A year ago at this time, Rangers fans were focused on the playoff bubble because their team was in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. This year, they again have reason to pay attention to the battle for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, but for a less stressful reason: The Rangers have already clinched the top seed in the conference, but their opponent has not yet been determined.
Every team in the NHL has two games remaining as of this afternoon, and four teams* could still finish with the No. 8 seed in the East: Ottawa, Florida, Washington, and Buffalo. The Senators currently sit in seventh place, and have a four-point lead over the Caps and Sabres, but they haven't yet locked up the No. 7 seed because Washington would win the tiebreaker if the two teams finish even in points. (The Capitals already have more regulation and overtime wins, so if they won out, and Ottawa lost out, Washington would get the seventh seed, assuming the Panthers win the Southeast. The Senators magic number to guarantee a better finish than Washington is one point. Buffalo can't finish ahead of Ottawa.)
The Panthers, however, still haven't clinched the weak Southeast Division. (They need one more point, or need Washington to leave one more point on the table.) Currently, the Panthers are in third place, by virtue of leading the weak Southeast Division. But if they lose their final two games, and if the Caps win their final two games, Washington would win the division. Florida can't take the seventh seed away from Ottawa, but they could wind up with the eighth seed — though there's also the possibility that they'd miss the playoff entirely. For that to happen, they would need to lose their last two games, and both Washington and Buffalo would need to win their last two games.
More likely, though, the battle for the final spot will come down to the Capitals and Sabres. Buffalo's chances took a hit over the weekend when they lost back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday. But they earned two huge points in a comeback win on Tuesday night to pull even with the Caps. Washington hosts Florida tonight and then plays the Rangers at the Garden on Saturday. Buffalo, meanwhile, finishes with a pair of road games: tonight at Philly, and Saturday at Boston.
The Rangers, by the way, were 1-2-1 against Ottawa this year, their worst record against the three teams that could finish eighth. They were 3-1-0 against Florida. And they were also 3-1-0 against Buffalo, though that season series was closer than that might indicate: One of those Rangers wins came in overtime, another came in a shootout, and both teams won a game by a three-goal margin. (Worth noting: Ryan Miller, who's the kind of goalie who could get hot in a playoff series, has allowed thirteen goals over his last three games.) The Rangers, meanwhile, have two regulation wins and one regulation loss in three games against Washington, with one remaining in the season finale on Saturday. The Caps, for what it's worth, have eliminated the Rangers in the first round in each of New York's last two postseason appearances, but Washington has struggled this season, due in small part to the decrease in production from Alex Ovechkin, whose 63 points are more than 20 fewer than his previous career low.
So Rangers fans, if they so choose, can do plenty of scoreboard watching tonight while their team faces off against the Penguins. Ottawa hosts Boston at 7:30, Washington hosts Florida at 7, and Buffalo is in Philadelphia, also at 7. Meanwhile, the Canucks — who are tied with the Rangers in the Presidents' Trophy race with 109 points — are in Calgary at 9. (The Blues, who are two points behind with 107 points, are idle tonight.) And there's one other game of interest to Rangers fans, but it's not an NHL one: Chris Kreider's Boston College Eagles take on Minnesota at 8 in the NCAA semifinals. And according to Larry Brooks, Rangers assistant GM Jeff Gorton is at the Frozen Four, ready to discuss a contract with Kreider if B.C. loses.
* This post has been updated throughout to show that the Panthers could finish with the eighth seed.