In order to augment television ratings, the National Hockey League accepted advice from NBC Sports –its new marketing partner – to scrap the six-division format to a system utilizing two within each conference to enhance division rivalries and the number of games played among each grouping.
To the hockey gods, the fourth-place New York Rangers decreed, “Thank you!”
So if the Blue Shirts can re-flip the “on” switch down the stretch, now is the time to purchase a futures ticket on the Boys from MSG, long listed as the top wild card team from the East after Washington, Columbus and Pittsburgh pulled away.
Now, no playoff formula in almost any sport in perfect; most observers warned there was only one the current system that would not work: when one of the two divisions is far superior than the other.
Last season, the result was the elimination of one of the NHL’s top teams when San Jose knocked off Los Angeles (and not because they are “my” Kings). But this year, a worse-case scenario is coming to fruition.
Including Saturday’s 3-0 blanking of L.A., the Rangers now own an NHL-best 27 road victories (only Chicago is close at just 23). That one statistic alone may be the reason NYR lost the 2014 Stanley Cup Final to the Kings, losing all three games – all in overtime, two in double OT – at Staples Center.
Rangers backup goalie Antti Raanta ran his record to 16-8-2 with his fourth shutout, double the number by future Hall of Fame goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Raanta became the first N.Y. goalie to shutout the Kings since Mike Richter, who did so some 20 years ago when the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup.
Meanwhile, “The King” just returned from several weeks off because of a hip injury, although he could’ve come back sooner if needed. Instead, the Rangers accepted their fate as a wild card – and for good reason – resting Lundqvist for a long playoff run.
Instead of facing one of the Big 3 in the Metropolitan Division, NYR becomes the wild card team in the far-weaker Atlantic Division, meeting the division champion, probably Montreal.
A Rangers series win means they stay in the Atlantic final against the 2 vs. 3 winner, thus not needing to face anyone in the Metro until the conference final. Talk about a major advantage!
It’s a cause of celebration for a pro-active NYR management to fix problems – lack of speed, lack of scoring, lack of a solid, third defensive pair – which soured recent campaigns.
Now, if the entire East was seeded 1 through 8 (like under the previous system), NYR would play Montreal anyway, but hold home ice. However, critics note the 2 vs. 3 teams from the Metro would instead meet one of the clubs that barely qualified out of the Atlantic. Not very fair, but the NHL and NBC could not care less, especially since the benefactor is from the Big Apple.
Last season, Detroit manipulated the standings by intentionally trying to win or lose to meet (and upset) Tampa Bay. They almost did, falling in Game 7.
This season, San Jose is suddenly slumping, losing six straight to allow Anaheim to reclaim the Pacific Division lead. It could be St. Louis and/or Nashville trying to be a wild card team to avoid Chicago and meet the Pacific titlist.
The neighbors from the North were not happy last year with all of their teams failing to qualify for the playoffs. This year, upwards of five could advance.
In fact, Calgary and Edmonton could meet, so one will get through to the conference final. Montreal and Ottawa are in, while Toronto is in a dog-fight for another against Boston and rising Tampa Bay (a team we predicted three months ago would rally back).
The Lightning, 6-3 ATS in the last nine, cap the schedule with 6-of-7 vs. Atlantic competition (three both home/road) including key consecutive road tests at Boston and Toronto in early April.
Don’t for get to check the GT website for my daily NHL selections. Some of them may actually win!