New York Rangers analysis: Potential first round playoff opponents for the Blueshirts

With only eight games remaining the Rangers regular season schedule, the playoff picture is becoming a lot clearer.

As you may have noticed checking the NHL standings, things are a bit different this year. Along with restructuring each conference into two divisions, the road to get into the playoffs is also a bit different. The top three teams from each division make the playoffs, guaranteed. After that, the two teams from each conference with the highest point totals are awarded wild card spots. So, up to five teams from one division can make it, or it can be an even four-four split.

This much you probably knew. However, one thing often overlooked, or maybe forgotten about this format is how it ends up seeding. Gone are the days of the conventional 1 v. 8, and so on and so fourth.

The top two matchups remain the same: The division winner with the most points (the one seed) plays the wild card with the fewest amount of points (essentially the eight seed). Of course, five teams from one division could all have hire point totals than a team from the other division. Then, the second division winner plays the wild card team with the most points. So if the season ended today, the Bruins would play the Red Wings, and the Penguins would play the Blue Jackets.

Here's where it gets a bit trickier. A quick glance at the standings and you might think the Rangers would play the Lightning in the first round. Wrong. And in fact, probably an impossible first round matchup. Under this new format, the second and third place teams from each division that get automatic playoff bids play each other. If the season ended today, the Rangers would host the Flyers in a first round matchup. And with that being said, let's explore all of the Rangers potential matchups when the playoffs begin.

If the season ended today

Philadelphia Flyers
Head-to-head this season: Series tied 2-2
Top goal scorer: Wayne Simmonds (24)
Top scorer: Claude Giroux (71)
Starting goalie: Steve Mason (30-17-6; 2.54 GAA, .916 SV%)

For major rivals, the Rangers and Flyers last met in the playoffs in 1997, when Philadelphia bounced the Rangers in the conference finals. But with the Rangers and Flyers second and third in the Metropolitan Division respectively right now, the team's would see each other in the first round if that remains the same.

Goaltending is obviously the Flyers' achilles heel, and that starts and ends with Steve Mason. (See: Dominic Moore's goal, last night.) He's struggled since signing an extension earlier this season, and isn't the kind of goalie you'd expect to steal a game in a series. On the flip side, Philadelphia is one of the hottest teams in all of hockey, and has completely turned its season around after one of the worst starts in franchise history. It's the usual suspects for the Flyers, with guys like Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Scott Hartnell leading the charge. It's a deep team up front, which could finish with seven 20-plus goal scorers, which makes it important for Marc Staal and Anton Stralman to really be on top of their games.

Other possibilities

Columbus Blue Jackets; fourth in the Metropolitan Division
Head-to-head this season: Rangers win 2-1-1
Top goal scorer: Ryan Johansen (29)
Top scorer: Ryan Johansen (54)
Starting goalie: Sergei Bobrovsky (27-19-4; 2.47 GAA; .919 SV%)

The Flyers may present the "true rivalry," but of all the teams the Rangers might face in the first round, there's no more bad blood than with the Blue Jackets. Brandon Dubinsky has made it clear he's upset New York traded him only two years removed from an Eastern Conference Finals trip. Rick Nash is a pretty polarizing figure in Columbus. The Rangers regularly play four former Blue Jackets, with Columbus regularly dressing three former Blueshirts.

Despite Columbus having only made the playoffs once as a franchise in 2009, this isn't a team completely absent of playoff experience. Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Fedor Tyutin have all been there with the Rangers. Nathan Horton won a Cup in Boston. R.J. Umberger was a part of that lone Columbus playoff team, and twice previously with Philadelphia. This series would probably play out incredibly as incredibly tight, physical series, and Columbus is another one of those teams that's been on a tear lately (although they've cooled off a bit recently).

Washington Capitals; fifth in the Metropolitan Division
Head-to-head this season: Tied 2-2
Top goal scorer: Alex Ovechkin (48)
Top scorer: Alex Ovechkin (72)
Starting goalie: Jaroslav Halak (28-11-6; 2.25 GAA; .920 SV%) *total season statistics*

Sound familiar? Makes sense; the Rangers and Caps have met in the last three postseasons, and in each of the last four playoffs the Rangers have qualified for. Each team has taken two series during that span, while the matchups have been incredibly tight, with Washington winning 14 times overall, and New York 12.

The Capitals are still a pretty similar team to year's past, with defensive deficiencies it was unable to fix at the trade deadline. Instead, the Caps added Jaroslav Halak, who gives them a needed boost in the crease, and Dustin Penner, a big forward who can put the puck in the net. Washington also got Evgeny Kuznetsov from the KHL, a 2010 first round pick who finally came to the NHL in the last month. Alex Ovechkin is as good as he's been since about 2009, when the Rangers first faced him in the playoffs. This Blueshirts team seems more capable offensively though, so those tight 2-1, 3-2 games these teams have played in year's past may go a bit differently if they were to see each other again.

Pittsburgh Penguins; first in the Metropolitan Division
Head-to-head this season: Tied 2-1-1
Top goal scorer: Sidney Crosby (34)
Top scorer: Sidney Crosby (95)
Starting goalie: Marc-Andre Fleury (34-17-4; 2.37 GAA; .915 SV%)

A series with the Penguins isn't as likely because it would require the Rangers falling out of the top three in the Metro, and occupying that first wild card spot. But here's the thing about this Pittsburgh team: it has a lot of holes, and they're beginning to surface at the wrong time. It's been a roster that's lacked depth for some time, and it's becoming an issue for the Penguins of late.

Pittsburgh still has its top guns though, and it's a daunting task going up against the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (although Malkin just went down with a foot injury). There's also potential help on the way for Pittsburgh in the form of Kris Letang, and with the Penguins having virtually locked up the division, Pittsburgh will have time to figure things out in the next few weeks. While the Penguins are in a slide, they're certainly no pushover, and a dangerous postseason team.

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