By: Michael Abitabilo
With an ugly, relatively unimpressive, and flat-out lucky 4-3 overtime win last night, the New York Rangers finally clinched a spot in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet, with just one game remaining on their schedule, the Rangers do not know who they will face in the first round of the playoffs. In light of that uncertainty, it remains likely that starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will play in Saturday’s season finale against the New Jersey Devils.
Lundqvist could undoubtedly use a day off. He has started 13 straight games, 22 of the last 23, and 42 of 47 overall, representing 89% of his team’s games, all in a season in which the schedule was condensed in such a way that teams played more games per week than ever before. Lundqvist has not endured a workload like this since the 2009-2010 season, when he started a career-high 73 games out of a full 82-game slate. Not-so-coincidentally, the Rangers similarly scrambled to make the playoffs that season, too, falling just short in their final game when rent-a-player Olli Jokinen brutally flubbed his shootout attempt and allowed the (f’in) Flyers into the playoffs. (It stung that much more when the Flyers advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals that year). Since then, Rangers coach John Tortorella has made a concerted effort to reduce Lundqvist’s workload, based on the premise that having him fresh and well-rested for the playoffs is important to a successful run. Indeed, last season, when the Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1997, Lundqvist played in just 62 of his team’s 82 games – the fewest he had played since his rookie season.
Following last night’s victory, the Rangers have 54 points, the same number as both the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. The Rangers can finish either sixth, seventh, or eighth in the Eastern Conference, meaning they will face either the first seeded Pittsburgh Penguins, second seeded Boston Bruins, or third seeded Washington Capitals. As such, the reality is that Saturday’s finale likely will have legitimate playoff implications. While they might not admit it publicly, (and in a case of be careful what you wish for) the Rangers’ opponent of choice would probably be the Washington Capitals, a team they beat in seven games in last year’s playoffs. To realize this matchup, the Rangers would have to finish sixth in the conference, which would almost certainly require them to win on Saturday (save for a few wacky/unlikely scenarios).
The Islanders finish their regular season with a game in Buffalo tonight, while the Senators have two games remaining: Saturday night at home against Philadelphia, and Sunday afternoon in Boston. If Ottawa wins just one of those two games (in regulation or overtime), the Rangers cannot finish higher than seventh. One regulation or overtime win for the Senators combined with an Islanders win tonight means the Rangers would have to win their final game to avoid finishing eighth and playing the Penguins in round one. If the Islanders fail to earn a point tonight, the Rangers are guaranteed to finish no worse than seventh, and could at least consider resting Lundqvist under the presumption that Ottawa will win one of their final two games (which would render the outcome of the Rangers’ final game irrelevant).
Despite the various permutations, the most likely scenario is that the Rangers will end up in seventh place and face the Bruins in round one. But in an attempt to avoid the Penguins and at least give themselves a chance at the six seed, the Rangers will likely turn to Lundqvist once again on Saturday for the 14th consecutive time. Despite the heavy workload this season, Lundqvist knows he will have to start 16-28 more games for his team to achieve its ultimate goal.
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Mike Abitabilo is the Co-Founder of the Read Zone, and has nightmares that Henrik Lundqvist will go down as the greatest (and most handsome) goaltender never to win a Stanley Cup.