Rick Nash and the Rangers can set a franchise record for wins in a season on Saturday.
WASHINGTON – The Presidents’ Trophy winners will finish their regular season in the president’s backyard.
The Rangers (52-22-7, 111 points) can set new franchise records for regular season wins and points with a 53rd victory and 113th point by beating the Washington Capitals (45-25-11, 101 points) in a Saturday 12:30 p.m. matinee. But their goals for this finale are more about their method than the result.
They’d like to make smarter decisions than they did in Thursday night’s uninspired 3-0 home loss to the Ottawa Senators, even though they’re dressing some AHL fill-ins again to rest starters. They want to stay healthy, keep Henrik Lundqvist’s confidence high, and work on their power play.
The latter probably explains why forwards Rick Nash, who sat out Thursday, and Mats Zuccarello, who missed the last two games, practiced Friday and could play in D.C.
“You want to play well out there regardless of what the points mean, as far as the standings,” captain Ryan McDonagh said after Thursday’s loss to Ottawa. “You want to continue to feel confident and make the right reads and the right decisions.”
All that’s known about Alain Vigneault’s Saturday lineup is that defensemen Marc Staal (normal wear and tear) and Kevin Klein (broken left arm) won’t play, and Lundqvist will start in goal. Saturday’s real fun, however, will be tracking all 30 NHL teams playing in 15 games on the final day of the schedule.
By the end of the day, the top overall seed Rangers will know their opponent for their first-round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which opens Thursday night at the Garden. As of Friday afternoon, they had five potential opening-round foes: the Islanders, Detroit Red Wings, Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins.
Six teams had clinched a berth in the Eastern Conference as of Friday afternoon: the Rangers, Capitals and Islanders (98 points) from the Metropolitan Division, and the Montreal Canadiens (108 points), Tampa Bay Lightning (106 points) and Red Wings (98 points) from the Atlantic.
Tampa has an opportunity to catch Montreal for the Atlantic Division crown on Saturday. As of Friday afternoon, the Senators (97 points), Penguins (96 points) and Bruins (95 points) were battling for the final two berths.
Friday night, though, the Islanders-Penguins game in Pittsburgh would add a twist: An Islanders win would make it impossible for them to face the Rangers in the first round. A Penguins win would clinch a Pittsburgh playoff berth.
The game’s result also will determine whether Washington has anything to play for Saturday against the Rangers. A Pittsburgh regulation win, for example, would lock the Caps into the Metropolitan Division’s second seed for home-ice advantage in a first-round series against either the Isles or Pens.
The good news for everyone around the league, though, is that the reigning Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings are eliminated, so again there will be no repeat champ – something that hasn’t happened since Scotty Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings won in 1997 and 1998.
The Western Conference’s eight playoff teams are set, but as in the East, Saturday’s results will affect seeding and matchups.
Five Central Division clubs are in: the St. Louis Blues (107 points), Nashville Predators (104 points), Chicago Blackhawks (102 points), Minnesota Wild (100 points) and Winnipeg Jets (97 points). And the Anaheim Ducks (107 points), Vancouver Canucks (99 points) and Calgary Flames (97 points) are representing the Pacific Division.
The only first-round matchup locked in is Vancouver versus Calgary, but the Flames still have a chance to be the higher seed in that series, too. If the Senators get into the playoffs in the East, it will mark the first time since 2004 that five Canadian teams have made the playoffs.
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