The next three games on the New York Rangers' schedule should provide less than dramatic matchups. Outside of Eric Staal's return to Carolina tonight, the Rangers next three games consist of teams who are well out of a playoff berth and can only try to play the role of spoiler.
That doesn't mean things are going to be easy. As the Rangers have shown everyone time and time again this year, they do have the ability to drop points to lesser teams. The next three games come against Carolina, Buffalo and Columbus. Without any shadow of a doubt, the Rangers need all six points -- not so much from a playoff perspective but from a confidence perspective.
In all likelihood New York will find itself playing Pittsburgh in the playoffs for the third year in a row. Only these aren't last year's Pittsburgh Penguins with a total dearth in their bottom six. Not only have they added Phil Kessel but they also very smartly brought in Carl Hagelin -- a player that can move up and down their lineup as needed, adds skill and a significant amount of speed. (If there's interest, Mike and I spoke about this extensively on this week's podcast.)
The Penguins -- even without Evgeni Malkin -- also happen to be one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now; going 9-1 in their last ten as they march towards the playoffs. The Rangers have gone in the other direction, with their loss to Pittsburgh in overtime Sunday night giving them a 5-2-3 record in their last ten.
These next three games will give the Rangers an opportunity to feast on some of the lesser teams in the NHL. The offense, at this point, is really going to have to be the team's saving grace if they plan on going anywhere in the playoffs; something that to this point has not come alive. We've seen recent explosions from the likes of Chris Kreider and a more extensive eruption from guys like Derek Stepan and notably J.T. Miller. Rick Nash, E. Staal, Keith Yandle, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello will be relied on to do the heavy lifting here, but depth goes a long way in the playoffs, and getting everyone on the same page going into the second season might help.
Defensively the Rangers are going to have issues all spring. Like it or not, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi make up 33% of the team's defense and because their head coach refused to give them any real notion of needing to improve their play to continue to earn ice time, Dylan McIlrath might not see another game this entire year barring injury.
And since we're talking about better players sitting for worse players: The only way Oscar Lindberg is going to get into game action this year is going to be for Kevin Hayes or via injury. So, once again, the Rangers continue to hamstring themselves when it comes to who they're dressing.
We've been down this road, though. A thousand times, actually. Nothing is going to change today or tomorrow or for the playoffs. So these next three games, at the very least, should allow this group to continue to try and find some chemistry before the final three games of the year (which will be much harder) and then eventually the playoffs.
It starts tonight, though.