The New York Rangers seem to be regaining their mojo, having won five out of their last six games.
But with only five games remaining in the regular season and so much at stake in obtaining first place in the Atlantic Division, the heat is definitely on.
Their number one goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, continues to be a strong force in net. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards have more than figured out how to play and assist one another. Even Brandon Dubinsky is playing better hockey recently than we have seen from him all season.
That, and the fact that they capitalized on the opportunity to surpass their Atlantic Division rival Pittsburgh Penguins by a stretch of five points, puts them in a pretty good position.
But with five games left to be played, so much can change in the standings. I would like to focus on what the ideal matchups for the New York Rangers would be in each playoff round. Please note the key word is "ideal," and it's not so much dependent upon the actual current standings, but rather who I would prefer them to play in each round.
In a perfect world, the ideal opponent for the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals would have to be the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets are currently in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 78 points. It would really take somewhat of a miracle to have them actually make it as the eighth and final seed, but I like the odds if the Rangers played against them.
The Rangers have swept the Jets in all four games in the season series (two of which were 3-0 shutouts).
After the Rangers' 4-2 victory against the Jets Wednesday night, the Jets have now lost five out of their last six games and are 3-7-0 in last 10, so they are on a bit of a losing streak.
Their morale is low and I think, given their poor history against the Blueshirts, they would be an easy opponent, especially for the first round of the playoffs.
I also like the fact that both Rangers goaltenders have had success playing against the Jets. Martin Biron has been in net and won two out of the four games against the Jets this season.
Also, Rangers Captain Ryan Callahan scored the winning goal in two out of the four games played, so he proves to be yet another lethal weapon to be used against them, as well as scoring a power-play goal against them Wednesday night.
The Blueshirts' penalty kill has additionally proven to be extremely successful against the Jets. In the series against them this season, the Rangers have denied them in all 11 attempts.
Lastly, the Rangers are the only Eastern Conference team that the Jets have yet to beat this season. Pretty good odds if you ask me.
For the second round of the playoffs, I think the ideal matchup for the New York Rangers would be the Boston Bruins.
While the Bruins are No. 1 in the Northeastern Division with 93 points, the Rangers have beaten them in all three outings this season (one of which was a 3-0 shutout), as well as having won five straight games against them dating back to last season.
The Bruins are 5-5-0 in their last 10 games, but have won the four out of their last five. This shows considerable improvement since early March, where things looked bleak for the defending Stanley Cup champs and Tim Thomas, who was finally showing his age.
Since that time, Thomas has also improved his game, but the fact remains that the Bruins cannot depend upon him, as they had become accustomed to in the past season.
After backup goaltender Tuuka Rask sustained a groin injury, the Bruins signed veteran Marty Turco. However, since he was signed after the trade deadline, he is not eligible to play in the postseason.
Rask is supposedly healing ahead of schedule and could be expected back in the lineup as early as next week, but that is just speculation at this point. Even once he does return, who's to say he will be playing at the level he was prior to his injury?
The Bruins are a strong team overall, but I believe the Rangers are stronger and would have no problem defeating them at this point in the postseason.
The ideal matchup for the New York Rangers for the Eastern Conference Finals would be the Philadelphia Flyers.
While the Flyers are in third place in the Atlantic Division with 96 points and fifth place in the Eastern Conference, they have had terrible luck against the Rangers dating back to March 6th, 2011, when the Rangers shut them out at Madison Square Garden, 7-0.
The Rangers have defeated the Flyers in all five meetings up until this point this season (the last two of which were by a score of 5-2). They have also not allowed the Flyers to score more than two goals in any game against them.
This means that not only has the goaltending by the Rangers been phenomenal against the Flyers, but so has their defense.
Since the Blueshirts obviously have the Flyers number for the last year or so, I would say they feel pretty confident playing against them at any point in the playoffs.
I choose them as their ideal Eastern Conference Finals opponents, because of their longstanding success against them in the past seven meetings.
The Flyers have also struggled with their goaltending for some time.
Starting goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was finally proving somewhat worthy of his monumental contract. However, following their loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night (where he gave up four goals), he has been listed as day-to-day, due to a chip fracture in his right foot.
This is terrible timing for the franchise, who haven't played backup goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky since March 11th.
The Flyers recalled goaltender Jason Bacashihua and defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon from their AHL affiliate Adirondack Phantoms on Wednesday due to Bryzgalov's foot injury and defenseman Kimmo Timonen's upper body injury.
These changes to the lineup at such a crucial point in the season could greatly affect their confidence in their last few games, as well as going into the playoffs.
Couple that with them already being shaken up by the Rangers' continued success against them and it is no question as to why they would be the perfect Eastern Conference Finals opponent.
This was a tough one to decide upon. The Rangers play their Western Conference opponents so infrequently in the regular season, so it is hard to really judge how they play against them in a best-of-seven series.
After much thought, I have decided that the Chicago Blackhawks would be the best option for the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Finals, despite the fact that they have lost both matchups against them this season.
For one, the Blackhawks goaltending is very poor. Compared with the strength of the Rangers goaltending, that could greatly contribute to New York's success against them.
The Blackhawks' starting goaltender Ray Emery is 39th in the league for save percentages, while Lundqvist is third. That is quite a vast difference.
Chicago is also in fourth place in the Central Division with 93 points and sixth place in the Western Conference, thereby giving them no chance of winning home-ice advantage during the playoffs. The Rangers, however, will hopefully clinch first in the Eastern Conference, giving them home-ice advantage throughout.
The Rangers have a record of 26-10-2 at home, while the Blackhawks have a record of 16-18-4 away, so I like the odds in that area as well.
Overall, I think if the Rangers make it to this point in the playoffs, then nothing will come in their way of winning the Stanley Cup. And if there were any team in the West that I think they could do so against, it would have to be the Blackhawks.
Again, these predictions are only based on what I believe would be their ideal matchups, so in a perfect world, this is how it will unfold.
It will be interesting to see how things truly pan out and who they are matched up with throughout all four rounds.