You don't need me to remind you that the New York Rangers are in a fight for the No. 1 seed. It didn't look like it would be much of a fight a couple of weeks ago, but who could have predicted the Pittsburgh Penguins reeling off nine-straight wins?
Now the Rangers' 10-point lead over the Penguins has dwindled to six. A number that can be shaved to four if the Penguins beat the Rangers tonight in regulation. If the Penguins were to catch the Rangers by the end of the year, it's more than likely that New York will still hold the No. 4 seed, the final seed that allows a team home ice advantage in the first round.
And while that wouldn't be the end of the world, there's a huge difference between having the road to the Stanley Cup run through New York, and having to travel elsewhere once the first round is over. I don't exactly buy the ideology that playing the eighth-seeded team is a blessing, but it's better than going up against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.
Regardless, the two points on the table tonight aren't just important because of the standings, they're important because of the Rangers' confidence. Join me after the jump for more.
The Rangers are a confident team right now. There's no way around that. They have a strut and a swagger (both of which have been earned) that only good teams boast. But that doesn't mean they can't see the Penguins in the rear view mirror. It also doesn't mean that confidence can't be shaken to its core tonight if the Penguins were to blow the Rangers out of the water.
There are two driving forces behind that thought process:
1) Sidney Crosby And Kris Letang Are Back: The last time these two teams met the Rangers took a loss. That was without Crosby. Oh yeah, that nine-game winning streak? That was without Crosby as well. So if the Penguins come into the Garden tonight and beat the Rangers it would certainly make the Rangers think twice before they believe they're the best team in the East. That could cause problems down the road.
2) Momentum: Hockey revolves around momentum. It's not just the playoffs, it's the regular season as well. You're seeing it happen right now. The Pegnuins are rolling, they're coming into Madison Square Garden and suddenly it feels as though the Rangers are on the ropes and their playoff hopes are on the line. In reality, only the top seed is on the line. Either way, the Rangers are rolling too (although not at the Penguins' level) and a win tonight would sway things significantly in the Rangers' favor. That's the funny thing about momentum: When it's on your side you can build a ton of it up (like the Penguins have) and feel like nothing can stop you. Until something stops you (even something as small as a loss after a nine-game winning streak), and then all the momentum can melt away like butter on the sidewalk in the middle of August.
So what's at stake? Just two points. Maybe.
Honestly, the Rangers could lose today, bounce back for their next game and still hold onto the top seed if the Penguins falter or if the Rangers just keep winning. (The Penguins can't keep their pace up forever.) This game just feels like everything is on the line.
Maybe because it is. You know how fickle momentum can be.