Rangers can’t let up with easier schedule down stretch

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New York Rangers
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With an eye toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs later in the month, the New York Rangers look to remain focused on the final stretch of regular-season games now that the calendar has flipped to April.

As much as the Rangers say they won’t look past any of these final eight games and ahead to the postseason, it’s easier said than done. Especially because the schedule is nowhere near as challenging as what they faced in March.

The are no games against Presidents’ Trophy contenders like the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets nor Colorado Avalanche. No more meetings with the Carolina Hurricanes, who are nipping at their heels in the Metropolitan Division, despite the Rangers posting an outstanding 21-4-1 record since Jan. 27.

Instead, the Rangers have the fifth easiest strength of schedule for the rest of the season, per Tankathon.com. Their opponents own a .514 points percentage. Only one of their remaining games is against a team currently in the playoffs, April 11 at home against the Philadelphia Flyers, who presently are the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

So, this presents a much different challenge than what the Rangers faced in March.

Related: Chris Kreider scores 300th NHL goal twice in Rangers win against Coyotes

Easier April schedule provides new challenge for Rangers

NHL: New York Islanders at New York Rangers
Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers were 10-3-1 in March. They navigated injuries to three of their top defensemen, including 11 games without captain Jacob Trouba when they were an impressive 9-2-0.

Eight of their games were played against some of the top teams in the League, ones considered to be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. They were 4-3-1 in those games, defeating the Hurricanes, Panthers, Bruins and Avalanche, and losing to the Jets, Panthers, Tampa Bay lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs (in the shootout).

With no more games left against teams of that quality, the Rangers must focus on playing at the same high level against weaker opponents the next three weeks. Just as they hammered the St. Louis Blues 4-0 and the New York Islanders 5-2 last month, the Rangers must be disciplined enough in their approach against similar teams down the stretch.

Simply, they want to avoid falling into the trap of winning ugly as they did in an 8-5 victory against the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday or the 6-5 overtime win against the Flyers on March 26. There’s no question the Rangers can win track meets against lesser opponents. But they do not want to let bad habits creep into their game with the playoffs right around the corner.

So, even though they carry a five-game winning streak and victories in seven of their past eight games into their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, the Rangers must replicate how they’ve played against the League’s best recently. That’s with knowing Sidney Crosby and Co. are far from an elite team now.

On paper, the Rangers can easily run the table the rest of the season. They’re that good. And their opponents are that mediocre.

But sports is never that easy. There’s a reason why “On any given day” is part of every coach’s mindset. And games against the Islanders (twice), Flyers and Detroit Red Wings down the stretch mean that the Rangers will be playing, in theory, teams desperate for two points in their own playoff push. Plus you know that game against the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday will have some juice, too.

The more the Rangers can focus on themselves to prepare and play the right way, the better for them now — with the division title and Presidents’ Trophy still up for grabs — and later — when they try to win their first Stanley Cup championship in 30 years.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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