The New York Rangers begin a grueling stretch of five games in eight nights this evening when they take on the Atlantic-leading Canadiens.
The New York Rangers have had a fantastic February, winning seven of their eight games played thus far. Two of those seven wins have come against teams they’re chasing in their division, the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blueshirts will look to make the shortest month their best of the season with strong showings in their next five games. Included in those games are rematches with both the Caps and Blue Jackets.
With the playoff race upon them, the Rangers will have to depend on their depth which has proved to be an asset for them all season. If they can grind their way to a few more wins, this stretch of games could have serious playoff implications for the entire Eastern Conference.
The compact schedule will continue to test the roster depth that head coach Alain Vigneault preaches so much about. The Rangers depth at both forward and goalie has been a strength all year and should be an asset for them again over the next week-plus.
Lucky for the Blueshirts – they won’t have to travel too much over that eight day span. Their next game is tonight at home, followed by two road games in nearby arenas.
On Thursday, the Rangers take the short flight north from New York to Toronto where they’ll battle the struggling Maple Leafs. Saturday, they’ll take a bus ride into nearby New Jersey to face their regional rival in the severely up and down Devils.
That’s when the real fun starts. The Rangers come back home to rematch against the Blue Jackets and Capitals on Sunday and Tuesday respectively.
This type of grind in the dog days of winter will be especially challenging for the Rangers. Alain Vigneault can be expected to rest some of his starters more than he typically does.
In net, there has been almost no drop off in play from starter to back-up. Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta have both been great this season and both will surely get starts during the upcoming stretch.
Vigneault teams are built with depth in mind for many reasons. This season’s schedule has caused the Rangers to rely on that depth more times than normal. So far they’ve passed the test. They’ll have their mid-term over the next eight days though.
A quick look at the standings shows the impact that these five games can have on the division. With 58 games played already, and 24 remaining, the Rangers currently sit in fourth place in the Metropolitan division. They also occupy the first Wild Card spot in the conference.
The Islanders hold a safe, 14-point distance in both the division and Wild Card race. There’s very little chance a bad run in these next few games would cost the Rangers much ground on the Isles. However, a good stretch here could have a huge impact on their playoff position.
Home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs goes to the one and two finishers in each division. The Rangers reside in the NHL’s strongest grouping, the Metropolitan Division. There they have little chance of catching the league best-Capitals for first place. They are, however, within two points of the third place Blue Jackets and three points off the pace of the defending Stanley Cup champion and second place Pittsburgh Penguins, making them both targets for the Blueshirts.
From a matchup perspective, the Rangers may be best off exactly where they are as the first Wild Card. The Atlantic Division is pretty weak this season as is evidenced by the current standings below.
The first Wild Card will play the winner of the Atlantic. Right now, Montreal occupies that spot. The Canadiens are a decent, but not great team. At least on the surface they would seem to be a much better matchup for the Rangers than either the fan-hated Penguins or the Tortorella-led Blue Jackets.
The Rangers will move closer to a first round matchup with a division rival if they perform well over the next eight days. If they don’t, they’ll be on their way to cementing the first Wild Card spot.
Only time will tell.