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Is It Too Early to Consider the Rangers’ Potential First-Round Opponents?

It was nearly impossible to watch the Rangers' 1–0 victory/blocked-shot-a-thon against the Bruins on Saturday and not wonder what a seven-game series between those teams might look like. The matchup is certainly a possibility: Boston currently sits in third place in the conference, while the Rangers — who are tied with sixth-place Montreal in points but lose the first tiebreaker — occupy the seventh spot. And while the Rangers — who enjoy a seven-point lead over ninth-place Carolina — are in terrific shape to qualify for the playoffs, they could realistically finish anywhere from fifth to eighth, particularly with Tampa Bay in a late season free-fall. So with the teams occupying the first four spots unlikely to change — their order is in doubt, but the teams themselves really aren't — is it too early to look at the potential first round opponents? We think that it is not.

Current No. 1 Seed: Philadelphia Flyers
Season Series: One regulation Rangers win, four regulation Flyers wins, one game remaining.
The Rangers had struggled against Philly all year — the teams' first two games resulted in convincing 4–1 Flyers victories — but in their last meeting, the Rangers exploded for seven goals in a 7–0 laugher at the Garden. Worth noting: Jeff Carter missed that game because of the flu. Also worth noting, though: Chris Pronger has been out since March 8 with a hand injury but is making progress and could return for the Flyers' final two regular season games.

Current No. 2 Seed: Washington Capitals
Season Series: Two regulation Rangers wins, one shootout Rangers win, one regulation Capitals win.
When the Rangers routed the Caps 7–0 at the Garden in December — back during the glorious run of 24/7 — we'd thought that the convincing margin of victory was largely a product of the Capitals' dreadful December. But since then, the Rangers have beaten Washington twice more, both times in Washington, including a 6–0 rout last month. And the Rangers, in large part because of the defensive pair of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, have contained Alex Ovechkin: In four games against the Rangers, he had no goals, two assists, and a minus-1 rating. That said, Washington is among the hottest teams in hockey right now: Following that 6–0 loss to the Rangers, they won nine straight, and have won twelve out of fourteen. If the Rangers hope to rely on their late-season momentum in the first round, this is the wrong opponent to do it against.

Current No. 3 Seed: Boston Bruins
Season Series: Two regulation Rangers wins, one regulation Bruins win, one game remaining.
The Rangers played one of their gutsiest games of the season Saturday, blocking eighteen shots in the third period alone to help preserve Henrik Lundqvist's 1–0 shutout after the Bruins came out flat through two periods. But that's the type of game you'd expect between these teams: The Bruins have allowed the fewest goals in the conference, the Rangers have allowed the second fewest, and both teams are comfortable playing a blue-collar style of hockey.

Current No. 4 Seed: Pittsburgh Penguins
Season Series: Three regulation Rangers wins, one overtime Rangers win, one regulation Penguins win, one shootout Penguins win.
The Rangers 23-14-1 road record includes three wins at the Consol Energy Center — all of which involved a third-period Rangers comeback. (The flip side to that: Relying on those third-period rallies, as the Rangers have done quite a bit this year, can be awfully dangerous.) The Penguins are still playing without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — and will be without Matt Cooke until the second round of the playoffs — but have been on a tear of their own of late: They've lost just once in their last seven and twice in their last ten. For what it's worth, their last four wins have all come by virtue of the shootout.

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Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images