A glance at the standings doesn’t paint the most optimistic image for the Rangers’ playoff hopes this year. Tied fifth place in the division with a .531 points percentage (34P/32GP), they need to jump one more team with 25 games to go. That may sound like a small task, but the next lowest points percentages are .638 (Boston) and .647 (Pittsburgh). But sports aren’t known for their boring endings that play out exactly as expected, so there is always hope. Here’s what’s going in the Rangers’ favor:
1. They Can Help Themselves. A lot.
The Rangers are currently tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for fifth in the division. The teams play three more times this year, which could position either side firmly in the driver’s seat for the rest of the season (the Rangers have won the last two against the Flyers by a combined score of 17-3, so I like their chances). They also play both the Bruins and Penguins two more times, which can quickly turn the 6-9 point deficit the Rangers face (depending on the results of games in hand) into just a 2-5 point difference, creating a close stretch run.
2. They Are Getting Hot at the Perfect Time
Coming into the 2021 season, teams expected some bumps along the way. It was inevitable. But the Rangers have had more than their fair share of bumps. Still, they’ve managed to keep themselves in the playoff race through it all, and the tide seems to be turning in their favor. Coming off a season that probably should have won him league MVP, Artemiy Panarin was expected to lead this team. And for the first part of the year, he did with 18 points in 14 games. However, in mid-February, Panarin was the subject of a hit piece from a coach in the KHL, forcing him to take a leave of absence and miss three weeks. Since returning, Panarin has not missed a beat, registering 11 points in 7 games.
There were high hopes for Mika Zibanejad this season, following a year in which he led the NHL in goals per game. After an offseason bout with COVID, however, he was simply not himself at the start of the year (just nine points in 25 games). Since March 13, everything has changed, as he has 17 points in seven games, including six points in one period against the Flyers on 3/17 and another six-point effort against Philadelphia on 3/25. This resurgence has prompted him to repeatedly state that he is starting to feel like himself again. Like Zibanejad, Chris Kreider has found his groove as of late: following six points in the first 16 games, Kreider has exploded for 17 in his last 16 games, including two hat tricks.
The Rangers have also been bit by the injury bug: Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko have missed significant time this season due to injuries/COVID, but they have both made their way back into the lineup recently and have begun to get into a groove (Kakko scored twice on 3/22 and Chytil scored during the Rangers’ last game). Plus, the Rangers have added two more pieces to the lineup: starting goalie Igor Shestyorkin returned yesterday after a groin injury, and 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravtsov is back from his loan to the KHL and is ready to join the lineup as soon as the coaching staff sees fit.
The Rangers have an uphill climb to make if they want to reach the playoffs. But this team has had an uphill battle all season, and they’ve succeeded even while shorthanded. Even if they don’t manage to sneak into a playoff spot, this team will be a lot of fun to watch.
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