By Sean Hartnett
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Through 49 games, the Rangers have baffled their fans with maddening swings of inconsistency.
They were arguably the NHL’s hottest team prior to Thanksgiving — holding the East’s best record at 16-3-2 — but then fell on hard times, going 4-7-2 in December.
Despite their hot-and-cold ways, the Blueshirts are right where they want to be in the Metropolitan Division standings, sitting in second place with a 27-17-5 record.
That said, though, at the moment it’s difficult to tell if the Rangers have what it takes to lock down a playoff berth given the sheer competitiveness in the Metro and throughout the Eastern Conference. Beneath the two division leaders, the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers, 11 playoff contenders are separated by just nine points.
What’s clear is the 74-point Capitals are running away with the Metro division. They have put serious distance between themselves and the rest of the pack and stand a strong chance of emulating last season’s Rangers by capturing the Presidents’ Trophy.
Goaltender Braden Holtby is performing like a Vezina Trophy candidate, Evgeny Kuznetsov is playing above a point-per-game pace, key offseason additions Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie have given the Caps a scoring boost, and Washington has proven to be a tough nut to crack as it leads the NHL with the fewest goals surrendered at 103.
Heading into the season, the Rangers were supposed be among the contenders for the division crown. Now, the goal is just getting into the postseason tournament. Despite his team’s recurrent structural issues and the majority of the roster not playing its A-game, head coach Alain Vigneault firmly believes his men are capable of making the playoffs and being among the leading contenders for the Stanley Cup.
“I believe this is a playoff team,” Vigneault said on Monday. “It’s hard to get into the playoffs. Once you get into the playoffs, I think we have as good a chance as anybody else. But it’s a battle. Look at the standings. It’s unbelievable how tight, how close, how hard-fought it’s going to be. But I do know we’ve got a good team and we’ve got a couple of players right now that can play better than they have and we’re working on getting them to play as well as they can.”
An influx of major changes is unlikely to come before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Vigneault knows the Rangers’ tight salary cap situation means it’s up to him to get the most out of a group that is largely unchanged from last season’s team, which came a period short of reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals. Aside from possession-strong winger/penalty-killing ace Carl Hagelin and retired great Martin St. Louis, the core is intact from last season.
“We’re right against the cap and that’s not my job,” Vigneault said. “My job is I’ve got players here, it’s my job to make them perform up to their potential. Obviously, I could say right now that I haven’t done that. I need to make sure that I get this group here to play to their full potential. And we have not done that.”
If the Rangers get their act in order quick enough, they will be a playoff team. That would mean that top-four defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal must to return to playing the shutdown hockey expected of them and a whole slew of forwards need to find their consistency.
The biggest question remains whether the Rangers will deal difference-making defenseman Keith Yandle before the deadline. Given his ability to move the puck up ice with aplomb, his game-changing passing ability and overall power play proficiency, the 29-year-old star would probably net the Blueshirts a nice return if they were to move him.
On the other side of the coin, if retained, Yandle can be the X-factor that gives the Rangers that extra bit of magic come playoff time. His ability means he deserves greater minutes, as he’s sixth among Rangers defensemen in time on ice per games played at 19:14.
If the Rangers are truly focused on winning now, Yandle needs to remain in a blue, red and white uniform and Vigneault needs to figure out a way to offer him greater minutes at even strength. He can be the player who puts the Rangers — or a deadline buyer — over the top in their Cup quest.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey