The New York Rangers are very likely to be included in the playoffs, but where they are ranked now may not lead to an ideal matchup.
The New York Rangers really should be focused on getting in first place. However, if they learned anything from Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss at home to the Montreal Canadiens, it’s that facing the Habs in the playoffs might not be the walk in the park that people are making it out to me.
The Blueshirts currently hold the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting in fourth place in the Metro Division. If the season ended today, they would face the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. Yet, while many think the Rangers should stay right where they are in the standings, facing Montreal in a seven-game series will not be easy, for several reasons.
First off, having to deal with Carey Price isn’t the best option. Not only is he one of the league’s top goalies, but he has constantly given the Rangers fits throughout his career.
After dealing with an injury bug last year, he has returned to peak form this season and clearly showed that in Tuesday’s game, including a remarkable diving save he made at the end of overtime.
When the Rangers beat Montreal in the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago, Price missed the entire series after the first game due to suffering that infamous concussion. Needing to deal with him in a seven-game series could spell trouble for the Rangers.
Another reason for concern is Claude Julien, the newly-hired Habs’ head coach. The Canadiens were really struggling before they fired Michael Therrien, but the coaching change could be the shake-up that team needed. Julien did a phenomenal job during his ten years as the Boston Bruins head coach, which included winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 and appearing in another final in 2013. On top of that, the Bruins consistently made the playoffs under him. There’s no reason to think that the Canadiens won’t become a tougher team, especially in the playoffs, under his leadership.
And last, but certainly not least, the Canadiens have not forgotten about what happened three years ago and would probably love another shot at the Blueshirts again in the playoffs. They still have several players remaining from the team that lost to the Rangers in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals.
Not only did many Habs’ players and fans think Chris Kreider took a cheap shot when he collided into and injured Price, they’re still convinced their team would have prevailed if they had their star goalie that entire series.
Would the Rangers have not made the final that year if Price didn’t get hurt? That’s debatable, but let’s face it, winning that series would have been a lot tougher.
Yes, Dustin Tokarski did a phenomenal job taking over for Price, holding the Rangers to three goals or fewer in all of his starts. However, what some people don’t realize is the rest of the Canadiens had to double their efforts without a top-notch keeper between the pipes.
If you closely watched the final minute of the Rangers 1-0 series-clinching Game 6 victory, you would notice P.K. Subban, who is one of the best-conditioned players in the NHL, could barely skate. With a more reliable player in net, the rest of the team may not have had to use all that extra energy, possibly avoiding burning out so soon.
Does this mean Rangers fans should hope to face the Pittsburgh Penguins instead in the first round? Certainly not.
However, people need to realize that playing the Canadiens by no means guarantees advancing in the playoffs. In fact, they are probably not even the best possible opponent for the Rangers. At this point in the season, the Rangers ideal first-round opponent would be the Columbus Blue Jackets since it would not be a surprise if they burn out under John Tortorella from all that shot blocking by defensemen.
Yet much can change and it’s extremely tough to tell who an ideal playoff opponent will be until the final few weeks of the season.
For example, as big a nightmare as it might seem to face the Penguins right now, they have still yet to hit a slide, so what if they hit a funk towards the end of the season? What if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two injury-prone players, get hurt at a most inopportune time? The point is that a team who seems like an ideal opponent right now could become a nightmare a month from now, or vice-versa.
Therefore, the Rangers biggest focus should be getting into the playoffs. Let’s save worrying about who the first round opponent will be for the final week of the season.