Tonight marks the end of the 2011-12 regular season for the New York Rangers, who have already clinched not only a playoff spot, but home ice advantage through the Conference Finals. However, game 82 on the schedule will have great importance to the Blueshirts for a multitude of reasons nonetheless this evening at Madison Square Garden. For one thing, they will be going up against the Washington Capitals, who currently hold the eighth place spot in the Eastern Conference and will likely be New York's opponent in the first round of the postseason. In addition to that, the Rangers will have the opportunity to guarantee themselves the Presidents' Trophy for the best record in the entire National Hockey League with a win in front of their home fans. That would be only the third time the Rangers accomplished such a feat in franchise history, and the first since their cup year in 1993-94.
What makes this opportunity so incredible is that a year ago, when the Blueshirts faced the New Jersey Devils at MSG in game 82 of the 2010-11 season, they were playing for their playoff lives. Now, a year later, they are playing for the most points in the entire League. You cannot make a much better leap over a year's span than that.
Going into the week, head coach John Tortorella spoke about how the last four games were a perfect test for these Rangers heading into the playoffs. With three of those games down, they've gone 1-2-0 and will be looking to go an even .500 on the week on this night against the Capitals. The two losses that came at the hands of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins were nothing to necessarily get discouraged about, but they were losses. I think both the coach and the team would be satisfied with going 2-2-0 to finish the regular season against four tough opponents, especially if they were able to clinch the East (already done) and the Presidents' Trophy in the process.
The Washington Capitals, on the other hand, will be looking at this game a bit differently than their opponent. While the Caps have clinched a playoff spot coming into tonight's contest, they still have the ability to earn themselves home ice advantage. Yes, you read that correctly; the eighth place team can potentially jump to third in the Conference with two points tonight.
Washington currently sits at 90 points on the year, while the third place Florida Panthers have 92. The reason the Panthers are in third, however, is due to the fact that those 92 points lead the Southeast Division at the moment. The Panthers will also be in action tonight (in fact, all 30 teams will be over the course of the day), as they will go head-to-head with the Carolina Hurricanes at 7:30. A Panthers loss in that game and a Caps win in this game would see Washington jump to third, grab the division title and gain home ice along with it. Pretty wild, eh?
That would also have an impact on who the Rangers would be squaring off with in the quarterfinals. That's just one scenario, however. If the Panthers win against the Canes, they will obviously clinch the Southeast. If that happens, but the Caps get a point/win, things can get hairy as you now have the Ottawa Senators entering into the equation as well. The Caps hold the tiebreaker over Ottawa so a Caps' point or win, combined with a Panthers win and a Senators loss to the Devils would have the Rangers playing the Sens in the first round. I know, this is borderline mind-blowing stuff right now.
To make things easy, the Rangers can simply avoid all of this mass confusion with a regulation win over the Capitals to win the Presidents' Trophy tonight. That will obviously be the gameplan going into this game because remember, Tortorella claims that they do not discuss the standings as a team in the locker room. It would then be safe to assume that the club doesn't have much concern over the different scenarios and how they would affect their first round opponent.
As far as the lineup goes, it is expected that the Rangers will be rolling with the same squad they did in Pittsburgh on Thursday, with exception to the goaltender and possibly Derek Stepan. Stepan did not skate in practice yesterday after taking a nasty knee-to-knee hit from Brooks Orpik against the Penguins. However, it was reported that there was no serious damage done to Steps, other than the soreness that he's been experiencing.
Also, in goal, Henrik Lundqvist is fully expecting himself to play tonight. He sat out in Pittsburgh because of a sore arm suffered earlier in the week when he took a puck to an unpadded area against the Flyers. He says the soreness has lessened and that he wants to play in this final game of the regular season.
Meanwhile, AHLer Braden Holtby will start in net for Washington with both of their NHL goalies currently out with injuries.
New York Rangers (Probable) Lineup