It is often called cliché when a star player, coach, manager or team official cites an important game as a “must win” or the “most important” game of the season. Cliché or not, that is the situation the New York Rangers find themselves in. It may sound strange that a team that is only one point away from clinching a playoff spot is in this position, but the Rangers would be in a better position competitively as the number one seed instead of finishing as number four seed in the conference.
The Rangers have to continue playing their game down the stretch. In their 3-1 loss against the Colorado Avalanche, Tortorella was happy with the team’s performance to a degree.
Realistically as the current top dog in the Eastern Conference , the Rangers are only one point away from clinching a playoff spot but the Rangers only lead the trailing Pittsburgh Penguins by one point and the Philadelphia Flyers by three points. This tight playoff like atmosphere has really changed the landscape of the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division and will create a situation where only two of the four playoff teams from the Atlantic Division will make it past the first round.
Looking at things from a fan’s point of view,for a team that has held sole possession of first place for a few months now, falling to fourth place or lower would be a letdown for arguably the best team since the 1993-94 season. Falling to fourth place also would result in a tougher first round matchup against the Flyers/Penguins or Devils based upon who wins the Atlantic division. The Rangers do not want to find themselves in that position if they can help it.
If the playoffs started today, the Rangers would square off against a much different Washington Capitals team that has had the Blueshirts’ number during the past two postseason encounters. Without a healthy Nicklas Backstrom, little secondary scoring and the Rangers edge in goaltending and defense, it would be a pretty easy series from the Rangers’ perspective.
If the Rangers fell to fourth, they would be in a very tough series against the Flyers. The Flyers are a very physical team that could batter and wear down the Rangers to the point that they would have a hard time bouncing back in the second round. If you take into account that two top teams could tear each other apart in the first round, it makes the first seed in the East very lucrative.
With that in mind, every future game needs to be played with a must win mentality. As long as the Rangers can find a way to gain two points each and every night, the Penguins remain irrelevant. The Penguins just had an 11 game win streak snapped but don’t be naive enough to think that they won’t win at least seven or eight of their next 10 games. The Rangers and Penguins will square off once more before the season ends and that matchup could end up determining the winner of the Atlantic division and the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers are a team with a clear identity. They are a team with a blue collar work ethic. The Rangers check, hit, block shots, grind and outwork their opponents in order to get two points at the end of the night. The Rangers have stars in Marián Gáborík, Henrik Lundqvist and Brad Richards but outside of that the team is made up of products of the system and character players.
While the Rangers may not have the offensive arsenal the the Flyers and Penguins possess, if they can step up their game and live up to the identity that has allowed them to collect 44 wins, 41 of which have came during regulation, there is no reason why they can’t finish the season strong and still capture the top seed in the East.
The Rangers’ ability to hold teams to scoring just over two goals a game will benefit them in the playoff atmosphere when games are tighter and teams take less risks. If the Rangers can get back to playing their style of hockey, there chances of holding on to the top spot in the East will become more favorable.
By no means will it be easy. By no means will the Flyers or Penguins ease up at all on the throttle. The Rangers are no longer a team that can rely on the help of others in order to clinch a divisional title or playoff spot. If the Rangers don’t treat each and every remaining game with the correct level of intensity necessary of escaping with two points, it doesn’t matter what the Flyers or Penguins do in their remaining games.
Here is what it looks like for the Rangers for the rest of March.
The Rangers will have a tough test against the Devils and Detroit Red Wings early this week. How the Rangers respond to these playoff like encounters may play a huge role in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
Tom Urtz is a New York Rangers Columnist.
For more NHL and Rangers news, updates and alerts about players: