Rangers Set To Kick Off A Mini Metro Playoff Preview

StandingsThe Rangers are cruising. 10-2-1 in their last 13 despite missing their captain for half of that stretch & Rick Nash for all of it. While struggling offensively of late, the Blueshirts have pulled out 4 of their last 5 in gutty fashion. They beat the Jackets on a late shorty, took down the Stars on the road with less than 3 minutes left, knocked off the Blues in STL with a 3rd period game-winner & grabbed two points in OT against Detroit. Still, this is the start of a big month for New York. This is about the time you wanna see your squad hit their stride & start piling up W’s against quality teams. Starting tonight in Pittsburgh, NY will have the opportunity 3 times over the next 4 days to do just that against potential playoff opponents.
Tonight’s tilt against the Penguins is the least of my worries. It’s all about Sid, Geno, Kessel & Letang before the Pens depth falls off a cliff up front & on the blue line (although Hornqvist’s caught fire recently). Those are some of the league’s elite & can certainly steal a 7-game series if given the opportunity, but if they leapfrog the Isles in the Metro that’s fine by me. Despite the weapons they have on top, they’re scoring at a mediocre clip as a team. Fleury is having his usual solid regular season, but nowhere near a level that would suggest ignoring his playoff history. These teams will battle three times this month so, with Philly nipping at their heels, expect the Penguins to give NY all they can handle. They’ll be solid tests the Rangers should pass, but if a couple Rangers losses help make this first-round matchup possible I’ll get over them.
Having the Caps on the tail end of a road back-to-back isn’t the most ideal scheduling, but it is what it is. Washington wrapped up the Metro some time in 2015 and have kept stacking the wins despite Holtby’s shaky play since the calendar turned. It always helps to be backstopping an offense that’s on pace to be the highest-scoring over 82 games since the ’11-’12 Penguins, but it’s not just firepower. Ovi & Co. have become masters at spotting teams a lead before bearing down & potting a third period game-winner. 13 of their last 15 have been 1-goal games & they’ve won 10 of them. It’s still only the regular season, but they’re getting comfortable finding ways to win under all circumstances & it’d take the absolute best NY has got to knock them out for the 4th straight playoff meeting. Grinding out two points against a rested Caps team under their own roof would be a big-time bow to put on their season series.
After Saturday off, the rival Islanders come to MSG. From an excitement standpoint there’s no better opening series a fan could ask for & Sunday will be a good taste of what that atmosphere would be like. The Isles have been hot of late too, winning 4 of 5 with one to go on a 6-game roadie. They’re not as balanced as the Rangers up front (especially after the addition of Eric Staal) but they’re close. I’m a little surprised Garth Snow didn’t shake it up a bit at the deadline to spark his team & their lackluster Brooklyn debut, but they’re still built to be a tough out come playoff time.
Tavares has been pedestrian compared to his usual standards but is clearly still a talent that can catch fire & take over a game/series. My biggest worry for the Rangers in a potential postseason war is the Clutterbuck/Martin/Cizikas trio. AV’s coaching one of the softer squads & those maniacs are the toughest line in hockey to play against. When it comes down to it though, it’s Jaro Halak between the pipes who’s coming off his worst month by far. Unless Capuano turns the team over to Greiss, who’s essentially been the Isles’ Cam Talbot this year & would be a playoff wild card, the difference in goaltending isn’t one that’s gonna be made up anywhere else on the ice. We’re still about 20 games away from a potential 7-gamer though, so until then these last two NYR/NYI regular season matchups are not only big-game practice but important ones for the Blueshirts to have & help ensure home-ice.
Rick Nash finally skated a bit today & expects to return for the latter half of a month chock full of quality competition. Besides everything mentioned above, there’s a Cali trip coming as well as tilts against the B’s & Panthers. It’s the home stretch boys & girls. For a squad intent on getting over that Cup hump, the time to start developing those playoff chops is now. Buckle up.