Can the Rangers “March” into the playoffs?
It’s now March, and the race for the playoffs is heating up. The Rangers (80 points) currently sit in second place behind the Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan Division. Not too far behind them sit the New York Islanders (75 points), who aren’t too far in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins (74 points). Up until now, the Rangers have not played through a stretch of games that featured too many playoff teams, but that changes pretty extremely over the next four weeks.
Earlier today, Steven discussed how the Rangers next three games are statement time. I’d like to take this one step further and analyze things on a more macro scale. Back on opening night, I wrote about the importance of the Rangers being a good road team. That couldn’t be more relevant RIGHT NOW. Including the loss in Pittsburgh, the Rangers play 14 games in March. Nine of them are on the road, including a three-game California trip against the Anaheim Ducks, LA Kings and San Jose Sharks. As of today, all five of the Rangers’ home games in March are against teams in playoff position (NYI, PIT-2, FLA, BOS). The only two teams the Rangers play who are not in playoff position are Buffalo and Carolina (Eric Staal’s homecoming).
Coming off their impressive 10-3-1 record in February, the Rangers are going to have to take their game up to another level if they want to come close to that record for March. The addition of Eric Staal should definitely help, as AV now has more flexibility and depth in terms of matchups vs. other team’s defenses, something which is key on the road when the home team has last change. In addition to Staal, as was reported by today, barring any setbacks, Rick Nash should be back in the next 10-14 days, which falls out during the California road trip.
His return will help boost the top-six as well as the much maligned Rangers Penalty Kill. This also gives him a nice amount of time to get back up to speed, as the playoff chase heats up. At that point, we’ll have a better idea of how AV will shape the top-nine and who gets kicked out of the lineup.
As for goaltending, it will be interesting to see when AV goes to Antti Raanta. Presumably, he’ll get the start against Buffalo on Tuesday night, as I’ll assume Henrik Lundqvist will be playing three games in the four nights (PIT, WSH, NYI) prior to that tilt against the Sabres. Raanta has played well as of late, so AV should feel comfortable giving him one of the starts either vs. Anaheim or Los Angeles, as those games are on back-to-back nights. Finally, I think he’ll go in the March 26 game in Lundqvist’s house of horrors vs. Montreal. This would put Raanta at 15 starts going into April, and I would assume that if the Rangers have locked up a playoff spot by then that he would get one or two more to put him at 16/17 and Lundqvist at 65/66.
Crunch time is now. Historically, the Rangers have picked up their game after the trade deadline, which has served as their stepping stone to long playoff runs. Their schedule in March features several teams who they may encounter when the second week of April comes. Their play over the next four weeks will most likely tell us how they will fare when the lights are shining brightest.
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