One point. It is what the New York Rangers need in order to clinch a playoff spot. It is also what separates the Rangers, the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference leaders, from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the standings.
Although the Rangers’ 2-5-0 record in their last seven games, along with the impressive runs of the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, has loosened the grip on their stranglehold of the division, they still have the ability to right the ship and finish the season as division champions and conference leaders. Then again, according to recent history, finishing in 1st place between October-April doesn’t equal finishing on top between April-June.
With the parity of the league as high as at any point since the NHL opened for business, playoff seeding hasn’t been a “be all, end all” factor like it was in prior years. In the six years since the lockout, the Prince of Wales Trophy recipients did not finish as the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference in any season. In two years, 2007-08 and 2009-10, the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference was taken to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the #8 seed, and in 2009-10, the 121-point Washington Capitals were upset by Jaroslav Halak and the 88-point Montreal Canadiens.
As important as home-ice is in a playoff series, its importance has diminished with the parity of the league. As Brendan Shanahan said as a member of the Rangers a few years back, “home-ice only matters when the series goes to a Game 7.” And, in looking at recent history, two of the last three Stanley Cup Finals series were decided in a Game 7, with the road team winning both times (2009 Penguins, 2011 Bruins). For most teams, home ice is important because their record at home is much better than their record on the road, but in the Rangers’ case, they have been good both at Madison Square Garden and on the road this year, with a 24-9-2 record at home, and 20-11-5 on the road, which the 3rd best road record in the NHL.
Winning the Atlantic Division and finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference would be two huge accomplishments for the Broadway Blueshirts. However, going forward, the race for the top spot becomes irrelevant in three weeks. In today’s NHL, a #8 seed could beat everybody, and a #1 seed could lose to everybody, and vice versa. Down the stretch, it is important for the Rangers to recapture the level of play that catapulted them to the top of the standings, and if they are able to do so, they should be able to hold on to their division and conference lead and use home-ice to their advantage in the playoffs.