The Rangers are going to the playoffs. That feels good to say on Feb. 24 with 25 games left in the season. Aside from 2011-12 when the Rangers were the No. 1 overall seed in the Eastern Conference, they haven’t exactly locked up a playoff berth early on. Here is the game the Rangers clinched a playoff berth since the full-season lockout:
2013-14: Game 79
2012-13: Game 47 (48-game shortened season)
2011-12: Game 72
2010-11: Game 82
2009-10: Missed playoffs
2008-09: Game 81
2007-08: Game 80
2006-07: Game 81
2005-06: Game 75
So barring a Mets-like collapse between now and the season finale on April 11 in Washington, the Rangers are going to the playoffs. All that matters between now and then is staying healthy and seeding, and seeding doesn’t even really matter because home-ice in the NHL isn’t what it used to be and all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams will have a chance to make a run to the Stanley Cup Final.
With the remaining 25 games of the Rangers’ season seemingly a formality, it’s time for the first installment of the Scared of the Rangers Playing Them in the Playoffs Power Rankings and I will update it down the stretch as changes happen.
1. MONTREAL CANADIENS
Last year, everyone said whichever team won the Western Conference would win the Stanley Cup and it held true. (Granted, the Rangers blew two-goals leads in Games 1 and 2 and lost in overtime in Games 1, 2 and 5. Someday I will get over this. Actually, I probably won’t.) That’s no longer the case this year. The East is better than the West and the Canadiens are the best team in the NHL.
I’m not sure what happens in the Eastern Conference finals if Chris Kreider isn’t tripped on a breakaway before steamrolling Carey Price and knocking him out for the series. (I listened to Montreal sports radio the day after Game 1 and it was amazing. Canadiens fans were like Jets fans on steroids, if the Jets were ever good enough to be in a similar position.) The Rangers scored four of their seven goals in their 7-2 against Price, but it still took them six games to win the series, despite having a 2-0 series lead and despite not having to face Price for more than five of the six games.
Not only are the Canadiens the best team in the NHL, but they owe the Rangers something for what happened last year. The Canadiens scare me like no other team.
2. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Rangers went 0-3 against the Lightning this year. They lost 5-1 (Nov. 17), 4-3 (Nov. 26) and 6-3 (Dec. 1) and were outscored 15-7 in those three games, but those games did all come in a span of 14 days at a time when the Rangers were banged up. The Rangers were 11-9-4 after their last loss to the Lightning. Since then they have gone 25-7-2, so I would say they are a different team.
The problem with the Lightning is that I was the Trade Ryan Callahan for Martin St. Louis Club President and then I also served as the Don’t Overpay and Re-sign Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot and Anton Stralman Club President. (To my credit, I didn’t know Glen Sather was going to sign Tanner Glass or give a ridiculous extension to Marc Staal after having already given one to Dan Girardi.)
A series against the Lightning would be challenging without the idea of possibly having to watch Callahan, Boyle and Stralman advance with the Rangers going home. That would be too much to take. A little like watching Marian Gaborik carry the Kings to the Stanley Cup against the Rangers a little over a year after the Rangers traded him to Columbus because John Tortorella didn’t like him.
3. BOSTON BRUINS
The Bruins have always been a bad matchup for the Rangers. When the Bruins lost three straight to Toronto, Ottawa and Carolina, I thought it might be the beginning of the end for them. And they won five straight, including a 3-0 win over the Rangers on Jan. 15. Over the last two weeks, the Bruins lost six straight and once again I thought it was the end for them. But then they bounced back to salvage their five-game road trip with a 6-2 win over the Blackhawks on national TV.
While I would like to think the Bruins’ recent window has closed and that they will be sellers at the deadline, especially with the news that David Krejci will be out for 4-6 weeks. But I have a bad feeling that win over the Blackhawks will serve as their A-Rod/Varitek game and they will make the playoffs and then go on a run. If the Bruins can hold off the Panthers (and I guess the Flyers now too?) then I want no part of seeing what will have had to have been a hot team for at least six weeks.
4. DETROIT RED WINGS
There is a lot of mystery with the Red Wings because they only joined the East last year and are a much different and much healthier team now than they were when they made the playoffs as an 8-seed and lost in the first round a year ago.
The Rangers beat the Red Wings 4-3 in overtime in their first meeting (Nov. 5), but blew a 2-0 lead for a 3-2 loss in their second meeting (Dec. 6). I don’t know what to think about the Red Wings yet and that’s not a good thing because you don’t want to have any unknowns for a playoff series.
5. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
I didn’t want anything to do with the Isladners before last Monday’s game against them. I have said all along that I don’t want a Rangers-Islanders playoff series because from a Rangers fan standpoint, nothing good can come from it. If the Rangers win, they’re the Rangers and they’re supposed to win. And if the Islanders win, it’s basically the worst thing imaginable. It’s the same feeling I have about Yankees-Red Sox playoff series. If the Yankees win, they’re the Yankees and they’re supposed to win. And if they lose, well, you don’t want to know what life is like after that. There’s nothing for the Rangers and Rangers fans to gain by playing the Islanders in the playoffs. Sure, it would be great for New York hockey and for the mainstream media around here to pretend like they care about hockey and it would be good fuel to rekindling the fire of a once-strong rivalry, but if the Rangers don’t win, it’s a disaster. Even so, I have changed my mind.
After erasing the goose egg from the win column against the little brother and tasting how sweet victory against the Islanders this season and in this new era of New York hockey with both teams being relevant, I want Rangers-Islanders in the playoffs. I need Rangers-Islanders in the playoffs.
6. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
After Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year with the Rangers trailing 3-1, I thought the Rangers might never beat the Penguins in the playoffs. Then the Rangers won three straight, got Dan Bylsma fired and went on to reach their first Cup Final in 20 years. The series win was a lot like the Yankees finally overcoming the Angels in the 2009 ALCS (they still need to overcome the Tigers after the 2006, 2011 and 2012 playoffs).
I’m not scared of the Penguins anymore. I welcome a playoff series against them. (I need a video of Ron Swanson saying that.)
7. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
After the Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead to the Capitals in the 2008-09 playoffs and then were embarrassed in five games in the 2010-11 playoffs, I didn’t think they would ever beat the Capitals in the playoffs, much like the Penguins. But those were different teams and a different time and the way the Rangers overcame the Penguins in the playoffs last year, they overcame the Capitals in the 2011-12 playoffs. Since then the Rangers have won two series against the Capitals and two Game 7s.
A series against the Capitals means the Rangers will play another series after it.