New playoff format set to pour gasoline on old rivalries

We might be seeing a whole lot of this ugly face in the coming weeks

Pretty much since the moment I first heard about realignment, I wasn’t a fan. It seemed silly to me to dramatically restructure the league when more changes might have to be made in short order due to relocation or expansion (although the likelihood of that has been reduced). I thought it was unfair that both Eastern Conference divisions housed an additional team, reducing each member’s chances of making the playoffs. And don’t even get me started on the new division names.

But worst of all is the new playoff format. It makes no sense to me that three teams from each division are guaranteed playoff spots regardless of whether Team 3 in Division A has 45 points and Team 6 in Division B has 85 points (hypothetically).

That’s not to say the new system is without advantages. I like that each team now plays every other team twice a season, and I do see the advantages of making travel time closer to equal for each franchise. But overall, I would have preferred to keep the old format to preserve the 1-8 playoff system if nothing else.

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Rangers clinch playoff spot with Devils loss last night

Some people will call this “backing into” the playoffs, but with the Devils loss last night, the Rangers have officially clinched a playoff spot. I say some people call it backing in because the Rangers still have three games left, so it’s not like they needed the loss. It just helped them clinch sooner. The magic number to clinch a non-wild card seed is down to four on Columbus. The magic number to clinch home ice against the Flyers in round one is still at six.

As long as the Rangers get a #2 or #3 seed, they will guarantee that they will not meet the Bruins until the Conference Finals. Since a first round matchup with the Flyers is all but guaranteed at this point, it appears the road to the Stanley Cup Finals will begin against Philly, then head to Pittsburgh in the second round, and then finally to Boston for the Conference Finals. That, of course, assumes wins by the favorites in each round.

Remember that horrible start? It seems like a distant memory. The Rangers crawled out of the cellar to be one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference heading into the playoffs. New York is also third in the conference in goal differential as well. This is a team that not many want to see in the postseason.

Debunking the “Vigneault doesn’t play the kids” myth

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

When Alain Vigneault had some choice comments for J.T. Miller following his demotion back to the AHL, after being given a golden opportunity to take a critical role for the Rangers, many fans called for AV’s head. The arguments thrown out had nothing to do with his successes as the coach this year, but that he has “never liked kids and refuses to play the kids.” It’s a silly argument actually.

Let’s use AV’s recent history –his stint with the Canucks– as the barometer for playing the kids. He started there as the head coach in 2006-2007. Since the 2004-2005 season never happened, I think it’s fair to start with the 2003 draft as our cutoff for our little experiment, seeing how many kids were drafted by and played for the Canucks under AV. Technically, I can use the 2001 draft since Kevin Bieksa (5th round of 2001 draft) didn’t play his first full season until 2006-2007. But, let’s use 2003 as the cutoff.

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Rangers recall Jesper Fast

To help fill the hole left by Chris Kreider’s hand injury, the Rangers have recalled forward Jesper Fast from the Hartford Wolf Pack. Fast, who initially broke camp with the Rangers, was a sixth round draft pick in 2010, and has a line of 17-17-34 in 48 games with the Pack this season. He’s widely believed to be the most NHL ready forward after J.T. Miller, and with Miller faltering at the NHL level, it seems natural that Fast would get the next opportunity.

Chris Kreider’s injury causing depth issues

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

When Chris Kreider went down with his hand injury last month, the Rangers needed to scramble to find options to fill his spot in the top-nine (AV uses his top-nine for scoring, and his fourth line for defense). After all, the Rangers were losing one of their fastest skaters, one of their more potent offensive weapons, and a guy who was likely to put up his first 20-goal, 40-point season while playing alongside Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. These aren’t easy shoes to fill.

J.T. Miller was immediately recalled and slotted into the lineup, but his play without the puck left a lot to be desired. After a game and a half, he was scratched for two games then sent back to Hartford with a message. Miller likely won’t be back until the Wolf Pack season ends (as a healthy scratch/injury replacement). Dan Carcillo has been filling in for Kreider admirably, but he’s no top-nine forward.

