With just two games left in the regular season, the New York Rangers’ playoff picture is far from settled. Depending on what happens between now and Sunday, the Rangers could finish in second, third, or even fourth place in their division. Below, we examine the most likely scenarios and discuss the significance of tonight’s games.
First, an important refresher on how playoff seeding works following the 2013-2014 conference realignment:
- The Eastern Conference is broken up into two eight-team divisions: the Metropolitan division and the Atlantic division. Eight of the 16 teams in the Conference make the playoffs.
- The top three seeds in each division are guaranteed entry into the playoffs. The remaining two playoff slots are referred to as “wildcards,” and are awarded to the teams with the highest point totals, irrespective of division. (Thus, for example, one division could have five playoff teams, while the other would have only three.)
- The second and third place teams from each division play each other in round one, with the higher seed having the home-ice advantage.
- The two division winners match up against the two wildcard teams; the division winner team with the higher point total plays the wildcard team with the lower point total.
Now, let’s take a look at the standings entering play on April 7, 2016:
Together with the Penguins and Islanders, the Rangers are part of a three team cluster that will make up the second and third seeds in the Metropolitan division, as well as one of the two wildcard teams. In other words, two of those three teams will play each other in round one, and the third will almost certainly play the Atlantic division-winning Florida Panthers. (There is a scenario under which the Islanders could fall to the lower wildcard slot and play the Washington Capitals, but it is highly unlikely).
Pittsburgh enters play tonight firmly in command of the second seed and home-ice advantage in round one, with 102 points and two games remaining (tonight at WAS; Sat. at PHI). The Rangers enter play tonight with 99 points and two games remaining (tonight vs. NYI; Sat. vs. DET). They play the Islanders, who enter play with 97 points, but three games remaining (tonight at NYR; Sat. vs. BUF; Sun. vs. PHI).
The most likely scenario here is that the Penguins will lock up the second seed in the Metropolitan division. Just one win of any kind (regulation, overtime, or shootout) in their final two games – or even two overtime or shootout losses – will get them to 104 points, a plateau neither the Rangers nor the Islanders can reach. Given the Penguins recent hot streak (9-1-0 in their last 10 games), that seems likely, though not a given. The Penguins final two games are against the Capitals – who have been dominant all season but have absolutely nothing to play for at this point – and the Flyers – who themselves might be playing for a playoff spot come Saturday. But let’s assume the Penguins find a way to earn two points in their final two games. If they do, they will host either the Rangers or Islanders in game one of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, which is why tonight’s match-up is so important.
As for the Rangers and Islanders, let’s start with the simplest scenario, and one that underscores the importance of tonight’s game: if the Rangers defeat the Islanders in regulation, they are guaranteed to finish ahead of the Islanders, and thus no worse than third place in the Metropolitan division. If the Rangers win in regulation tonight, and even assuming the Rangers were to lose in regulation on Saturday against Detroit, the Islanders could only match the Rangers’ 101 points by winning their final two games, but would still finish behind the Rangers by virtue of the tiebreaker (ROW, or regulation + overtime (i.e. non-shootout) wins). (Under this hypothetical, the Rangers would finish 43 ROWs, while the Islanders would have just 41). A win of any kind for the Rangers tonight also leaves the door slightly ajar for them to catch the Penguins and earn home ice in round one (but, again, not if the Penguins beat the Capitals tonight).
Things get a bit stickier if the Islanders win tonight. A regulation win would put them at 99 points, tied with the Rangers but with one game in hand. While catching Pittsburgh and securing home-ice would still be highly unlikely, the Islanders’ ability to finish third place in the division (with a first-round match-up against the Penguins) would increase dramatically. Under this scenario, they would only need one point to finish ahead of the Rangers if the Rangers were to lose their season finale against Detroit in regulation, or two points in their final two games if the Rangers were to lose to Detroit in overtime or a shootout. If the Rangers were to lose to the Islanders in regulation and then defeat Detroit in regulation or overtime, the Islanders would have to end up with 102 or more points in order to pass the Rangers, meaning they would still have to come away with three out of a possible four points in their final two games (in addition to defeating the Rangers tonight). Ultimately, given how unlikely it is that they will pass the Penguins and earn home-ice advantage, I suspect Islanders fans would rather a first round matchup against the Panthers, but just don’t believe players think that way, which means tonight’s game between the Rangers and Islanders should be among the most intense games of the season.
I could go on to describe several other permutations, but it seems that the most likely scenario is that the Penguins will find a way to lock up the second seed, with the Rangers in third and Islanders in the wildcard spot.
My final prediction is the Penguins ending up with 104 points, followed by the Rangers and Islanders at 101 (with the Rangers securing the third seed via the tiebreaker). Of course, everything could change in a night, and that night is tonight.