The Rangers’ primary focus heading into tonight’s pivotal matchup with the Buffalo Sabres has to be about simply wrapping up two points and inching closer and closer to a playoff spot. But one element that should make the game just a little bit more interesting (aside from the already-established history between the two clubs) is the chance that the two teams could potentially meet in the playoffs, perhaps even as early as the first round.
Heading into tonight’s game, the Sabres, who lead the Northwest Division with 96 points and have four games remaining, including tonight, are just one point behind the New Jersey Devils for second place in the Eastern Conference. The Devils, also with four games to go in their schedule, are in Atlanta tonight to face the Thrashers, who have 91 points and three games remaining.
One spot ahead of the Thrashers sit the Rangers, who have 92 points and four games remaining and currently in ninth. With a game in hand on all three of the clubs directly ahead of them in the playoff race, the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins, and the Philadelphia Flyers, the Rangers aren’t just looking to make the playoffs right now. They’re aiming at getting as high a seed as possible. Should they finish sixth or seventh, the possibility of a series with the Sabres looms large.
In three previous contests between the two teams this season, the Sabres hold a slim edge, with two victories to the Rangers’ one. All three contests, however, were one-goal games. In fact, the two teams happen to share many similarities.
Unquestionably, both teams’ most valuable player this season has been each of their respective goaltenders. Henrik Lundqvist, of course, for the Rangers, and the hero of the United States’ silver-medal effort in the Olympics, Ryan Miller, for the Sabres. Both teams could use a little bit more firepower offensively, although the Sabres boast a bit more scoring depth than the Rangers.
Then there are Marc Staal and Tyler Myers, the two lanky young defensemen that anchor the blueline units for both teams. Even in the faceoff circle, the numbers are nearly identical: the Rangers winning 49.1 percent of their faceoffs (20th in the NHL), and the Sabres winning 48.8 percent of their draws (22nd in the NHL).
On the power play, both teams are just about average. The Rangers are 15th in the league with the extra-man advantage, converting at 18.4 percent. The Sabres, meanwhile are just behind, in 17th, at 17.7 percent.
Where the Sabres hold an edge, however, is on the penalty kill. The Rangers are no pushovers in that department themselves, denying the opposition’s power play at a rate of 84.2 percent, good for ninth-best in the NHL. Buffalo, however, is tops in that category. They kill off 86.5 percent of their penalties, and that’s the highest number in the league.
Of course, there is also the memory of the last time these two clubs faced one another in the postseason. The 2006-07 Eastern Conference Semifinals, when then-Sabre captain (and current Ranger captain) Chris Drury helped Buffalo eliminate the Rangers in six games. That Ranger team was not only the best edition of the club since the lockout, but perhaps even since the 1996-97 team that made it to the conference finals, and the series against the Sabres was the most exciting Rangers playoff series since that ‘97 team lost to the Flyers in five games.
Of all the potential first-round matchups for the Rangers, a list that includes the Washington Capitals, the New Jersey Devils, and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Buffalo might just be the most preferable. What do you think? Who would you rather see the Rangers face in the first round, if they do indeed manage to make it to the playoffs?