It’s Mike’s Birthday. (Happy Birthday!!) 81 years, many Ranger seasons filled with disappointments and two Stanley Cups. Could this year bring Mike Cup number three?
With a record of 19-8-4, or 42 points, after 31 games, making the playoffs seems likely; almost certain. So, risking bad luck, let’s look at road to the Cup. Especially since we are now 3/8's of the way towards being spot-on with our pre-season prediction of a breakout year for the Rangers. Let’s start with three likely assumptions. If we do, we can make a few very important observations.
First, we need assume that Boston, at 22-9-1, will take first place. They may not, but they have the inside track with a weak division, a strong team and a solid start. They certainly look like the class act of the Eastern Conference and they did win it all last year. A reasonable assumption.
Second, we need further assume that either Florida, Winnipeg or Washington will take third position – with the odds strongly in Florida’s favor – but that only one, at most, will emerge as a very strong team. If one Southeast team rises from the pack, then they would be second, and the analysis would not change. Why wouldn’t it change? Because the winner of the Atlantic would finish in the top three, it’s just a question of second or third, if we accept Boston will take first.
Third, while Toronto, Ottawa, the Devils, Montreal and Buffalo are playoff contenders, we need assume that they do not suddenly become red hot. This, of course, is a wild card. A dark horse could appear out of nowhere. Montreal could catch fire, for example. But, the odds are slim.
If these assumptions prove to be true, then the Rangers are actually in a three team race for the second, fourth and fifth playoff spots with the Flyers and Pittsburgh.
So, what does this mean for the Rangers? It means that finishing first in the Atlantic is critical to playoff success. It is a three team race, with the losers playing each other in the first round and likely Boston in the second round. Not a great path to the Cup.
However, finish first in the Atlantic, and your path to the Conference Finals might be as simple as beating Toronto and Florida.
All of this means that every Flyer and Penguin game is critical, every point counts more than ever and one losing streak or additional injury really hurts. We need pray that Erixon, Bickel, Woywitka and Stralman are able to play at the level of NHL defensemen for ten minutes or so a game until Sauer, Staal and Eminger return, that Girardi, Del Zotto and McDonagh can be ridden like horses for 25 minutes or so a night without dropping in their tracks, and that we do not have further key injuries (meaning Hankie, Gabby and Callie keep on playing or Dubi steps up should one fall).
Winning the Stanley Cup this year will likely take beating Boston and either Detroit or Vancouver. That is not easy nor likely – but not impossible with a trade or two near the deadline, a Ranger team in good health and two relatively easier prior rounds. However, beating Boston and Detroit or Vancouver after surviving the Flyers and Penguins – much less likely. Okay, very unlikely.
There are 30 games to play before the NHL trading deadline. Four of those against the Flyers. Three of those against the Penguins. Two of those against Boston. The next 30 games will determine if we are contenders or pretenders; determine if we are short-term buyers of extra parts for a Cup run or waiting till next year.
The Flyers without Pronger are vulnerable. The Penguins without the Kid are vulnerable. Sports Club Stats gives the Rangers a 49% chance of winning the Atlantic – the Flyers 36% and Pittsburgh 14%. Maybe, just maybe, the stars are in alignment for a serious Cup run. Come February, we will know. And, if we are lucky, Mike might just get another, albeit belated, 81st Birthday present. Would sure beat another sweater!