The NHL’s newest playoff format puts the spotlight on divisional play, and if the New York Rangers and red hot Rick Nash start the postseason against a Metropolitan Division opponent, there’s reason to believe they might be able to pull off an upset.
When the new playoff system was introduced last season, it put focus on rivalries and highlighted the importance of winning games within your division. There may be no player in 2014-15 that has more of an impact in against the most familiar foes than Rick Nash.
Nash, tied for the league lead in goal scoring with 28 entering Monday, has been a terror in the Metropolitan Division. Nearly half of the goals he’s scored – 13, to be exact – have come when playing division rivals, and that’s the best mark in the NHL. It makes you wonder if the Rangers, led by Nash, can be the Metropolitan Division’s biggest threat.
With Nash leading the way against the Islanders and Penguins, the Metropolitan’s two other big time teams, there’s certainly no easy way for the opposition to shut the Rangers down. The Rangers ability to score paired with outstanding netminding has them sitting pretty with the best goal differential in the entire Eastern Conference at +27. Their divisional dominance is evident in a 13-3-1 record and +16 goal differential against their own division.
That kind of in-division ability is key to a team’s success, especially in the new playoff format. With the Rangers looking like they’re playoff bound and in line for one of the division’s top three spots, that gives them a fairly good shot at going through two straight rounds of divisional match-ups. Be it against Pittsburgh or the Big Apple rival Islanders, a divisional showdown could be just what the Rangers want.
And that divisional matchup may be even more favorable for New York when you consider their record outside the division. Against the Atlantic, possible competition were the Rangers to fall into a wild card spot, the Blueshirts have given up four more goals than they’ve scored and posted a record of 4-8-0. That’s quite the swing.
But be it inside their division or heading into the Atlantic, Nash is going to have to be the big star and produce come playoff time. And it’s hard to believe he won’t, because he’s playing some of the best offensive hockey of his career.
In late December, Nash was on pace for 56 goals and was coming off of his first hat trick in four years. Though his pace has slipped by the slightest bit, his 53-goal tear puts him as a strong candidate to be the NHL’s leading goal-scorer come mid-April, taking home some hardware in the process.
Concerning, however, are Nash’s underlying statistics that point out the big-bodied winger is having a scoring season like never before while getting dominated during 5-on-5 play. Having an uncanny ability to find the back of the net is beneficial, but it’s less beneficial when you’re playing the second toughest competition on a nightly basis and not helping your team drive play. While Nash will never be Patrice Bergeron, a possession player that can start in the defensive zone and finish their shifts by putting pressure or pucks on the opposing netminder, there are expectations on him when he's being trotted out against top competition. But the issues haven’t been solely Nash’s.
As a team, the Rangers may have won 15 of their last 18, but it’s been thanks to an incredible string of puck luck. Though they’re in the bottom third of the league in 5-on-5 Corsi For since the beginning of December, the Rangers have a PDO of 102.3, meaning when it comes to breaks, they’re catching just about all of them. Nash has been one of the players with the biggest boom, with an on-ice shooting percentage of 12.7 -- the highest mark of his career by nearly 5.5 percent -- and PDO over 104.
An elite possession team last season, the Rangers aren’t quite there this year. However, knowing how to beat teams within the division, be it simply luck or game plan, has been New York’s greatest success this season. Even if the luck runs out, one has to believe there’s something to a tremendous record against opponents you see more often than others.
If Nash can continue his scoring ways against the Rangers’ most common opponents, there stands to reason a good chance he’ll be lighting the lamp were the Rangers to play a division rival come the playoffs. With Nash scoring and one of the games best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist manning the net, there's no reason why the Rangers can't be the team to pull off an upset in the Metropolitan. Returning to the Final may be a far from certain, but starting by downing a divisional opponent might be the best way to start things off for the Rangers.