regulars and get healthy for the first round. Unfortunately, when the Capitals lost 4-1 to the Islanders and the Penguins lost 5-1 to Edmonton, it muddied the playoff picture and it means that the Rangers’ game on Friday against Washington could decide who finishes third in the Metropolitan Division.
Who do they want to play?
This is the million dollar question. The consensus has been that the Rangers match up better against the Penguins. Tristan Jarry, their all-star goalie, has been injured and his foot is in a boot. He’s week-to-week and it looks like Casey DeSmith will be in net for the Pens.
Not only that, but the Penguins have gone 18-20 over the last 38 games and the Rangers won their last three games with them, outscoring Pittsburgh 11-3. It was a dominant performance.
But the Penguins still have playoff veterans like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang who have the ability to raise their level of play and excel in the postseason. This may be the last run for these players and they won’t go down easily.
Meanwhile, the Capitals have been one of the hotter teams in the East. Before the loss to the Islanders, they had gone 7-2-2 in their last 11 games. Like the Penguins, they are playoff battle hardened plus they have the x-factor in Tom Wilson, a nemesis for the Blueshirts.
But like the Penguins, they have questions in goal with Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov splitting duties with good, but not great results.
Not only that, but Alex Ovechkin was injured on Sunday and didn’t play against the Islanders. How bad is the injury? No one knows, but an Ovechkin-less Capitals team presents a much different challenge for any team.
There is even more at stake for the Penguins and Capitals. The team that finishes in the wild card slot gets to play the Florida Panthers in the first round. Florida is on the verge of winning the President’s Trophy and just came off a 13-game winning streak.
The Caps have a game in hand on the Penguins. Even if Washington loses to the Islanders on Thursday night, the Rangers could still go into Friday’s game with a chance to determine their first round opponent.
Here’s how they stand.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are currently in third place with 101 points and a 45-25-11 record, 36 regulations wins (RW) and 42 regulation and overtime wins (ROW). They have one game left this season, hosting Columbus on Friday night.
The Washington Capitals are in the second wild card spot with 100 points , a record of 44-24-12 and 35 RW and 39 ROW. They have two games left, at the Islanders on Thursday and at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.
Here are the scenarios:
Pittsburgh beats Columbus in regulation, overtime or shootout: Washington will have to win both of their remaining games. It doesn’t matter if they do it in regulation or in overtime or a shootout. They will finish one point ahead of the Penguins.
Pittsburgh loses to Columbus in regulation: Washington will have to win one of their remaining two games. They will finish one point ahead of the Penguins.
Pittsburgh loses to Columbus in overtime or shootout: Washington will need to get three points in their last two games.
It gets better
The Capitals-Rangers game and the Penguins-Blue Jackets games both start at 7pm on Friday so it will be a nail biting, scoreboard watching evening for fans of both teams.
It also means that the Capitals will go into Friday’s match with the Rangers knowing it is a must win game. If the Caps beat the Islanders on Thursday, they will know that a win will guarantee them third place, no matter what. If they lose on Thursday, they will play knowing that if they win and the Penguins lose in regulation they finish ahead.
The Blueshirts’ game with Montreal tonight means nothing and you can be sure that they will be resting most of their regulars and Alexandar Georgiev will be in net because of the back-to-back schedule.
If Ovechkin is out of the Washington lineup Thursday and Friday, it could mean his injury is more severe than believed and he may be a question mark for the playoffs. That’s important.
Friday night, Gerard Gallant and Chris Drury will have a tough decision to make. Do they field their best lineup and start Shesterkin in goal? Do they do everything that they can to beat the Capitals and try to guarantee a first round match up with the Penguins? Do they give their best players the night off so that they will be fully healthy for the playoffs or do they risk injuries in what promises to be a tough, physical meeting with the Capitals?
The company line will be that the team doesn’t care who they will play in the first round. That’s probably true, but you have to know that they have a preference. But how many times have we seen a desired match-up turn into a disappointing loss? Look no further than the Stanley Cup Qualifier in 2020.
There are two conclusions that all Ranger fans can agree on. First, it’s better to be where the Rangers are, firmly in second place. Second, we know that anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
What do you think?