Who wants the two wildcards in the crowded Metro?


Keith Yandle, Mats Zuccarello Ryan McDonagh

Ryan McDonagh and Mats Zuccarello have done a lot of celebrating along with Henrik Lundqvist since the Rangers run in 2014.

With the All-Star break concluding highlighted by Brian Boyle replacing Taylor Hall to represent the Devils to thunderous applause in Tampa from appreciative fans who support the courageous vet battling Leukemia, the question of the day remains the same. Who wants the two wildcards in the Eastern Conference?

It’s not easily answered. With the Pens starting to right the ship now that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are on fire along with starter Matt Murray finally healthy, it looks like the two-time defending champs will play themselves into a top three finish in the Metro Division. They should overtake the Devils or Blue Jackets.

Assuming that’s the case, it would push either New Jersey or Columbus down to the crazy wildcard competition with the rest of the division. The other five teams are battling for the final two spots. At present entering Thursday’s slate on February 1, the Pens’ recent hot streak has vaulted them up to second with 59 points. One ahead of the Devils, who got a much needed win over the Sabres on Tuesday. They sit third with 58. A identical amount of points to the Blue Jackets. However, they have played one less game and posted one more win in regulation/overtime which is the first tiebreaker.

Columbus sits in the first wildcard. The Flyers remain in the second one despite a disappointing 5-3 loss at the Caps on Rivalry Night. A game they led 2-0 after a period turned into five straight Washington goals. They visit Newark later tonight for a big game between I-95 rivals. The Flyers have won the last two match-ups.

While Philadelphia remains in the second wildcard with 56 points and two more ROW (24), the Rangers finally return to action by hosting Toronto at MSG. At 55 points with 22 ROW and 32 games remaining, they can go one of two ways. With rumors circulating that changes could be on the horizon come Feb. 26, they can either put a good stretch together and change the organization’s mind or continue their inconsistent ways and fall out of the race.

Considering how teams keep losing around them including the Islanders, who dropped two in a row in ugly fashion following a feel good road win at Vegas, the Blueshirts should probably hang around. If for no other reason, a healthy and motivated Henrik Lundqvist continues to have a bounce back year. He maybe turning 36 in a month like tennis pal Roger Federer but you’d never know it. He’s faced a high volume of shots with many quality and has posted a .922 save percentage. The 2.61 goals-against-average is very respectable given the amount of work the affable Swede’s put in. With 21 victories, he needs nine more to reach 30 for the 12th time in his illustrious 13-year career. The only season he didn’t was the shortened year of ‘12-13 when he still won 24.

With scoring drying up since Chris Kreider went down, Lundqvist has kept his team in almost every game. Games such as the Ducks disappointment in which they chased him have been rare. The Rangers were able to salvage the final game of a otherwise bad four-game road trip by edging the Sharks thanks to Kevin Hayes’ return and J.T. Miller responding well to a benching with three points. They’re hoping that will provide a spark.

Even though the defense remains sketchy, Tony DeAngelo has shown improvement since returning following Kevin Shattenkirk having surgery which should keep him out at least another four to six weeks. The young right defenseman from New Jersey has recorded two assists while providing a steady puckmoving D in Shattenkirk’s place. Hopefully, he can build on it.

There remain plenty of questions. Ryan McDonagh could be available if the team decides that’s the best course of action moving forward. They’re not thinking about this Spring but rather long-term. Both McDonagh and popular leading point getter Mats Zuccarello have one year remaining on their deals. Whether it’s at the deadline, this summer or next year, one or both could be on the market.

If McDonagh can be had, it’s time for the club to find out about sophomore Brady Skjei. A skilled player with better speed, skating and size, he would automatically become the team’s best number one option. But is a coaching staff that’s been conservative with young players the right fit? That is highly unlikely.

The Rangers seem to have found something by substituting Rick Nash for Kreider on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Nash caught fire recording three two-goal games in January hiking his total to 15. But with his contract expiring, he’s likely to be traded to a contender for a good draft pick and prospect.

Then there’s Michael Grabner. A perfect fit due to his combination of defensive acumen and game breaking speed, he’s posted the most goals (48) since the start of ‘16-17 after signing. His 27 markers ranked second last year behind Kreider (28). His 21 pace the Blueshirts. Most amazing is most of the production has come at even strength. Grabner recently added a shorthanded goal. He doesn’t play power play and has fluctuated between the third and fourth line most of ‘17-18. He’s penciled in on the third line tonight with Peter Holland and Jesper Fast. Unfortunately, his value won’t ever be higher. A pending unrestricted free agent this summer, he’s a perfect candidate for a team to acquire. His speed and shooting percentage make him a good rental.

So much is predicated on what the Rangers do over the next three and a half weeks. They can also rid themselves of Nick Holden, who’s been miscast on the top pair out of necessity. On a better team, he can be more serviceable as a second or third pair D who can contribute offensively. It’s amazing how the critics have conveniently forgotten his 11 goals, 23 helpers and 34 points from last season. All career bests. While it’s easy to take apart his defensive shortcomings, the notion that he’s been a underachiever is wrong. They only gave up a fourth round pick and can probably get it back if not a third in a buyers market.

Like many, I want to see the team do what’s best for the future. This isn’t a championship contender. They have some tough decisions coming starting this summer with key RFA’s Hayes, Miller, Skjei and Jimmy Vesey. Then comes next summer depending on what happens with the big two of McDonagh and Zuccarello. Do they want to pay a big price for either into their 30’s when they’ll decline?

If they do make the postseason, it’ll be due to the performance of Hayes, Miller and Zuccarello who currently comprise the second line. Nobody can predict what GM Jeff Gorton will do and how it’ll impact the lineup. With 2017 first round picks Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil in Hartford along with Vinni Lettieri, changes are coming.

As far as the Wild Wild Eastern wildcard goes, it’s anyone’s guess. All the remaining contenders are flawed. The Flyers had a great January but can revert due to their goalies and defense. The big line of Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jake Voracek lead the way along with Wayne Simmonds, offensive defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere and future defensive star Ivan Provorov. The Blue Jackets don’t score consistently enough and Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t been the same since mid-December. They’re banking on Cam Atkinson to bolster a offense led by Russian wizard Artemi Panarin. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are big factors from the blueline.

The Islanders can handle the Rangers and beat good opponents but then fall flat due to a dreadful D that puts too much stress on Jaro Halak or Thomas Greiss. Led by ace John Tavares, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Calder front runner Mathew Barzal along with Jordan Eberle plus emerging second-year man Anthony Beauvillier, they have plenty of offense. The rest is a giant question mark.

The Devils are good offensively when Hall is going along with rookies Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. But they need more from Kyle Palmieri with Marcus Johansson (concussion) out. Plus continued leadership from inspiration Boyle and offensive defensemen Will Butcher and Damon Severson. Cory Schneider can’t do it alone. Backup Keith Kinkaid had one of his better games the other day.

Quietly up to 54 points with just 20 ROW, the Hurricanes are hit or miss. Like the Devils, they’re a young club that depends on key scorers Sebastian Aho, Jeff Skinner and Teuvo Teravainen. They also have vets like Jordan Staal, Justin Williams and Victor Rask who can aid their push. First-time All-Star Noah Hanifin and Justin Faulk are important cogs to the back end. But can Cam Ward carry this team into the playoffs with Scott Darling clearly the backup?

As one can conclude, there’s no correct answer. Unless Detroit or Florida with the Panthers more capable of making a run, the Metro should place five teams in the playoffs. After the Caps and Pens, who will be the remaining three? We’ll have to find out.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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