Right now, the Eastern Conference is a bit like a chessboard situated beside a railroad track, the pieces shaking and shifting into new spots with regularity as each new locomotive rumbles by.
But if there’s one anchor in the anarchy, it’s the New York Rangers.
The Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins or Columbus Blue Jackets may yet win the Metropolitan Division. You can easily make a case for the Ottawa Senators to supplant the Montreal Canadiens for the Atlantic Division title, and the Boston Bruins are officially within striking distance, too.
Any one of Tampa, Toronto or the Islanders could claim the final wild card berth and nobody would blink.
That first wild card, however, is earmarked for the Rangers. And just as the Blueshirts represent a smidge of stability in this ongoing playoff shuffle, they’ve also been a constant, unmissable presence in the Eastern Conference playoffs for half a decade.
That got us to wondering: Are people sleeping on the Rangers in 2017?
When the Rangers hit the Madison Square Garden ice for their next game on Friday night, they could be as many as five points back of third place in the Metro, with the third-place team in that scenario—the Pittsburgh Penguins—holding a game in hand. And given New York plays seven of its final 12 contests on the road, the chances of moving up are slim.
The odds of sliding down? Non-existent, as the Rangers presently hold a 13-point cushion on their closest pursuer, the New York Islanders.
All that means the Rangers stand a very good chance of opening the post-season on the road versus an Atlantic Division-based Canadian team that actually registered fewer regular-season points than them.
Both of those potential opponents, the Canadiens and Senators, have lost series to the Rangers in the past five springs. Since 2012, no NHL outfit has played more playoff games than the 81 contested by New York. During that time frame, the Blueshirts have 25 Eastern Conference playoff wins, which ties them for the top mark with Tampa Bay, one ahead of Pittsburgh’s 24.
So, should the Habs and Sens be worried? In my household, we try to take the approach that fretting is the friend of no one. Mild concern, though, is not without merit.
The current Rangers score goals at a rate of 3.17 per game, a pace exceeded by only four clubs in the league. And as much as any team around, New York spreads the offence throughout its forward lines.
Look as hard as you please, there’s no Broadway-worthy star up front. J.T. Miller, the team’s leading scorer, might not hit 60 points this season. But the first three lines all feature someone—Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Mika Zibanejad—who can burn you. “Burn” could also refer to the way these forwards skate, as the Blueshirts are often the club dictating the pace thanks to an arsenal of speedsters that invade in waves.
The bad news is, the counterattack can often be a problem for New York thanks to an underwhelming blue line. That’s part of the reason why the advanced stats don’t paint a pretty picture of what’s happening in Manhattan.
That said, we still count the Rangers as a team that can get away with being a touch leaky thanks to their goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist is out with a hip injury right now and could miss most of this month, which is just fine given the strong play of Antti Raanta.
And while Lundqvist had his struggles during last year’s first-round exit versus Pittsburgh and could well finish this season with his first sub-.920 save percentage since 2008-09, it’s hard to believe his days as a game-changer are already over.
All the more reason to believe the Rangers may yet have a say about how the real Eastern Conference battle plays out.