Rangers need to capitalize on wide-open Eastern Conference

The NHL All-Star Break has come to an end with the New York Rangers ready to get back to work hosting the Colorado Avalanche on Monday.

As it stands, the Rangers are leading the way in the Metro Division by two points over the Carolina Hurricanes (61 pts), even after dealing with a miserable slump over the past two months. Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins (71 pts) are atop the Atlantic Division by five points over the Florida Panthers. A closer look at the playoff picture in East reveals where teams will finish is completely up in the air.

While the Rangers’ record to this point in the season is excellent, their recent play has many fans and skeptics raising questions about their status as a contender. That being said, the fact that the East appears wide-open for the taking indicates general manager Chris Drury should be going for it at the deadline.

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Rangers need to take a wide-open East

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Metro Division

If you were to show the current Metro Division standings now back in September to any fan, they would undoubtedly be astounded at what they see. The Philadelphia Flyers, who had zero positive expectations heading into the season, currently sit third in the division with 56 points and a solid 25-19-6 record. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the New Jersey Devils, who had all the expectations on them to perform this season, sit at a lowly sixth place, with an unremarkable 24-20-3 record for 51 points.

The Pittsburgh Penguins (51 pts), New York Islanders (52 pts), and Washington Capitals (51 pts) are still in the hunt too, despite many expecting them to fall after average seasons just a year ago. A look at spots 4-7 in the Metro makes for a very interesting wild card race.

While the Rangers remain tops in the Metro at 30-16-2 (63 pts), they need to come together post All-Star break to get back to playing consistent hockey.

“We definitely had things going our way early on,” veteran Blake Wheeler explained. “We have to stay rooted in the fact that what we want to achieve is going to be really hard. Harder than this. Great teams are made in fire, and we’re certainly in the fire right now. This could be a very useful situation for our team if we handle it the right way.”

Atlantic Division

The Atlantic Division playoff picture is a bit clearer on who will or won’t be in the postseason come April. However, it still remains as a tight race.

The Boston Bruins have a surprisingly strong record to this point, especially after many expected them to come down after last year’s first round exit to the Florida Panthers. The Bruins arguably have a weaker lineup this year too without Patrice Bergeron, but are still a team to be taken seriously thanks to their phenomenal goaltending. The Panthers are not too far behind them with 66 points, boasting some of the scariest depth in the East.

Looking at the rest of the division, the Tampa Bay Lightning (59 pts), Toronto Maple Leafs (58 pts), and Detroit Red Wings (58 pts) round things out, with a strong chance that both wild card spots could go to the Atlantic. Currently, the Islanders are six points out of the final berth.

Who is the favorite out of the East?

Knowing how unique the race has become in the East, it is tough to put a finger on who truly is the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Calling the Rangers a favorite will raise questions, as their recent play suggests they may not be built for a deep run in this year’s playoffs. Looking at the Hurricanes, their goaltending has been suspect and leaves plenty of room for doubt.

As for the Bruins, their recent playoff performance mixed with a slightly weaker roster doesn’t make them as big a favorite as they were last year. As for the Panthers, they look incredibly deep and well-coached, but it they are still chasing the Bruins, so what does that say?

Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs will always be doubted until they actually win something, and the Lighting are a little look in the tooth. On the opposite side of the coin, both the Flyers and Red Wings are very young and likely not ready for primetime.

Ultimately, an unclear favorite in the East benefits the Rangers greatly. If the Rangers can get back to their strong and structured play from the beginning of the season, the conference could be theirs for the taking. With the right trades, who says that the Rangers can’t win three rounds and be the East’s representative in this year’s Stanley Cup Final.

For the latest standings click here.