For the fourth consecutive season, the New York Rangers won’t be among the 16 teams participating in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their struggles against the playoff teams in the MassMutual East Division are the primary reason for that, as the four playoff qualifiers were a notch above them throughout the season. Due to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the 2020-21 season, the first two rounds of the playoffs will be strictly divisional. Each division will send one team to the semi-finals, at which point geographic considerations are thrown out the window in favor of seeding the teams by regular season performance.
As such, one of the Blueshirts’ division rivals will be one of the final four teams standing. While residents of Rangerstown might prefer a meteor come down and strike the arenas of any of these four teams, one of them is guaranteed to make a deep playoff run. Let’s meet those four squads vying for a spot in the semi-finals and the true East Division Championship:
Reports of the Penguins’ demise as an elite team in the NHL have been greatly exaggerated. After a disappointing first round exit on the wrong end of a sweep in 2019, followed by an embarrassing defeat to the 24th seeded Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round prior to last summer’s playoffs, Pittsburgh has bounced back in a strong way this season.
Winning their first division title since 2013-14, the Penguins navigated some rough waters early in the season to come out with the division crown on their heads. A rough January saw the team earn only a single regulation win in nine games, and general manager Jim Rutherford stepped down two weeks after the beginning of the truncated campaign.
Evgeni Malkin once again missed a major chunk of the season, only skating in 33 contests. That left Sidney Crosby to pick up a majority of the slack, and he did so to the tune of a 24-38-62 stat line during the regular season. No team defended home ice better than Pittsburgh did, as their 22-4-2 record at PPG Paints Arena was tops in the NHL. Of the top four teams in this division, the Penguins might actually be the least offensive one to Rangers fans, given the events of the end of the season.
Heading into the season, you’d be hard pressed to find a Rangers fan that wouldn’t be happy to see the Capitals win their second Stanley Cup in the last four years. Henrik Lundqvist agreed to a one year deal to replace Braden Holtby in the Capitals’ net over the offseason. However, the former Blueshirts’ legend had to undergo open heart surgery prior to the start of the season, and with his contract expiring after this season, will likely never suit up for Washington.
While that situation might’ve moved the Capitals from the top of Rangers’ fans lists back towards the middle, the recent Tom Wilson incident puts the Capitals in the basement of Cup hopefuls. Former Ranger Carl Hagelin already has a pair of Stanley Cup rings from his stint on Pittsburgh, so rooting for him to personally succeed doesn’t move the need much.
In spite of losing out on a division title for the first time since 2014-15, this Capitals team might be better equipped to handle that than most. While Pittsburgh reigned supreme at home, no team was more effective at sending hometown crowds out of the arena disappointed than Alex Ovechkin, John Carlson, and the rest of Peter Laviolette’s squad. A 19-7-2 road record was the best mark throughout the league, so this is a team capable of winning both at and away from their friendly confines.
Set for a playoff date with Washington for the first time since 2012, this Bruins squad still has a handful of holdovers from that seven game bloodbath of a series. Boston’s leadership core, captain Patrice Bergeron as well as alternate captains David Krejci and Brad Marchand are joined by Tuukka Rask as the four players still standing from that team. Longtime Bruins’ captain Zdeno Chara is also participating in the rematch, but he’ll be doing so as a member of the Capitals.
The team made it to the second round of last season’s playoffs on the back of Jaroslav Halak, as Rask had to exit the Toronto bubble to tend to a medical emergency for his daughter. In addition to having Rask for the long haul, Boston added Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly at the trade deadline to strengthen their depth throughout the lineup. With the East Division arguably being the most wide open of the four divisions, every move counts, and the Bruins are evidently believers in that approach.
While no former Rangers have been integral to the Bruins’ operation this season, the team actually has several former Blueshirts playing bit parts. Steven Kampfer has drawn into 20 games this season, while John Moore skated in five contests before undergoing season-ending hip surgery in March. Greg McKegg participated in five games, including one against the Rangers, and Paul Carey had a stint on the taxi squad after spending a majority of the season with AHL Providence. If you’re not a fan of seeing the Penguins thrive in the playoffs, this black and gold team is probably your best choice in the division.
New York Islanders
If there was a team the Rangers could have caught to sneak into the playoffs, it would’ve been the Islanders. The two teams clashed three times in less than two weeks down the stretch, and Barry Trotz’s squad dominated David Quinn’s group all three games, out scoring the Blueshirts 13-1 in the three games. Without changing any other results throughout the season, the Rangers would have made the playoffs had they earned three regulation victories as opposed to regulation losses in those games. Alas, they did not.
After going for broke by shelling out draft picks for veterans at the deadline and making their first Conference Finals appearance since 1993 last season, the Islanders have adopted a similar approach this season. Lou Lamoriello shipped his team’s 1st round selection to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac. The pair hasn’t lived up to expectations yet, combining for just three goals and three assists since the deadline, but a magical playoff run could change that perception quickly.
The Islanders will clash with the Penguins to open the playoffs for the second time in three years. New York authored an unexpected sweep of the Penguins in 2019, a shocking result overshadowed by the Columbus Blue Jackets’ sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning that spring. That series saw the Islanders hold home ice advantage over Pittsburgh, but they’ll be opening the playoffs on the road this time around. If not for the Tom Wilson shenanigans, the Islanders might be at the bottom of the list of Rangers’ fans rooting interest. Still, of the sixteen teams in the playoffs, the Islanders are likely a bottom three team for Blueshirts fans to root for.
Of the four divisional brackets, the MassMutual East bracket is the one Rangers fans love to hate. The other three brackets should have at least one team to actively root for, but that’s not the case here. It’s strictly a who do you hate least type thing.
Who would you like to see emerge from the MassMutual East Division playoff bracket?
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New York Islanders