In a world of what-ifs, let’s tackle this one: what if the divisional alignment had not been changed this season to accommodate the coronavirus and the Rangers were in the old — what was it called again? Oh, right — Metropolitan Division battling it out with clubs from the — wait a second, it will come to me — Atlantic for a wild card spot?
First, can we stipulate that the names of NHL divisions are so forgettable and divorced from consciousness that they should all be renamed in advance of the next season in which the league returns to a semblance of normalcy. Given the status of the virus in Canada, there would seem no guarantee that return to the routine will happen next season.
But back to the original question. What if the Rangers hadn’t been dropped into this powerhouse East division to compete for one of four available postseason invites, no allowance for wild cards?
Of course, the East hasn’t been all that much of a powerhouse division, at all, has it, with the bottom-feeding Sabres and Devils awarding door prizes to their opponents while the Flyers have become a doormat the last six weeks?
Let’s acknowledge that of course all teams’ records would be different playing under a typical schedule. Just as when attempting to extrapolate what the standings would be under a system under which each game would be worth three points (three points for a regulation victory, two for an overtime or shootout triumph, one for an OT or SO defeat and none for losing in 60 minutes), of course we can not determine what teams’ records would be if playing all 30 opponents and not only seven or six of them.
But for this alternate-universe exercise, let us presume that teams would essentially maintain their current standing. And what would that mean for the Rangers and their playoff pursuit that resumes Tuesday night at the Coliseum against the Islanders?
Why, it would remain that the Blueshirts would be in exactly the same place as they are right now, attempting to chase down the Bruins for the final available tournament berth. Yes, the Rangers would still be six points out of the final wild-card spot with Boston holding two precious games in hand with suddenly just two-plus weeks remaining in the season.
The ‘Canes, in this year’s Central, would be in first place in the Metro, a point ahead of the Caps, who would be (and are) two points ahead of the Islanders, who would be (and are) one point ahead of the Penguins in the battle for the three divisional slots.
On the other side, the Panthers would be (and are) one point ahead of the Lightning, who would be (and are) one point up on the Maple Leafs, who would be (and are) five points ahead of the Bruins in the race for the three Atlantic spots.
On the outside looking in at top-three divisional seeding, the Penguins and Bruins would hold the two conference wild-card spots, with the Rangers chasing. Some of the names have changed, but the Blueshirts’ situation has remained almost remarkably static through the whirlwind of change over the last 13 months.
When the music stopped last March, the Rangers were enmeshed in a five-team battle for a wild-card spot but would have needed to hopscotch three of those clubs in order to make it while trailing Carolina, Columbus (!), the Islanders and the Panthers (figured by percentages). The team had gone 2-4-1 in its last seven (though 1-0-1 in the final two) and was trending down. When all was said and done, they were 18th overall.
The Blueshirts entered Tuesday’s contest 14th overall in the NHL, which represents contextual, incremental improvement. Notably, they are ahead of Cup finalist Dallas, light-years ahead of its-time-come-and-gone Columbus, ahead of the Flyers (who were going to be the division’s rising stars) and ahead of the 2019 Cup champion Blues, who finished second overall.
But they have not been able to break through the ice ceiling into a playoff spot. Look up above and you — and they — would be looking up at the same teams. The Caps, the Penguins, the Lightning, the Candy Canes, the Puddy Tats, the Islanders, the Bruins, the Maple Leafs.
Same time, last year. Same time, this year. The mandate is to see to it that this does not become the same time, next year.
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