Rangers-Penguins games important for playoff positioning
Rangers coach Gerard Gallant has made it clear that he’s been happy with his team’s performance this season and pleased with where the Blueshirts are in the NHL standings. But he isn’t ready to chalk up a playoff bid for his club as a foregone conclusion.
He is willing to talk about the race the Rangers are in with the Pittsburgh Penguins right now to finish second in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers, with 85 points, trailed second-place Pittsburgh by three points before the teams faced each other Friday night at Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers and Penguins will see each other twice more after Friday — in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and back at the Garden on Thursday, April 7.
“These games are big, because right now, if you look at the standings, we're fighting for second place,’’ Gallant said Thursday. “Carolina’s got a little jump [the Hurricanes lead the division with 91 points] but things can change in a hurry. But we play Pittsburgh two of the next three games . . . and then we play them a week and a half later. So we play them three times within two weeks, so that's fun.’’
The way the NHL playoff matchups work, the winners of each division will play the two wild card teams in the first round, with the division winner with the best record playing the second wild card and the division winner with the second-best record playing the first wild card. The No. 2 and 3 teams in each division will play each other, with the No. 2 team getting home ice advantage in the best-of-seven series.
So if Carolina holds on to the top spot in the Metro division, the Rangers and Penguins, as of now, would figure to face each other in the first round. That means their three remaining regular season matchups would go a long way toward determining who gets home ice advantage in their playoff series.
There’s also the matter of message-sending, where each team wants to let the other know what they could be in for in the event they do end up meeting in the first round.
The teams played each other for the first time on Feb. 26, with the Penguins winning a tight, well-played game in Pittsburgh, 1-0. But both teams have changed since then. The Penguins made two trades at Monday’s NHL trade deadline, acquiring forward Rickard Rakell, who had been a target of the Rangers’, from the Anaheim Ducks and also adding defenseman Nathan Beaulieu from Winnipeg.
The Rangers brought in three new players on deadline day, forwards Andrew Copp from Winnipeg and Tyler Motte from Vancouver, and defenseman Justin Braun from Philadelphia. Plus, the Rangers also brought in forward Frank Vatrano last week from Florida.
In the bigger picture, the Rangers entered Friday with 18 games left in the regular season to figure out how best to incorporate four new players into their lineup. Copp, Motte and Braun all played their first games as Rangers on Tuesday in the 7-4 loss to the Devils in Newark, and they and Vatrano all practiced with the team for the first time on Thursday. Gallant put together all new lines in that practice, having Vatrano up on the first line, with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad; Copp on the second line, with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, and Motte on the fourth line, with Jonny Brodzinski and Dryden Hunt.
“I'm sure they liked getting out there getting to learn our systems a little bit more, and just get some familiarity amongst the group,’’ Rangers forward Barclay Goodrow said of the new guys at their first practice. “It's always tough when you get traded and you hop straight into a game, especially with the travel [Copp and Motte] had and time changes and everything.’’