Rangers need to avoid this first round opponent at all costs

NHL: New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers only have five games remaining in the season, but who they may be playing in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs is clear as mud. Starting play on Saturday, the Blueshirts could square off against seven, or possibly eight teams if you want to give the Buffalo Sabres an outside chance.

In the Metropolitan Division, where the Rangers only need four more points gained or lost by the Carolina Hurricanes to clinch first place, four teams are battling it out for third place and a guaranteed playoff spot.

The New York Islanders hold it for the moment with 83 points, tied with the Philadelphia Flyers who played one more game and are in the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have 82 points each.

Whichever team takes third, the runner up is most likely going to secure the final wild card as the Detroit Red Wings (82 points) continue to fade away going 4-11-2 in their last 17 games. And while there’s no such thing as an easy playoff opponent in today’s parity-filled NHL, there is one team the Rangers desperately need to avoid.

Related: Rangers show off their superpower against Detroit

Rangers need to avoid Lightning in Round One

NHL: New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning are red-hot as the playoffs draw near. Since March 1st, they have posted a points percentage of .821, second only to the Dallas Stars at .857.

To be fair, the Rangers and Hurricanes are tied with the most points (25) in that span, but each have played 17 games, posting identical records of 12-4-1. So, if this were being written from a Lightning perspective, they would likely be looking to avoid the Blueshirts in the first round too.

That being said, how can the Rangers avoid a first-round matchup against Tampa? Winning the Metropolitan doesn’t guarantee it, because either the Lightning or high-powered Toronto Maple Leafs are going to take the first wild card. In order to evade either one of those teams, New York must outlast the Boston Bruins to win the Eastern Conference and face the second wild card winner.

Currently, the Rangers have a three point lead over the Bruins (108 to 105) and the same amount of games played. Of course, this advantage can evaporate quickly if the Blueshirts lose a couple of games in a row. However, New York hasn’t lost two consecutive regulation games since late January (1/18 @Vegas and 1/20 @LA), and aren’t showing any signs that they will.

At this point, you are asking yourself what’s all the fuss about? It’s the playoffs, and if you want to win the Stanley Cup, you need to beat whomever is in front of you.

Here’s why the Rangers need to avoid the Lightning. Before the year even started, many pundits wrote off Tampa Bay as being too old and having their Stanley Cup window basically closed. Early on, they were proving those doubters right by opening the season 10-10-5.

This only made them angrier, and as the season progressed, Tampa’s best players started elevating their game. As everyone is enamored with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (128 points) and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon (131 points), it’s Nikita Kucherov (133 points) leading the NHL in scoring.

“Window closing?” Bruins GM Don Sweeney told the Athletic. “That is dangerous for anyone to be saying to that group!”

The last time the Rangers played the Lightning, they were manhandled by Kucherov and Brayden Point, losing 6-3. Despite, the Blueshirts holding a winning record in the season series (2-1-0), this is not an opponent a Cup hopeful wants to see in the opening round.

Finally, what happened to the Maple Leafs last season should be a cautionary tale. Toronto finished second in the Atlantic Division with 111 points and faced Tampa, who ended up with 98 points, just about where they will finish this season. It took Toronto six grueling games, that included three in overtime, to close out the Lightning.

Toronto fell to the Florida Panthers in five games in the second round. Although the Panthers went on to the Stanley Cup Final, they were taken out in five games by the Vegas Golden Knights, who beat the Winnipeg Jets in as many games to open the playoffs.

No one has a crystal ball to predict the future, but playing Tampa to start the playoffs is a bad idea. They are a team that just grinds an opponent down to the bone, so even if you win, you lose.

Anthony Scultore is the founder of Forever Blueshirts and has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL... More about Anthony Scultore

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