The Rangers have gone game-to-game all season long. That approach, fostered by head coach Gerard Gallant and embraced by the team, has generated one of the most pleasantly surprising seasons in franchise history. There is less than a week to go and the Blueshirts had the eighth-best record in the league entering Tuesday.
They also still had a shot at the Metro Division title, though it became a long shot over the weekend that featured a Carolina two-game sweep and the end of the Rangers’ four-game winning streak with a meh defeat in Boston on Saturday.
But with the Rangers’ tragic number for first-place elimination having been reduced to two points ahead of their confrontation Tuesday night with the Hurricanes at the Garden — meaning they would need to sweep their final three games while Carolina picks up no more than one point in its final two contests — the time has come for Gallant and the organization to widen their focus.
This final week should be about one thing and one thing only: protecting and preparing the Rangers for the playoffs. It must be about minimizing risk, not maximizing victories. If that means sacrificing a last-gasp run at first place and an extra home game in Round 2, so be it.
Once Andrew Copp, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil are deemed ready to go, the Rangers will have four extra forwards, maybe even more if they recall additional players from the AHL Wolf Pack now that their season has ended without playoff qualification. It’s time to put the spares into the lineup. There are also two extra healthy defensemen on the roster, a number that could at least double. It is time to get the spare defensemen onto the ice, as well.
In other sports, that would not even be a discussion. It would be automatic. To their detriment, our other major professional sports leagues have been infected by load-management. The NHL is still too macho-culture for that. If you ask out, you are probably on your way out for good. It is a badge of honor to play in all 82 games. In 2013-14, Dan Girardi was rested for Game 82 in Montreal after having played the first 81. He was seenthing.
But the Rangers have the Canadians at the Garden on Wednesday to complete a back-to-back before hosting the Capitals on Friday in the regular-season finale, so it is not necessarily about giving players rest, even if there may only be a two – or three-day turnaround into the playoffs. It is about doing as much as possible to protect them from injury.
In addition, there is an intriguing scenario in play for the game Friday night. It is possible that a Rangers victory could mean a first-round matchup against the Penguins, while a defeat could mean a Round 1 matchup against the Caps.
I get it. You can call me an alarmist. You can call me obsessed. You can call me anything you want. But if I were running the Rangers, there is not a chance I would play Artemi Panarin in that game Friday, regardless of its implications in the standings. I also would be very careful with Adam Fox and with Mika Zibanejad. I’d have all my spares and call-ups in there for that one.
It is not that I don’t trust Panarin — who, to complicate matters, was just four points away from reaching the 100-circle before the Carolina game — or Fox or Zibanejad, but it is that I don’t trust Tom Wilson. Legal restraints prohibit me from accusing the Washington winger of purposefully and knowingly injuring opponents, but I have never seen him play with a conscience. Almost a full year later, this thing has a chance to come full circle. The last thing the Rangers need is to get enmeshed in a scene that produces injuries or suspensions.
I suppose there is another side to this, that the Rangers might be perceived as having turtled to an extreme degree, which might become a theme during a hypothetical playoff matchup against Washington. I imagine that, in the macho corners of hockey’s collective mind, the Rangers might take that into consideration even though they should know that while sticks and headshots can break their bones and brains, words can never harm them.
But the only consideration now through Friday should be how this week will impact next week. The Rangers have played well enough, consistently enough, deep enough into the season to have long since established a foundation for the playoffs. It no longer is about game-to-game.
At this moment, it is about Game 1.