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Rangers likely to face Canadiens or Senators in Round 1 of NHL playoffs

The Rangers begin their second-round series of the Eastern Conference playoffs on Thursday night against the Ottawa Senators. (Photo: Getty Images)

One single point gained in the New York Rangers’ 5-4 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night was enough to clinch a seventh-consecutive playoff berth.

The Blueshirts have a stronghold on the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 wild card spot, which is where they will likely remain when the regular season draws to a close on April9.

After Tuesday night’s game, New York’s 97 points were 11 ahead of the Boston Bruins, who currently hold the final playoff spot in the East.

With just five games remaining in their regular season, the Rangers entered Wednesday six points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the No. 3 seed in the Metropolitan Division. It is not an insurmountable disadvantage, but the Penguins have two games in hand on the Rangers.

That would mean New York is facing a first-round matchup with either the Montreal Canadiens or Ottawa Senators depending on who wins the Atlantic Division.

Despite being a lower seed this postseason, the Rangers can still be a dangerous team to encounter.

One of the team’s most noticeable strengths is its play away from home. New York is the best road side in the NHL with a 27-10-2 mark away from Madison Square Garden.

As the team poised to play four of seven games on the road in any given playoff round due to their standing, the Rangers could ruin some seasons if they are able to steal one or two games outside New York per series.

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Home play will need to improve, however. Their 19 wins are the fewest of any team that currently holds a postseason spot in either conference and would cancel out any momentum gained on the road.

Questions also surround the defense, which has been inconsistent and sieve-like at times.

In their last two games, the Rangers have allowed 11 goals and have had seven games since Feb. 26 in which they gave up four or more.

The struggles, along with the return of Kevin Klein from injury, have forced head coach Alain Vigneault to shuffle the defense.

With seven defensemen now available, Vigneault sat veteran Dan Girardi during Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

On Tuesday, Girardi was back at the expense of Klein, but it did little to help as the Rangers saw San Jose light the lamp five times.

No one’s job is safe either, as Vigneault made it clear to Larry Brooks of the New York Post on Saturday that any of his defensemen could be benched.

The defensive issues obviously put added pressure on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who is one of the best netminders of his generation despite experiencing one of his worst professional seasons in 2016-17.

But if anyone is capable of carrying a slumping blue-line group, it’s him.

In 116 career playoff games, Lundqvist owns a .921 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.28.

If he gets hot at the right time, it might not matter how the defense in front of him performs or who lines up across from him.

 
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