As a Rangers’ fan, I usually have very few nice things to say about the Islanders. Ok, I never have anything nice to say about the Islanders, but today is different. That’s because last night the Islanders completed a somewhat improbable home-in-home sweep of the Penguins, which put the Rangers in a very good position to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference. And that will be a huge deal this year.
There are a lot of ways to judge how good a hockey club is, but let’s just use points for now. Based on that the top 3 teams in the Eastern Conference are all in the Atlantic Division and the 4th-best team is either the Devils or the Bruins. So, it is very possible that the top-4 teams in the Atlantic Division will also be the top-4 point getters in the Eastern Conference.
The problem is, for playoff seeding that won’t matter a bit. The three division winners are guaranteed the top-3 seeds. That means that right now Pittsburgh, the second-best team in the conference will be the #4 seed. Even worse, the Flyers who are the third-best team will be the #5 seed and open on the road at Pittsburgh. So, winning the division is a HUGE deal this year especially.
Luckily, the Rangers are in good shape. Hockey magic numbers work a little differently, but theirs is 5. If the Rangers earn five points, the title is theirs. If the Penguins lose a game the points they didn’t earn get taken off that number. So, if the Rangers beat Pittsburgh when they play head-to-head next week, they would need only one other point to clinch. And, for those of you looking way ahead, the Rangers are one point behind St. Louis for the Presidents’ Trophy, but they also have a game in hand.
This has really been the best Rangers season since 1994. Sure, there were teams like the 1997 version that got to the Conference Finals and the 2007 and 2008 teams that did pretty well, but none of them played hockey like this one. This is not a flashy team. They don’t score goals easily, but they play terrific defense and grind things out. They also have a great goalie. I would pick the Penguins to win the conference based on overall talent, but I hope we get to see the Rangers take them on. We know the Rangers will be no lower than the 5th seed, but fans in New York are hoping for a lot more.