There are Rangers benefits to a runner-up Metro finish

BOSTON — When Satchel Paige advised “not to look back because someone might be gaining on you,” the ol’ philosopher who doubled as a Hall of Fame pitcher might have been talking directly to the 2023-24 hockey Rangers.

For the Blueshirts, third overall in the NHL before Thursday’s confrontation here with the first-overall Bruins, have been doggedly chased for weeks by Carolina as if they were Kimble being hunted down by Gerard.

The lead that was 10 points on Dec. 10 and eight points on Feb. 24, was down to a skinny two when the puck dropped both on this one and in Raleigh, N.C., where the ’Canes faced the Flyers.

Carolina Hurricanes center Evgeny Kuznetsov (92) and New York Rangers center Jack Roslovic (96) battle over the puck during the third period at PNC Arena. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

A swing in the wrong direction would deny the Rangers sole possession of the Metro lead that they have held every day since Oct. 28, though that might be a technicality since the New York team would hold the second tiebreak on ROW (regulation and overtime wins).

The lead had been sliced to one point on Jan. 13 before the Blueshirts built it back up.

It is hardly as if the division leaders have collapsed. Their 4-2 defeat to the Jets at the Garden on Tuesday left the Rangers 5-2 in their last seven games and 6-4-1 since reeling off 10 straight victories to tie the franchise record.

But …

But the ’Canes have gone 6-1 since the deadline at which they added Jake Guentzel and Evgeny Kuznetsov, 7-1 in their last eight — the only defeat coming at home to the Rangers in that 1-0 game on March 12 — and 15-4-1 in 20 games since Feb. 8.

There are, of course, benefits that accrue to a division winner. Well, there is actually only one benefit, and that would be the guarantee of home-ice advantage in the second round against the winner of the other divisional opening-round series between Nos. 2 and 3. It is absurd for that to be the only concrete reward, but that’s it.

And this year, there might be a more substantial benefit from finishing in second place in the Metro than winning the title.

For as it stands now — and seemingly cemented — the Metro champion would face the first wild-card Lightning in the first round while the runner-up would get the Flyers or Caps (or the Islanders or Devils).

Any questions?

For the sake of argument, if the hypothetically division champion ’Canes and runner-up Rangers advance and meet in Round 2 in which Carolina would have home-ice advantage, keep in mind that the Blueshirts are 4-1 over the last three seasons in Raleigh — and took Game 7 there in the 2022 second round.

The Blueshirts went 4-1 while playing five games in less than seven days — the first at night, the last in the early afternoon less than 24 hours before the start of their previous contest — that was bookended by sets of back-to-backs.

The game here on Thursday marked the club’s eighth match in 13 days. Saturday at the Garden against second-overall Florida will make nine in 15. The Blueshirts then have a couple of days until the next one when the Flyers make their first visit to the Garden next Tuesday.

There was something made of the Rangers’ recent record against playoff teams by a TV guy, but entering Thursday, the Blueshirts had gone 10-8-1 overall against clubs in the NHL’s top 10. That includes a 2-0 mark over the league-leading Bruins.

That may not be quite a match with Boston’s 12-4 record within the top 10 but it is in line with the Panthers’ 10-7-2.

Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) stops the shot in close by Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jake Guentzel (59) during the third period at PNC Arena. James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

These types of records and this type of comparison makes for some interesting fodder, but it is hardly dispositive. Teams catch opponents at different times, in the midst of different schedules, where health can be determinative.

Do results after the deadline mean as much as results achieved earlier in the season?

The Rangers, for instance, are playing without two of their top four defensemen — and their most physical — in Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren. You would think that would enter the equation when attempting to analyze results.

There is only one true comparative measure between teams and that is the best-of-seven. If the Rangers stave off Carolina and gain their first division title since 2015, they stand to be tested by Tampa Bay.

If they fall into second, the Flyers, Caps, Islanders or Devils await.

Sometimes you can win for losing.

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