After a successful four-game western road trip, the Rangers (43-30-5, 91 pts) return home with a chance to clinch a playoff berth when they open up a three-game homestand Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators.
The Blueshirts posted a 2-1-1 record on their four-game trip through western Canada and Colorado, finishing up with a shootout loss to the Avalanche Thursday night. The Rangers never trailed in Denver, but did surrender two one-goal leads, including their 2-1 advantage in the final minute of the third period. Henrik Lundqvist stopped two out of the three shooters he faced, but all three Rangers shooters were denied by Sergei Varlemov. The loss was just the third time this season the Rangers lost a game when leading after 40 minutes.
While the Rangers were certainly happy to leave Denver with a point, they were equally as disappointed that a point was left on the table. It did bring their magic number to clinch a playoff spot down to two, with a win against Ottawa locking up a spot regarldess of what any other team chasing them does the rest of the way. The Blueshirts received more help Friday night when Columbus lost to Chicago and New Jersey defeated Washington, which officially eliminated their chances of catching the Rangers. The Blueshirts secure a spot in the postseason with either a win of any kind or an overtime or shootout loss.
Neither the players or the coaching staff believe the Rangers play differently at Madison Square Garden as opposed to on the road, but the results are pretty convincing. The Rangers lead the NHL in road wins with 25 — a franchise record — compared to just 18 at home. As it stands now, the Rangers are in a position to open up the playoffs with a home-ice advantage, as they currently sit four points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers, who have two games in hand but do not have the first tiebreaker over the Rangers, which is regulation or overtime wins.
The Rangers have found themselves away from the Big Apple more than in it over the last month, playing just six games during March at the World's Most Famous Arena, in which they posted a 3-2-1 record. That sets this three-game homestand up as an important one to right the ship on Garden ice leading up to the playoffs.
They'll more than likely be without Ryan McDonagh, their star defenseman, for at least Saturday's game, as he missed Thursday night's contest with a shoulder injury he suffered Tuesday night in Vancouver. Defenseman John Moore took his spot in the lineup and made an immediate impact, scoring the team's first goal against the Avalanche. Marc Staal, as he did Thursday night, is expected to step up and eat many of McDonagh's minutes, while Moore has replaced McDonagh on the team's power play.
The Rangers have had success recently despite their struggling power play, which was once again held off the scoresheet Thursday night in Colorado. The Blueshirts could receive a boost on the power play against Ottawa, who comes into the match with the 24th-worst PK in the NHL, operating at just more than 80 percent effeciency, and has taken the most penalties in the NHL with 303.
On the flip side, the team's penalty kill has flourished as of late, and is currently fifth in the league. The biggest improvement, though, has been the team's ability to score down a man. Their 10 short-handed markers trail just Calgary's 12 shorties for the League lead. The Senators have allowed the third-most short-handed goals in the NHL with 10. While those are poor numbers, the Senators do possess the 12th-best power play in the NHL.
While not mathematically eliminated quite yet, the Senators' playoff hopes are on life support. Despite winning four of their last six games, the Senators find themselves seven points behind Columbus for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Despite the poor results this season, the Rangers know as well as anyone how dangerous Ottawa can be upfront. Just under three weeks ago, the Blueshirts needed an offensive explosion to put the Senators away on March 18 in Ottawa. Ales Hemsky, acquired by the Senators at the trade deadline from Edmonton, has fit in very nicely with Ottawa, registering 12 points in 14 games. On the back end, former Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson is having another great season offensively, posting a team-leading 70 points in 76 games.
Friday night, Ottawa out-shot Montreal 43-23, but lost 7-4.