The Rangers were off Monday, but the Department of Speculation and Number-Crunching never rests.
Start with this: If the cutoff to earn a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference settles at 98 points, as it did last season, the Rangers will need 45 points in their final 37 games. Last spring, the Pittsburgh Penguins grabbed the second and final wild-card slot with 98, ending the regular season 43-27-12; the Rangers (24-16-5) need a 19-11-7 finish to match that mark.
Last season’s trends cannot guarantee this season’s, of course. The cutoff could be a shade lower. But the Blueshirts (in third place in the Metropolitan Division with 53 points) cannot by any means feel comfortable. They are four points from being out of the playoff picture, with the Penguins and others nipping at their heels.
Although www.sportsclubstats.com, which projects playoff odds daily for pro teams, calculates that the Rangers currently have a 71.2 percent chance of making the cut, the path forward is littered with land mines.
Eighteen of the Rangers’ final 37 games are at home, where the Blueshirts have done very well: 16-5-2 (34 points in 23 games). But 19 are on the road, where they are 8-11-3 (19 points in 22 games).
Another hurdle: Seven back-to-back sets remain. The Rangers are 5-4-1 in the second game of the 10 sets so far.
Injuries and trades before the Feb. 29 deadline will alter the overall landscape, of course.
For the moment, opportunity beckons. The Rangers are escaping a stretch in which seven of eight games were battles with teams currently in the playoffs; they went 4-3-1. The next eight are against seven teams currently out of the playoff mix.
In the final four games before the All-Star break, which begins Jan. 26, all four opponents — beginning with the Vancouver Canucks at Madison Square Garden tonight — would not be in the playoffs if the season had ended Monday.
The Canucks (19-17-10, 6-3-1 in the last 10) will be missing center Henrik Sedin, who was knocked out of Sunday’s game by a first-period check by Islanders forward Mikhail Grabovski. Sedin has nine goals and 37 points.
The Rangers will visit the Hurricanes (20-19-8) on Friday, then will play in Ottawa (21-18-6) in a Sunday matinee before returning home against the Sabres (18-23-4) on Monday.
For the optimists, Henrik Lundqvist looks more like the stopper who reigned at the start of the season, Chris Kreider has scored three goals in the last two games, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh is rounding into form.
On the downside, the top two lines are not scoring consistently; the penalty kill (23rd in the league) and the power play (16th) are sapping momentum, and the defensive breakdowns have been astonishing. Twelve times in the last 16 games, the Rangers have allowed two goals in 2:31 or less.
Perhaps the Rangers could learn from the NHL-leading Capitals. “We’re not relinquishing a lot of leads,” said Justin Williams, who had a hat trick against the Rangers on Sunday, “and when we do, we push hard and get it back. You don’t want to give any team life.”