The NHL standings board in the Rangers’ locker room will be watched carefully over the next week, for it will eventfully reveal what team they will be squaring off with in Round 1 of the playoffs.
With three games left in the regular season, the Blueshirts are locked in for at least second place in the Metropolitan Division and home-ice advantage in the first round. The Rangers have tackled goal after goal, first securing a spot in the playoffs for the first time in five years before earning the right to kick off the series at Madison Square Garden.
The next goal would be to finish the regular season as the top seed in the division, which the Rangers are now four points adrift of after their 3-1 loss to the Bruins on Saturday. Their loss, plus the Hurricanes’ comeback victory over the Devils Saturday and 5-2 win over the Isles on Sunday gave Carolina its extra cushion.
“We watched it because you always watch a game,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said when asked if he was paying attention to the Hurricanes. “It was 2-0 [Saturday], then all of a sudden, it was 3-2. We want to finish first. We want to win every game we play. But at the end of the day, when the season’s over, if we’re first or second, we still have home ice. It is what it is, but we want to try and win as many games as we can. ”
Depending on how the final stretch of the regular season shakes out, there are three teams the Rangers are most likely to play in the first round.
If the season ended today, the Rangers would face the Penguins. That matchup has been the most anticipated, considering the two teams have held onto second and third in the Metro, respectively, for the last couple months. Pittsburgh would probably be the Rangers’ most desired opponent, especially after the way the final three games of their regular-season series went.
After getting shutout 1-0 in Pittsburgh in February, the Rangers handily defeated the Penguins in the next three meetings by a combined score of 11-3. In their last matchup with the Penguins on April 7, the Rangers’ 3-0 win proved to be one of their most complete games of the season.
The fact that the Rangers have played the Penguins three times in the last two months would also be beneficial.
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Had the Rangers beaten the Bruins on Saturday and maintained a first-place tie with the Canes, the likelihood of a Rangers-Bruins matchup would have increased. The Bruins had a two-point cushion on the Capitals for the top wild-card spot in the East and are in line to open the playoffs against the Metropolitan Division champion.
Boston had a chance to pad that lead even more when they faced the Canadiens, while the Capitals could stay in the hunt with a win over the Maple Leafs on Sunday night.
The Rangers have won two of the three games they played against the Bruins this season, but Saturday wasn’t an encouraging preview should a playoff series fall into place. Granted, the Rangers were missing a handful of key players, while the Bruins had some lineup staples return.
Washington was two points behind the Penguins with a game in hand before facing Toronto on Sunday. If the Caps are able to surpass Pittsburgh in the Metro and the Rangers stay in second, or if Washington pulls ahead of Boston in the wild-card race and the Blueshirts jump to first, a Rangers-Capitals series could be on the horizon.
The Rangers will face the Capitals in the final game of the regular season Friday.
“Everybody knows going into the game that the team we’re playing [we could see again down the line], ”Kevin Rooney said earlier this week. “But I don’t think it’s talked about as much. I think what we’ve done a great job of this year – at least Turk’s message has been always about us. Even going into the Islanders game [Thursday night]we showed a lot of clips before the game on our game and not too much on theirs.
“I think that’s huge this time of year, is just focusing on our game. We’re not sure who we’re going to play, no matter who we’re going to play, it’s all going to be about the way we play and what makes us successful.
“In the back of our heads, we want to keep playing our game and doing the right things and the wins and losses hopefully will take care of itself.”