The Rangers were off Monday, but the Department of Speculation and Numbers Crunching never rests.
Start with this: If the cutoff to earn a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference settles at 98 points, like last season, the Rangers would need 45 points in their final 37 games. Last spring, the Pittsburgh Penguins grabbed the second and final wild-card slot with 98, ending the regular season 43-27-12; the Rangers would need a 19-11-7 finish to match that mark.
Last year’s trends cannot guarantee this year’s though; the cutoff could be a shade lower. But the Blueshirts (24-16-5, 53 points and in third place in the Metropolitan Division) cannot, by any means, feel comfortable inside the playoff circle. In fact, they are four points from being out of the playoff picture, with the Penguins and others nipping at their heels.
Although www.sportsclubstats.com, which projects playoff odds daily for pro teams, calculates that the Rangers currently have a 71.2-percent chance of making the cut, the path forward is littered with land mines.
Eighteen of the final 37 games for the Rangers are at home, where the Blueshirts have done very well: 16-5-2 (34 points in 23 games). However, 19 are on the road, where the Rangers are 8-11-3 (19 points in 22 games). Another hurdle: seven back-to-back sets remain. The Rangers are 5-4-1 in the second game of the 10 sets so far. And injuries and trades before the Feb. 29 deadline will alter the overall landscape.
For the moment, opportunity beckons. The Rangers are escaping a stretch during which seven of the last eight games were battles with teams currently in the playoffs; they went 4-3-1. The next eight are against seven teams currently out of the playoff mix.
In the final four games before the All-Star break that begins Jan. 26, all four opponents, beginning with the Vancouver Canucks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, would not be in the playoffs if the season had ended Monday.
The Canucks (19-17-10 and 6-3-1 in the last 10) will be missing center Henrik Sedin, who has nine goals and 37 points, after he was knocked out of Sunday’s game by a first-period check from Islanders forward Mikhail Grabovski. The Rangers then travel to face the Hurricanes (20-19-8) on Friday, then to Ottawa (21-18-6) for a Sunday matinee and back home to host the Sabres (18-23-4) on Monday.
For the optimists, Henrik Lundqvist looks more like the stopper who reigned at the start of the season, Chris Kreider’s game has returned with three goals in the last two, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh is rounding into form.
On the downside, the top six isn’t scoring consistently; the penalty-kill, ranked 23rd in the league, and the power play (16th) are sapping momentum, and the defensive breakdowns are astonishing: Twelve times in the last 16 games the Rangers have allowed two goals in 2:31 or less.
Perhaps the Rangers could learn from the NHL-leading Capitals. “We’re not relinquishing a lot of leads,” said Justin Williams, who had a hat trick against the Rangers on Sunday, “and when we do, we push hard and get it back. You don’t want to give any team life.”