With the Philadelphia Flyers losing a point against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday afternoon, the New York Rangers officially clinched home ice advantage in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you recall, prior to the start of the season the team's common goal, within the locker room at least, was to earn home ice advantage by claiming a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference. So, essentially they've fulfilled their wish for the 2011-12 regular season, but one task still remains for this team before the start of the postseason in just over a week. A goal that they maybe didn't have their sights on in September.
That task is to clinch first overall in the East, and possibly the entire National Hockey League as well. Just four games will be played in the month of April prior to the start of the playoffs, and the first of those four will be played this evening against the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden. In those four games, they need any combination of three points earned by themselves or lost by the second place Pittsburgh Penguins to secure first overall in the Conference. Therefore if the Pens get anything less than two points in their matinee match-up with the Philadelphia Flyers this afternoon, the Rangers could clinch with a win over Boston.
The most remarkable thing about all of this is that today marks the beginning of the final week of regular season play in the NHL. Last year it felt as if the regular season was an ongoing, drawn-out process that had yanked the energy out of the Rangers and their fan base come April. But this year the Blueshirts and their faithful have sort of set their speed to cruise control and have saved their energy to amp up next week. There's still much more hockey to be played if the Rangers wish to make this an extra special season, and this particular group of guys appears to be more prepared for that than any team we've seen put together in the recent past.
I think part of that has to do with the fact that the Rangers have been a dominant team since November. Sure, they've had their ups and downs, but they never hit as low as they did in 2011-12. There were no embarrassing droughts or instances in which their playoff lives were in jeopardy. When you look at it all, yes the Rangers have battled to earn their position, but this was an easy road to the postseason compared to years past. And considering all of the distractions there have been along the way, that's very impressive.
It's been one enjoyable season to watch as a fan of the Rangers, that's for sure. But we surely aren't ready to call it a season just yet. Not only have the playoffs not begun yet, but there is also still work to be done in the final four games on the schedule as mentioned above. The Rangers have a legitimate shot at finishing first in the entire League to get their hands on the President's Trophy - a feat they've only accomplished twice before in franchise history. Their most recent was in 1993-94, when they won the Cup, finishing with 112 points on the season.
But that is something that will have to work itself out since there is no controlling what goes on in the Western Conference. However, the Rangers can control whether or not they maintain first in their Conference, and as I said, that is their final task of the regular season before the start of the playoffs.
That first place spot is more important than many think. It will likely have the Rangers playing either the Washington Capitals or the Buffalo Sabres as the eighth seed, and it will guarantee home ice through the Conference Finals if they were to make it that far. Not only that, but if they finish first and the race for eighth is close next Saturday, the Rangers may have the opportunity to determine their first round opponent when they finish the regular season against the Capitals. Now wouldn't that be interesting?
But for now they will take things one day at a time, beginning tonight against the Bruins. The Pens had their eleven-game winning streak cut short by the Flyers earlier in the month, and the Rangers are undefeated against the Bruins this season. So New York may be checking their final task of the regular season off the to-do list by the end of the night.
Remember a few weeks ago when the 'experts' were claiming that the Rangers were "done"? Hmmmm, guess they missed the target on that one, eh?