Luckily for them (it seems), the New York Rangers will turn into Atlantic Division hockey players in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
As the National Hockey League season winds down, the final stretch lacks the drama seen in previous playoff pushes. Aside from seed jockeying in the Atlantic Division, the playoff bracket is nearly set with the New York Rangers among the teams locked into a position, in their case, an ideal spot in the playoff picture.
For the same reason, the aforementioned fluid seeding in the Atlantic is crucial, the position that the Rangers sit in is optimal and, in the opinion of some including myself, the best spot in the entire bracket. This is because they avoid the 2016-17 Metropolitan Division, the best division the league has seen since the realignment prior to the 2013-14 campaign.
If the season ended today (this is being written after the conclusion of the Apr. 5 games), the Metro would boast three of the top four teams in the entire league and half of the top eight. In 2013-14, the first year with the current four division set up, as well as last year there were 10 teams with triple-digit points. In 2014-15, there were 12 teams to hit the century mark.
This season, there are already eight 100-point teams with two Pacific Division teams having a realistic shot to cross that threshold. Edmonton and San Jose both have 97 points with three and two games remaining respectively. Barring a perfect run down the stretch, the other six playoff teams sit with no more than 94 points and a smattering of two or three games remaining. This makes reaching the benchmark unlikely, especially with the remaining games holding diminishing importance.
Twice since realignment has a division had four 100-point teams, but in both those instances, the fourth team had only 100 points. The Rangers, who represent the fourth team in this instance, are at 100 points with two more games to set a new record for the fourth best team in the four division structure. Goal differential further illustrates the uncharted waters in which the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers find themselves.
The two other divisions to have four 100-point teams had goal differentials ranging from +24 to +47 in the 2014-15 Central and between +16 and +59 in last years Metropolitan. This year’s juggernaut Metropolitan is a culmination of the past couple years successes and the surprisingly elite Columbus Blue Jackets dominating their way into the playoffs and taking the place of the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers who just got through the past couple seasons. That division, in all its splendor, boasts goal differentials from +37 to +81, that is not a typo.
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The Metro’s success on its own face value would be enough to make the Rangers avoiding that side of the bracket ideal but the dichotomous weakness of the Atlantic Division only furthers the advantage. That division has one strong team in the Montreal Canadiens, but lacks depth and finds itself on the opposite end of the statistical spectrum from the metro, boasting the only playoff team with a negative goal differential. Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens cannot be taken lightly but a potential second round matchup, whether it be against the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators or Toronto Maple Leafs will be against an inferior opponent in nearly every metric.
While the Blueshirts take on teams to the north in at least one if not two series in which they are the favorite to win, the metro looks to be a bloodbath. With realignment came the removal of reseeding in an effort to foster rivalries and the Penguins, Capitals and Blue Jackets are all but guaranteed to go to six games if not seven, no link is weak enough to drop out quickly and familiarity will only further intensify the aggressive play customary in the spring.
No path to a championship is easy, but this scenario shapes up as just about the easiest you can ask for, presenting a clear path for the Rangers to matchup with one of their rivals in the Eastern Conference Finals. The rub is that they could easily enter that series having played less hockey and having more energy in their reserves.
An optimist could also point to Pittsburgh’s long and daunting Stanley Cup run from last season, Columbus’ lack of meaningful playoff experience and Washington’s shoddy history of playoff performance, especially against Henrik Lundqvist. However, those storylines are conjecture and the Rangers have the unique luxury of not needing to think about any of those teams for the next few weeks.