Just three regular-season games remain for the New York Rangers before their seventh-consecutive postseason appearance and it already looks as though everything is set.
Holding the No. 1 wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers are too far back to catch either the Columbus Blue Jackets or Pittsburgh Penguins for the final spot in the Metropolitan Division.
They will draw the East’s weakest division winner, which is the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division.
With 101 points, the Canadiens clinched the division on Monday with a victory over the Florida Panthers. Still, they have a double-digit disadvantage compared to the current Metropolitan Division-leading Washington Capitals, meaning the Rangers are their only possible first-round matchup.
A matchup like this makes goaltending enthusiasts salivate as Montreal‘s Carey Price will defend his crease opposite New York’s Henrik Lundqvist, who is still capable of standing on his head despite experiencing one of the worst seasons of his career.
The Canadiens’ defense in front of Price has been just as solid as the 2015 Vezina Trophy winner, allowing the fourth-least amount of goals in the NHL entering Tuesday night.
New York could provide a serious challenge for them considering it has scored 252 goals this year, fourth most in the league.
The Rangers have 10 different players with 11 goals or more and four over 20. Among them, Michael Grabner was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2016-17 season after scoring 26 goals in his first 53 games.
He was quite a bargain considering the Rangers signed him to an inexpensive two-year, $3.3 million deal over the summer.
However, the wheels have fallen off for him since then as he is mired in a major slump, scoring just once in the last 20 games.
“Now you get a little bit of a glimpse of why I scored nine goals last year,” Grabner told Brett Cyrgalisof the New York Pos. “Most of the year last year was like that, where I was just getting a lot of chances and they wouldn’t go in.”
Those inconsistencies have prevented the speedy winger from developing into one of the better offensive threats in the NHL.
After scoring 34 goals with the New York Islanders during his first full season in 2010-11, Grabner’s output decreased over the next three years from 20, to 16 and then to 12.
He scored just eight goals in an injury-shortened 2014-15 season, which was his final year with the Islanders before dealing him to the Toronto Maple Leafs for five players.
His Toronto tenure did not go well though with those nine goals in 80 games before hitting free agency and basically falling into the Rangers’ lap.
There was cause for concern considering his streaky tendencies. He possessed the intangibles to cause defenses fits with his speed and agility, but his finishing has always held him back.
Had Grabner found a system that worked on breakaways --or near the net for that matter-- there would be a legitimate chance that he could be a 50-goal scorer.
That’s not an exaggeration either.
Despite his slump, the 29-year-old is still second on the team in goals behind Chris Kreider’s 28, but he has to find his scoring touch quickly or else the Rangers will have a difficult time generating any offense against Price and the Canadiens.