LOS ANGELES – As improbable as it may have seemed before the season started, a quick look at the NHL standings Wednesday would show that the still-rebuilding Rangers are absolutely in the hunt for a wild card playoff spot. And this four-game Western trip, which got off to such a fabulous start with a stunning and complete victory Sunday evening in Las Vegas, could provide a big boost to their hopes of making the postseason.
Prior to taking on the last-in-the-Western Conference L.A. Kings at Staples Center late Tuesday night, the Rangers, with 33 points from a 15-11-3 record, were four points behind the 18-11-1 Carolina Hurricanes for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and with a game in hand. The Hurricanes were also in action Tuesday night, playing the Pacific Division-leading Oilers in Edmonton.
“Yeah, we’re in it,’’ defenseman Marc Staal said in the locker room following Sunday’s 5-0 win over Vegas. “It’s hard to make it in the playoffs. You’ve got to get points, and you’ve got to keep on winning, and it doesn’t matter what time of year. We’ve just got to keep improving and keep working and hopefully we’ll continue to climb the standings.’’
With Vegas out of the way, the rest of the current trip – Tuesday at the Kings, Thursday at the San Jose Sharks, and Saturday afternoon at Anaheim against the Ducks – seemed to offer a real chance to make a move in the standings. The rebuilding Kings carried a four-game losing streak into Tuesday’s game, and an overall record of 11-18-2. And their 24 points were the third-fewest in the NHL. The Sharks were 15-15-2 (32 points) entering Tuesday’s visit to Nashville, and the Ducks, who played Tuesday in Minnesota, were 12-14-4 (28 points), and sitting second-to-last in the West.
So, on paper, at least, the opportunity was there for the Rangers to pick up some points on this trip.
Following Monday’s short skate at the Kings’ practice facility in El Segundo, California, coach David Quinn embraced the idea that the Rangers could start to look at the standings every day and legitimately chase a playoff spot.
“We’re there; we’ve got games in hand, and that’s our goal,’’ Quinn said. “The thing I like is, I think we’ve gotten better and better. There are obviously stretches of our game that we’ve got to get rid of – we’re not going to survive having starts like we did [Sunday in Vegas, when they were outshot 17-7 in the first period]; we’re not going to survive having games like we did in Columbus [a 3-2 victory in which they were outshot 47-19], where the third period, they completely dominate.’’
The Rangers won both of those games largely because they were saved by goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who had started the previous three games and who had allowed just four goals, on 151 shots (.974 save percentage). Georgiev got the night off Tuesday, as Henrik Lundqvist started against the Kings. Lundqvist had been scheduled to start Friday against Montreal (a 2-1 loss) but was scrubbed with a back injury that he said Monday was fully healed.
The Rangers, who were 7-3-1 in the 11 games entering Tuesday, are not yet out of their own rebuilding phase, but in the eyes of Quinn, the second-year coach, earning a playoff berth this season would be a key next step in the building process.
“I think part of developing is learning how to win,’’ Quinn said. “So it’s very important for us to make the playoffs. You know, we’re going to let people play through stretches they deserve to play through – especially these young players. If they’re making mistakes, but they have the right intentions, they’re going to continue to play. If they’re making mistakes where they’re lazy, or if their intentions aren’t in the right place, that’s when they’ll sit. It’s a balancing act.’’