By Steve Silverman
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The New York Rangers are one of the luckiest teams in all of sports.
That may not sit right with Rangers fans who see their team sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot heading into the home stretch of the NHL season.
But in the unfair world of the NHL, it’s the Rangers who are getting the major break.
If they hold on to that final playoff spot, there will be a bunch of teams that believe they are a lot better than the Rangers, yet they will be sitting out of the postseason.
Those teams all reside in the Western Conference.
There has been a perception in the NHL that the Western Conference has been a bit stronger than the Eastern Conference for years. Since the last four Stanley Cup winners have gone back and forth between the two conferences (Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, Los Angeles Kings), the difference between the two conferences has not seemed that great.
However, there’s a huge difference this year. In the East, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Boston seem like strong teams. Toronto and the New York Islanders are upstarts who are making a stand. The Ottawa Senators have battled major injuries all season and are starting to slip after a valiant effort.
Washington has emerged in the Southeast Division after an awful start. The Rangers were favored to win the Eastern Conference at the start of the season, but they are holding on by their aching fingertips as Winnipeg tries to claw past them.
The Western Conference is another story. Chicago and Anaheim have been the elite teams and Vancouver appears to have taken charge of the Northwest Division once again. The next four teams — Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis and Edmonton — have all been powerhouses at times.
Detroit is hanging on to the eighth spot. The Red Wings lost Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement and they are not the dominant team they have been in the past, but they are not easy to beat. Mike Babcock is one of the best head coaches in the NHL and he will bleed every drop he can from this team.
If the Red Wings don’t make the playoffs, they won’t go easily.
The competition is brutal. Phoenix, Dallas, Columbus (the Rangers’ top trade partner), Edmonton and Nashville have all had solid surges throughout the season. They are all trying to track down Detroit for the final playoff spot.
Five Western Conference teams that may be worthy of playing postseason hockey are going to miss the playoffs.
It seems that at least two teams in the Eastern Conference are going to get in that probably don’t deserve to.
None of that will matter come the playoffs. If the Rangers do earn a spot in the postseason, they are probably praying that they come in seventh and draw the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That’s because they would appear to have almost no chance of beating the top-seed Pittsburgh Penguins if broken-jawed Sidney Crosby returns to the lineup. The Rangers can’t score, while the Penguins can light it up.
The Rangers are also probably hoping that the Bruins remain ahead of the Canadiens. The Rangers have been dominated by Montreal this year, losing all three games by a 9-1 margin.
While the Bruins are not quite as offensively challenged as the Rangers, they also have problems putting the puck in the net. The Bruins also have a problem with Henrik Lundqvist. The King has dominated Boston.
But that’s getting a bit too far ahead. Last week’s trade of Marian Gaborik may have improved team chemistry, but John Tortorella will still struggle to come up with names when it comes to finding goal scorers.
Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan are about the only players he can count on for that aspect of the game.
That may be enough to get them into the playoffs because they play in a weak conference.
How do you predict the Rangers will finish up the regular season? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…