With 10 games remaining in the regular season, the New York Rangers look like they will be headed to the playoffs for the third straight season.
Currently in the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, the same place the Rangers have finished the last two years, the Rangers are seven points behind the New Jersey Devils for the top spot in the conference.
With all of the remaining 10 games against division rivals (three each against Pittsburgh and New Jersey, and two each against Philadelphia and the NY Islanders) the Rangers can make up considerable ground in the stretch run.
However, there are questions surrounding the Rangers going into the playoffs.
Right off the bat, the Rangers need to make sure they win the majority of the remaining games, because they have teams behind them that can pass them as well. Right now, Boston is tied with the Rangers in points, although the Rangers have a game in hand, and Philadephia is only three points back.
Assuming the Rangers take care of business in the final 10 games, I really believe that the Rangers have a shot at going all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
A few things have to fall in line though for this to happen:
1. Henrik Lundqvist and Jaromir Jagr.
At the start of the year, Rangers radio analyst Dave Maloney said that the only way the Rangers would be successful this season is if Lundqvist and Jagr were playing at the top of their games.
Through 72 games this season, Lundqvist has been up and down (really up early, and really down late) and Jagr has struggled to find his scoring touch this year after the free-agent departure of Michael Nylander.
In the playoffs, Jagr has to step it up, and lead the team, and Lundqvist has to prove that he can be considered among the top five goalies in the league by putting together a strong playoff run like the goalie acorss the river (his name doesn't need to be said) has done time and again.
2. The Free Agent Signings.
On July 1, 2007, The Rangers made one thing clear: They are devoting their offensive future to Scott Gomez and Chris Drury.
After slow starts to this season, they have found their niche on the team. However, Glen Sather has said that these two centers earn their money in the post-season, and the Rangers need them to do that this year.
If Gomez can keep making plays like he has, and if Drury does what he did to the Rangers last season (Game Five, East Semis, 7.7 seconds remaining) the Rangers have the potential to make a deep run in the playoffs this year.
If the season ended today, the Rangers would take on the would-be Southeast Division champion Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs. Carolina and the Rangers are currently tied with 83 points, and the Rangers have two games in hand on them.
I feel that the Rangers can match-up with the Hurricanes, and in a seven game series, I would say Rangers in six. The Rangers can outskate the Hurrincanes, they have a better goaltender, and you can't forget about that Madison Square Garden crowd.
Out of the Eastern Conference, there are only two teams I would not want the Rangers to face in a playoff series: Pittsburgh, and New Jersey.
In Pittsburgh, the Rangers would be facing a much speedier team, a very potent power play, great scoring depth, and two goaltenders who can carry a team when hot.
I know many people will wonder why I pick New Jersey when we are 5-0 against them this year. My answer is two words: Martin Brodeur.
You can never underestimate him in a playoff series, and he gets pumped up for the Rangers more than any team in the league. I don't consider Ottawa a threat because the Rangers have proved that they can win in their building, and their goaltending is very shaky.
I feel that that with the exception of 30 minutes this year, we have been the better team against the Canadiens. Obviously they have a great power play, but I don't know how well Carey Price will respond in the playoffs, in front of hostile crowds at MSG, and in Montreal, if he struggles.
In a shaky Eastern Conference, I feel that the Rangers can put together a run that could have them playing until June. Whether they will beat whoever comes out of the West, a conference the Rangers have gone 1-9 against this year, will be seen. But, we still have a lot of hockey left.
Remember, it's the playoffs, who knows what will happen.
Always, Let's Go Rangers!