As we approach the end of February, the New York Rangers have been red hot. As of Thursday afternoon, the team currently sits in the first wild card spot with 82 points in the Eastern Conference. The question is: what spot in the standings benefits the Rangers entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Barring an unforeseen collapse, the Rangers look destined to make the playoffs for the sixth-straight year. With their impressive play since the All-Star break, the Rangers have been battling for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They each sit behind the Washington Capitals, who have the most points in the league. If the season ended this week, the Rangers would be slotted against the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs, who they defeated in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs four games to two.
With the NHL realigning divisions at the start of the 2013-14 season, it created a new playoff format that aims to create more rivalry matchups. The format also includes the two division winners playing the top two teams who didn’t finish in the top three in their division as those spots are referred to as the wild card spots. The second and third place teams in each division play each other, which could feature either the Penguins, Rangers and Blue Jackets against each other.
The new playoff format with two divisions in each conference has created some tough match-ups for the Rangers. They not only have to deal with the Capitals and Penguins, who each have elite players such as Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, but there is also the Columbus Blue Jackets, who the Rangers are battling for third spot in the Metropolitan Division. At one point this season, the Blue Jackets had a 16-game winning streak.
The best-case scenario for the Rangers would be to finish the season in the first wild card spot. If the Rangers do so, it would set up a first-round playoff matchup with the winner of the Atlantic Division. The current leader of the Atlantic Division is the Montreal Canadiens, but teams such as the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins are trailing right behind them. These are teams that the Rangers have played well against this season and in recent years.
The Canadiens’ recently hired former Bruins coach Claude Julien after he was fired earlier in February. Prior to former Montreal coach Michel Therrien’s firing, the Canadiens started showing signs of last season’s collapse after going 18-18-7 following a 13-1-1 start.
While it’s never good to root against your team as well as root for a certain playoff matchup, it cannot be denied that the Rangers would have an easier road in the Stanley Cup Playoffs playing teams in the Atlantic Division rather than the powerhouses in the Metropolitan Division, like the Penguins and Capitals. It’s unlikely the Rangers will jump the Capitals and Penguins in the standings due to how consistent the two teams have been this season.
The best-case scenario then is to be a wild card team. The next time the Rangers lose, don’t be too disappointed, just realize that it’s another step closer to finishing in the first wild card spot.