I’m just going to come out and say it: the New York Rangers shot themselves in the foot by defeating the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2, Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden. In so doing, they increased the chances that they would have to play the red-hot and extremely dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
An Easier Path in the Atlantic
For all the talk about “playing the right way”, “playing to win”, and not trying to set up a certain matchup, the fact of the matter is that the Rangers have a much better chance of doing damage in the playoffs if they get into the Atlantic Division bracket, which would feature a first-round date with the Florida Panthers. Not that the Panthers are bad — they are quite good — but they are not nearly as scary as the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are firing on all cylinders. It’s less about trying to get to play Florida, and more about avoiding Pittsburgh.
Furthermore, the second round of the Atlantic bracket would feature either the Red Wings (who backed into the playoffs thanks to Boston’s pathetic 6-1 home loss to Ottawa) or a banged-up Tampa Bay Lightning team (no Steven Stamkos, no Anton Stralman, and maybe no Tyler Johnson). From a Rangers perspective, that sounds a lot better than a potential date with the vaunted Washington Capitals — and that’s if they were to get past Pittsburgh in the first round.
A loss to the rival New York Islanders on Thursday night put the Rangers in an advantageous position, as the Isles caught the Blueshirts in the standings and had a game in hand. If the Rangers had lost against a desperate Detroit team, just one point by the Islanders in their final two games (which they got in an overtime loss to Buffalo) would have given them the 3-seed in the Metropolitan Division, and the Rangers would have fallen to the top wild card spot.
— josh (@Josh_Khalfin) April 8, 2016
Now, after the Rangers beat Detroit, only an Islanders win over Philadelphia on Sunday will ensure that the Rangers can avoid the Penguins, and the much tougher Metropolitan bracket. With the Flyers having clinched a playoff spot Saturday (ironically, against Pittsburgh), neither they nor the Islanders will have much to play for, so what will happen in that game is anyone’s guess.
Not only did the Rangers go for the win Saturday, but they had players sacrifice their bodies to block shots in a game where there was nothing to be gained by winning. Jesper Fast nearly sustained an injury when he got in front of a shot. Trade deadline acquisition Eric Staal actually did get hurt after Fast inadvertently collided with him right after a faceoff, though thankfully it sounds like he will be okay.
If the Rangers do have to play Penguins, they can hope that perhaps that team will slow down, and the injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Olli Maata, Marc-Andre Fleury, and now Matt Murray, might ultimately be too much for them. But with the way they have been rolling late in the season, and frankly since they acquired ex-Ranger speedster Carl Hagelin, that does not seem likely to happen anytime soon — i.e., in the first round.
A Flawed System
Jesper Fast is an admirable player who always puts everything on the line, but where is the logic in taking that approach in a game where there is actually more to be gained by losing? It’s hard for professional athletes to play to lose, but in this case, in the big picture, doing so would actually be playing to win. I’m exaggerating here a bit, as we would never see this, but the Rangers would have been smart to play the entire game with an empty net.
Of course, there is also a “be careful what you wish for” sentiment that accompanies these types of playoff matchup scenarios. But the bottom line is that with the information the Rangers and everyone else have at hand, it’s overwhelmingly obvious that playing Florida in the Atlantic Division bracket would give New York a better shot of advancing far into the playoffs. That’s not to say Florida would not beat them; they are a great team and very well could. That’s also not to say the Rangers wouldn’t defeat Pittsburgh, and maybe even Washington. But again, it’s pretty apparent what the likely easier path is.
There is another issue at play here, and that is the absurd divisional re-alignment and playoff format that the NHL introduced a couple of years ago. It makes a lot more sense to just take the top eight teams in each conference, as had been done previously, rather than go all the way down to the division level. Matchups would be more fair, and situations like the Rangers’ current one, where losing actually means winning, would not occur as often.
What we know for sure, the Eastern Conference playoffs will feature the following seeding matchups:
1 v. 7
2 v. 4
3 v. 5
6 v. 8
— Carey Haber (@HaberMetrics5) April 10, 2016
Unfortunately, as flawed as this playoff setup is, it’s what the Rangers and every other NHL team have to deal with. As such, situations where losing is a good thing are more likely to arise. As unpopular and even blasphemous as this uttering this sentiment might be, it really is prudent to take what the system gives you and lose when it will do you good in the long run. That is what the Rangers failed to do Saturday, and it very well could cost them a long playoff run.