Ryan McDonagh in a game on Long Island.
Before the 2013 season began, who would have though the New York Rangers would find themselves in eighth place with only eight games remaining?
The correct answer is: not many people.
They were the go-to choice for analysts picking Stanley Cup champions on the eve of the NHL’s return in January. But after a tumultuous start, the Rangers never really found their footing, and what ensued was a season-long battle to find their game.
Power-play struggles, goal-scoring deficiencies, defensive breakdowns, lack of overall team depth; the only problem this team hasn't had to deal with is the injury bug.
But despite all the problems, the Rangers are still in a position to make the playoffs.
They've got eight games to put all their shortcomings behind them and just win. Their schedule down the stretch is not as burdensome as other teams', but there are still a number of must-win games.
There are three in particular that stick out, and the Rangers' ability to grab maximum points in them will determine whether they make the playoffs or not.
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan battles for a puck in Philadelphia.
If there’s one team who’s disappointed more this season than the Rangers, it’s without a doubt the Philadelphia Flyers.
They were a solid team last season and, with a plethora of young talent, they were expected to be right back near the top of the Atlantic Division in 2013. But injuries and inconsistencies have made the Flyers a sub-.500 hockey club.
And, interestingly enough, they too are still in the playoff hunt. It’s just been that kind of year.
If they can put together a solid set of games to end the regular season, they may squeak in. But the Rangers can put a stop to that on April 16.
They’ll travel to Philadelphia for their fifth and final matchup of the season with hopes of squashing the Flyers’ chances of reaching the postseason.
As always, it’ll be a spirited affair. And with the playoff implications the game will carry, we could be in for a real treat.
The Rangers have posted a 3-1-0 record against the Flyers this year. Their only loss came in a game at the Wells Fargo Center back in January.
Much of the Rangers' success against the Flyers came from their ability to shut down star center Claude Giroux, who has zero goals against the Rangers this season. The Rangers have also taken advantage of the Flyers' lack of mobility on the back end. This has allowed them to implement a solid forecheck in all four meetings.
Rick Nash carries the puck in a game versus the New Jersey Devils.
The final regular-season game will be a rematch of 2012’s Eastern Conference Finals, and both teams could have the opportunity to eliminate the other from postseason contention.
As it stands now, the 10th-place Devils have 40 points, four fewer than the Rangers, who sit two spots ahead of them.
There was a time when the Devils seemed to be a lock for the playoffs, but in their last eight games they've been able to secure only four points, and their stranglehold on the seventh spot in the East has withered away. An overall lack of goals has been the major reason for the Devils’ plummet, and Ilya Kovalchuk’s injury isn't helping matters.
If the Devils continue to lose games and find themselves out of it by April 27, there’s no doubt they would still relish the opportunity to deny the Rangers a chance to make the playoffs.
But the two teams will play before this final matchup on April 21, and if the Devils can win that game, then the final meeting could be a barn-burner.
The teams split the first two meetings of the season, which both took place in New Jersey. The final two games will be in New York.
This is good for the Rangers because they’re a significantly better team at home than they are on the road. So look for them to capitalize in front of a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd if this game does indeed become the season-decider.
John Tavares tries to beat Henrik Lundqvist.
For the first time in many, many years the Rangers and Islanders will play a late-season hockey game that has playoff implications for both teams.
It’s at Nassau Coliseum, too, so you know the Rangers fans will travel well and that the place will be hopping.
I've got goose bumps just thinking about it.
Before play on April 11, both teams had 44 points in 40 games, but the Islanders were the ones in the seventh spot because of their advantage in the regulation and overtime-loss (ROW) category.
Currently, the Islanders are on fire. They've got a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games—April 11’s game notwithstanding—and they seem to have hit their stride at the right time. If they continue their tear against Boston, the Rangers could be in trouble on April 13.
The Blueshirts have gotten the better of the Isles this season, though. They've picked up points in all three games with a 2-0-1 record. Their last meeting on March 7 featured Marian Gaborik overtime heroics, but this time the Rangers will skate without Gaborik, who was a perennial Islanders killer during his time with the team.
When it’s all said and done, this game will come down to defense. It’s no secret that John Tavares is a sensational hockey player with the ability to make others around him better. If the Rangers’ defense can shut him down, you've got to like their chances.
But that’s a big if.
As of late, the likes of Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh have been, to put it mildly, off their games.
The same applies to the Islanders. If they can shut down the duo of Nash and Stepan, then they too have a good chance of winning.
Whichever team can take the two points in this one will be sitting pretty in terms of the playoff race.
It’s going to be a classic, so don’t miss it.