Naturally, this is a problem for the Rangers as they head into a first round date with the Flyers.

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Scouting the Playoffs: the Boston Bruins

Hockey.

Hockey.

With the playoffs on our doorstep, reminding us that our Rangers have yet to clinch a spot, it’s time to continue our look ahead at teams that we’ll definitely be seeing through late April at the very least.  Though the focus has been mostly on the west, the East is also somewhat settled up. The reigning Eastern Conference champs, the Boston Bruins, have been in destruction mode all season and don’t seem to be letting up.

The Bruins, cashing in with 113 points as of today, are making quick work of nearly everyone who comes their way. Much like last year in the playoffs, they’re a terrifying group to look at, which is useful as the Rangers come down the home stretch and need them to make work of rivals like the Flyers. With their defeat of Philly yesterday, they clinched the best record in the East and home ice advantage throughout the Eastern Conference finals, something that’s a huge deal as they’ve got the best home record in all of hockey.

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Rangers can’t clinch, fall to Ottawa

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

Photo by Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

The Rangers blew a golden opportunity to clinch a playoff spot last night, falling to the Ottawa Senators by a score of 3-2. Robin Lehner was the difference maker for the Sens, stopping 41 shots, including seven shot attempts in the final three minutes to keep the Rangers from getting that nice “X” next to their name in the standings. Lehner was the difference, but a slow start by the Rangers put them in a 2-0 hole at the end of the first.

Mats Zuccarello, or “The Magician,” as Joe wants to call him, kept the game interesting with two deflection goals in the second, but the Rangers couldn’t solve Lehner or a Sens team that has some defensive problems. Alain Vigneault mentioned there is sometimes a let down after returning from a western road trip. The Rangers sure did open the game in a manner that let themselves down.

On to the goals:

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Game 79: Getting a point vs. the Sens will clinch a playoff spot

Photo: Star Ledger

Photo: Star Ledger

The Rangers return from a successful west coast swing to a potential playoff clinching game tonight. The Rangers can clinch a spot with a point tonight against the Ottawa Senators. They can also clinch if the Leafs and Devils lose tonight in any fashion. The team probably doesn’t want to back into the playoffs, so beating an Ottawa team that can’t seem to play defense would be nice.

The Sens forechecking strategy is a bit complex, as they are a hybrid forechecking/lock team. When they are trailing or tied, they’ll send two or three guys after the puck in a 2-1-2 formation. When they are ahead though, they lock it up with a 1-1-3 forecheck, a variation of the 2-3 lock. They are an overload/zone defense team depending on puck location. On special teams, they run a standard umbrella power play, but run a hybrid PK (box, diamond, wedge+1) depending on puck location and opposition formation.

Rangers Lineup:

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Lineup notes: Boyle with Richards and St. Louis

Per Andrew Gross, coach Alain Vigneault has switched up the lines a bit headed into a potential clincher against Ottawa:

Carl Hagelin-Derek Stepan-Rick Nash
Brian Boyle-Brad Richards-Martin St. Louis
Benoit Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello
Dan Carcillo-Dominic Moore-Derek Dorsett

Ryan McDonagh is also out tonight, so the defensive pairings will remain the same.

Magic numbers and the importance of clinching early

Six points in three games please.

Six points in three games please.

With Columbus’s loss to Chicago last night, the Rangers magic number to clinch a non-wild card playoff spot is down to just four. The magic number to clinch a playoff spot is one (meaning they can clinch tonight as long as the game gets to overtime). The magic number to clinch home-ice against the Flyers is seven. With five games remaining, the Rangers are all but guaranteed two of these, but home-ice will take a few days to clinch.

The Rangers have three gimme’s of their four remaining games: Three home games against Ottawa, Carolina, and Buffalo. Those are three games where they should gain six points, assuming they don’t throw in the towel like they did the last time they played against Carolina. Those six points are pretty crucial for the playoffs. It guarantees them a non-wild card playoff spot, and –at the very least– gets them to one point of home-ice in the first round.

Why is all this important?

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