Rangers firmly in playoff spot at All-Star break
Forty-nine games down and 33 to go for the Rangers, who arrived at the NHL All-Star break firmly in a playoff spot. They're sitting third in the Metropolitan Division, six points behind the second-place Devils and four ahead of the Washington Capitals, who currently occupy the first wild-card position.
At the break, the Rangers are 27-14-8, good for 62 points. This, after they started the season 11-10-5.
“Obviously, we're happy with the way we've been able to turn it around after a tough start,’’ first-line center Mika Zibanejad said after the Rangers closed out the pre-All-Star schedule with a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Friday night. “I think from early December until now, we’ve had a pretty good record and played some pretty good hockey. Now we’ll get some rest physically, mentally, and just get ready for that last bit of the season.’’
When they return to practice Sunday, they’ll be getting ready for a stretch run in which they will play 33 games in 67 days to close out the season, beginning Monday against the Calgary Flames. Barring a major injury or something unforeseen, they are in good position to make the playoffs if they can keep doing what they’re doing.
There still is work to be done, however. The roster clearly lacks a top-six right wing and general manager Chris Drury has little more than a month to find a proven goal-scorer to add at or before the March 3 trade deadline. They also will have to take care of business in three games each against Washington, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, the three teams behind them in the wild-card standings.
If the Rangers hold on to third place in the division and the Devils finish second, the teams will match up in the first round of the playoffs, and that could be an epic series. Besides the natural rivalry between the teams, the Devils have the most exciting young player in the NHL in Jack Hughes, whose 33 goals are tied for fifth-most in the league. His 66 points are ninth.
Hughes was the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and it was hoped that he and Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick that year, would have a long rivalry while playing on opposite sides of the Hudson River. Kakko, who’s having a nice season this year (nine goals, 23 points) clearly isn’t the star that Hughes is, though — at least not yet. Nor is Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020.
The Devils, who have been rebuilding for years before emerging as a Stanley Cup contender this season, also happen to be coached by Lindy Ruff, who was an assistant on the Rangers’ staff before taking the Devils' job in 2020.
One of the turning points in the season for the Rangers was their Nov. 28 loss to the Devils at the Garden, a game after which goaltender Igor Shesterkin declared himself “ashamed’’ about how he was playing. Shesterkin picked up his play after that and the Rangers, as a whole, got better, too. The Rangers then beat the Devils on Dec. 12 at the Garden and lost in overtime Jan. 7 in Newark. They will play each other one more time in the regular season in Newark on March 30.