Rick Nash’s first game in Columbus since being traded to the Rangers is certainly noteworthy, but that’s just the window dressing heading in to tonight’s game against the Blue Jackets. The Rangers currently have 12 games remaining on their schedule (37-29-4), but only four of those remaining contests are within the Metropolitan Division. The Blueshirts begin a stretch of three of four of those games intradivision games tonight in Ohio’s capital.
While the Penguins haven’t officially clinched the division yet, they hold a 14-point lead over the second place Flyers, and it’s a foregone conclusion that Pittsburgh will be playing one of the wild card teams in the NHL’s new playoff format. Philadelphia currently has 81 points, but it’s only an eight point cushion over the sixth place Devils. The Islanders won’t be making the playoffs this year, and Carolina hasn’t shown me enough to make me believe they’ll fight their way back in to the mix. That leaves five teams battling for two guaranteed playoff spots (Washington being the unmentioned team in the mix), and the other three fighting for two wild card spots with at least two other teams from the Atlantic Division. Points are at a premium, and the Rangers find themselves in a position where they could be in the driver’s seat for the second or third Metropolitan spot.
The Blueshirts currently have 78 points, which ties them with Columbus for the third spot. If the playoffs started today, the Rangers would find themselves in the second wild card spot, and facing off with the Boston Bruins in the first round (which is not how any team wants to start the playoffs). If New York can win the head-to-head match-up in regulation, they’ll break the third place tie with Columbus, and own the tie-breaker over them should it come to that. After that, it’s their final meeting with the cross-river rival New Jersey on Saturday night. The Devils currently have 73 points, and a Rangers win over New Jersey (who they are 1-2-1 against this season) would give them some cushion from the sixth place team. After a home game against Phoenix on Monday night, the Rangers host the Flyers (NYR is 1-2-0 against Philly). Philadelphia has two tough home games against St. Louis and Los Angeles before they make the trip up I-95. No matter what happens, the two teams will be bunched up in the standings heading in to the Wednesday night game at Madison Square Garden.
After this tough stretch of games, the Rangers get a bit of a break. They head out on a four game road trip to the Pacific Northwest, with Colorado being the only good team they play out West (Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are the others). After that, it’s three home games, against Ottawa, Carolina and Buffalo before finishing the season in Montreal. The Blueshirts have a great opportunity down the stretch to rack up points against weaker teams, but taking care of business within the division over the next week would mean a little less scoreboard watching as the season winds down.