If you take a look at the standings heading in to the Olympic break, there are some constants and some surprises. Boston and Pittsburgh leading their respective divisions is no shock. Neither is St. Louis, Chicago, Anaheim and San Jose being the class of the West. Colorado leading the pack of second tier of teams in the West was something most didn’t see coming. Tampa Bay’s second place status in the Atlantic is also impressive considering they’ve been without Steven Stamkos for three months. But the New York Rangers second place status in the Metropolitan Division is exactly where they should be at the Sochi-induced break of the season.
Heading in to the 2013-14 campaign, the Penguins were the clear favorites to win the division. They’re like the New England Patriots in the AFC East – they’re the favorites to win their own division every season because they’re consistently very good. The Rangers were among the mix to rank behind Pittsburgh, but you certainly could have made an argument for some of the other Metro Division residents. After some ups and downs, the Rangers have established themselves as the clear-cut number two.
Pittsburgh: 2-1-1 (series completed)
Philadelphia: 1-1 (two games remaining)
Columbus: 1-1-1 (one game remaining)
Carolina: 1-0 (three games remaining)
New Jersey: 1-2-1 (one game remaining)
Washington: 2-2 (series completed)
NY Islanders: 3-2 (series completed)
11-9-3 (seven games remaining)
Two games above .500 doesn’t seem that great on the surface, but teams who stay above .500 in their division are towards the top of their division more often than not. This is especially important with realignment, since only three teams from each division are guaranteed a playoff spot. The Rangers also rank second within their own division in ROW (Regulation/Overtime Wins) with 28, are one of only three teams in the Metro with a positive goal differential (Pittsburgh and Columbus are the others), and they’re 7-3-0 in their last 10. The road isn’t a problem for the Rangers (18-10-0), but they must play better at Madison Square Garden (14-14-3) in the last six weeks of the season.
The other reason I think the Rangers are where they should be is because they have a good mix among their group. The top line of Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, and Chris Kreider is humming along nicely. The Rangers third line of Benoit Pouliot (who has been a big boost on the power play, too), Derick Brassard (six game point streak), and Mats Zuccarello (leads the team in points) has been a great supplemental source of scoring. The Rangers also have a reliable shutdown line in Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Dan Carcillo. The blueline has played at the high level Rangers fans have become accustomed to from them. Henrik Lundqvist seems to be comfortable in the crease again after a rocky couple of months to start the year.
While the second line of Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards, and Carl Hagelin has been just as productive as the other top two lines, the chemistry could see a shake-up with the constant Callahan trade chatter. If Glen Sather truly feels like he won’t be able to resign Callahan, then the captain has to be moved by the trade deadline. If he does move him, he needs to get something that can be used right away and fill the spot. The rumor of a deal with the Blues and getting Chris Stewart back would be a good fit. He would give the Rangers size up-front (6’2” / 230 lbs, 15G & 11A this season), and could be a good mix with the all-around abilities of Richards, and the speed/fore-checking combo of Hagelin. But if the package coming back from Callahan is more geared towards a good draft pick or prospect, than the responsibility could fall to JT Miller. He would need to be the player we’ve seen flashes of in the past in order for the second line to keep rolling.
If the Rangers continue to play the way they did from Christmas until the Olympic break (13-6-1), they’ll find themselves with home ice in the first round of the playoffs.