As a Rangers die-hard, I should probably just clam up and enjoy the ride this team is on. However, ever the cynic, I never seem to be satisfied.
So with that said, while proving Thursday night that perhaps this team isn’t half bad after all, I am hardly content.
After all, it was only Tuesday that the hungry Islanders rode their red-hot backup goalie to a shootout victory while Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist looked like anything but the franchise goalie that he’s getting paid to be.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at exactly where this team is, and where it needs to be.
The Rangers must beat Crosby now to avoid facing him later.
As I stated at the trade deadline, I am the first to admit that it’s wonderful to be on the cusp of a third successive playoff berth after seven long years of futility. On the other hand, I wondered aloud: “At what point are the fans allowed to cease being thrilled that we’re no longer amongst the league’s cellar dwellers? At what point is it once again acceptable to demand excellence from this organization?”
In Year One of the Ranger Revival, the Blueshirts were the surprise of the post-lockout NHL, breaking their long-standing playoff drought and providing their fans a reason to hold their heads high once again, despite a first-round sweep at the hands of the rival Devils.
Year Two had the makings of a “here we go again” step backwards for the franchise until the late season trade for Sean Avery seemed to invigorate the locker room and spur the team on to its second straight postseason appearance, followed by an impressive four-game sweep of the Atlanta Thrashers in the first round. The Rangers found themselves overmatched by the Buffalo Sabres, but still managed to stretch their second-round series to six games.
Which brings us to 2008.
The playoffs are a thoroughly unpredictable animal. Nevertheless, Ranger fans will not be satisfied with another early first round exit, nor should they be. After coming within two wins of the Conference Finals last season, anything less than a series victory in the Conference Semi-Finals should be considered a setback for this franchise, even had they not gone and bestowed $86.75 million on Chris Drury and Scott Gomez in the offseason.
Given GM Glen Sather‘s spending spree, and given the GM’s statements while in Edmonton that “if we had the Rangers’ payroll, we’d win every year,” I’m not about to give this team too much credit for finally beating the rival Islanders for just the second time all season. Sure the win propelled them into sole possession of sixth place in the Conference, but a quick perusal of the standings reveals that sixth place simply isn’t good enough.
Sixth place matches this team up with the Southeast Division leader. Without a doubt, it is the weakest division in hockey, but nevertheless, not an ideal first round matchup for the Rangers. The Carolina Hurricanes, currently leading the Southeast, boast superstar Eric Staal and also have proved they are more than willing to play a physical brand of hockey that has intimated the Rangers at times this season. The Blueshirts have shown they can respond to Carolina’s tactics, however it remains an undesirable matchup. As for the Washington Capitals, another threat to take the Southeast division and potentially face the Rangers in the first round, we have two words: Alexander Ovechkin.
Even as the Blueshirts have secured their position in the postseason, their prospects of advancing very far remain bleak. If they aren’t facing Carolina or Washington as the No. 6 seed, then they’ll likely face Pittsburgh or Montreal as the No. 7 or 8 seed. While I wouldn’t rule this team out entirely in any of those hypothetical series, it isn’t the matchup this team should be aiming for given the organization’s lofty aspirations.
This is a team that, going on its third straight appearance in the postseason, should not be satisfied with anything less than home-ice in the first round of the playoffs. With 14 games remaining and just four points separating the Blueshirts from the No. 1 seed in the East, that goal is within reach.
The Rangers will face the Pittsburgh Penguins at MSG on March 18th, and again during a critical home-and-home on March 30th and 31st. This week saw Sidney Crosby return to a Penguins lineup that already featured league MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin, while Marian Hossa should soon return from the knee sprain that felled him in his Pittsburgh debut. One would have to think that the Penguins will pull ahead of the pack during this final month of the season, though after a brutal loss to the dismal Panthers last night, the schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Pens, who have Washington, Buffalo, and Philly coming up – three teams fighting tooth-and-nail to make the postseason.
The New Jersey Devils remain a far more realistic target for which to shoot. The Devils lead the Rangers by a narrow three-point margin, while the Blueshirts hold a game in hand. The rivals face each other three more times this season: March 19th in Newark, March 27th at the Garden, and again, in the final game of the season, in Newark on April 6th. The Rangers absolutely must take two of those three games. A three-game sweep nearly assures the East’s 4th seed – at the very least.
Should the team make the most of their match-ups against Pittsburgh and New Jersey, they could seize a Top-2 seed, setting themselves up for a date in the first round with a weaker opponent such as Boston or Philly.
An aggressive move up the standings is vital to this team’s success in the ’08 postseason.