The Rangers' Adam Fox collides with and lands on the Hurricanes'...

The Rangers' Adam Fox collides with and lands on the Hurricanes' Shayne Gostisbehere during the second period of an NHL game in Raleigh, N.C., on March 23. Credit: AP/Karl B DeBlaker

WASHINGTON – For a minute there, the Rangers had reason to dream about winning the Metropolitan Division, or at least finishing second, and earning home-ice advantage in their first-round playoff series. And, to be fair, both of those objectives are, technically, still achievable.

Really, though, after the last two games, neither seems very likely.

The one point the Rangers gained from their last two games, from a 3-2 overtime loss to the Sabres Friday in Buffalo, was only enough to pull them within three points of the Devils and four of Carolina entering Saturday. And both the Devils (at Chicago) and Carolina (at Montreal) had very winnable games against bottom-of-the-standings teams Saturday night.

So, with six games remaining in the regular season, it’s looking more and more as if the Rangers are destined to finish third in the Metro, and will face the second-place finisher. And based on what we’ve seen over the regular season, Rangers fans should be rooting for the Devils to pass Carolina and win the division, leaving the Blueshirts to face the Hurricanes in the first round.

The reason is simple: The Rangers went 3-1 against the Hurricanes in the regular season. They went 1-2-1 against the Devils.

They also, of course, beat Carolina in the playoffs last year, winning Game 7 on the road. So the Rangers know the Hurricanes really well, and they know how to play against them. The Hurricanes are skilled, disciplined and well-coached by Rod Brind’Amour. But their roster is missing two high-impact forwards in Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov, both lost for the season to injury. Also not to be overlooked is that Carolina doesn’t have Vincent Trocheck anymore. He’s on the Rangers now.

The Devils? They’re fully healthy, and scary, led by the electrifying Jack Hughes, Norris Trophy candidate Dougie Hamilton, and a young, exciting roster bolstered by the trade deadline addition of sniper Timo Meier.

It’s true that playoff hockey is different from regular-season hockey, and the Rangers have played playoff hockey in the past year, while the Devils haven’t played a playoff game since 2018. So maybe the Devils won’t be quite ready for how the intensity level rachets up in the postseason.

But last year’s Rangers hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2017, and they adapted pretty quickly. And looking at the talent, and speed, that the Devils have on their roster, there’s no reason they can’t do the same.

Gallant hopes combinations remain intact

With six games left to fine-tune their game before the playoffs start, Rangers coach Gerard Gallant was asked if he might experiment with different combinations before the playoffs begin. He didn’t rule it out, but kept saying he was trying to win games, and hoped he didn’t have to.

“I hope we're going to stay the same way we are,’’ he said Friday in Buffalo. “Things can change from game to game, but right now we're satisfied with what we're seeing from our group.’’

That was before the game. Little more than two hours later, he wasn’t satisfied anymore.

With the Rangers having been thoroughly outplayed in the first period by the Sabres, Gallant tweaked his top two lines in the second, switching left wings Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider, putting Kreider with Mika Zibanejad and Vladimir Tarasenko, and Panarin with Trocheck and Patrick Kane.

And when he still wasn’t happy with what he was getting from his team, Gallant tweaked the lines again in the third period, putting Panarin and Kreider back on the lines they started on, and then switching Zibanejad and Trocheck. That put Zibanejad between Kreider and Kane, and Trocheck between Panarin and Tarasenko.

Gallant, who can get touchy about the reputation he has for changing his lines all the time, had started the same four lines for 11 straight games. But he clearly ran out of patience with his top six forwards on Friday. And after an off day Saturday, it’s highly possible he’ll be switching some people around for Sunday’s game in Washington against the Capitals.

The bottom two lines – the Kid Line of Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko, and the fourth line of Jimmy Vesey, Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Motte – will stay together, but Gallant will want to try and spark something in the top two lines.

The Panarin-Zibanejad-Tarasenko line had looked great for a while, and Kane, a creative, East-West style player, seemed to be figuring out how to play with Trocheck and Kreider, two straight-line, drive-to-the-net types.

But things looked a little stale the last two or three games. And so, as much as Gallant had hoped he wouldn’t have to make any changes over the last couple weeks, it may be time to experiment. It would be interesting to see what Kane looks like playing with Zibanejad. 

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