Rangers face treacherous path after Winter Classic

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Ultimately, the 2018 Winter Classic only counts as one game from the New York Rangers’ and Buffalo Sabres’ respective 82-game seasons.

It’s something that was special for players and fans, yet it counts as it usually would: two points for the Rangers and one for the Sabres after New York won 3-2 in overtime thanks to J.T. Miller‘s power-play goal.

(Soak in some of that atmosphere here, with no need for mittens.)

With all of that acknowledged, allow an observation: when we look back at the 2017-18 season, the win might just come in awfully handy for the Rangers, particularly in a skin-tight race for positioning in the East’s brutal Metropolitan Division.

Here’s how the Metro’s top four looks after the Rangers’ win; if you want a full view of the very competitive division, check out the standings.

1. Capitals: 24-13-3, 51 points in 40 games played
2. Devils: 22-10-6, 50 pts in 38 GP
3. Rangers: 21-13-5, 47 pts in 37 GP
4. Blue Jackets: 22-15-3, 47 pts in 40 GP

Pretty remarkable stuff from the Rangers, especially since the team’s season seemed to be swirling around the sink early in 2017-18, with the team as bad as 1-5-2 on Oct. 19.

There’s a lot to celebrate here with the Rangers, but this win means something because of how imbalanced this team’s schedule has been so far. Let’s put it this way: the Rangers should be glad that the 2018 Winter Classic was considered a “road game.”

So far this season, the Rangers have played 24 games at Madison Square Garden, going 15-6-3. They’ve only played 15 games on the road, counting the Winter Classic, generating a 6-7-2 record. They now only have 17 home games and 26 road games to go during the remainder of 2017-18, so that means nine more road than home contests.

The Rangers face a tough haul from late January to early February, in particular:

Sat, Jan 20 @ Colorado
Sun, Jan 21 @ Los Angeles
Tue, Jan 23 @ Anaheim
Thu, Jan 25 @ San Jose
Thu, Feb 1 vs Toronto
Sat, Feb 3 @ Nashville
Mon, Feb 5 @ Dallas
Wed, Feb 7 vs Boston
Fri, Feb 9 vs Calgary
Sun, Feb 11 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 13 @ Minnesota
Thu, Feb 15 @ NY Islanders
Sat, Feb 17 @ Ottawa

As you can see, that’s a stretch where the Rangers play 10 of 13 games on the road. The best break there is that they only face one back-to-back stretch during that span, when they begin a four-game road trip.

There are two other away-heavy runs following that: five of six games on the road (Feb. 28 – March 10) and then they close the season with a four-game road trip. The interesting wrinkle regarding that season-ending span is that all four games come against Metropolitan Division teams.

Sat, Mar 31 @ Carolina
Tue, Apr 3 @ New Jersey
Thu, Apr 5 @ NY Islanders
Sat, Apr 7 @ Philadelphia

Interesting stuff. Could we run into another situation where a shootout decides a playoff spot during the last game of the season?

With this current 6-7-2 road record in mind, a lot of games away from MSG stands as a concern. That said, the Rangers have a recent history of being a strong road team under Alain Vigneault, including a 27-12-2 record in 2016-17 (which was better than their 21-16-4 mark at home that season).

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None of these concerns bury the Rangers by any means, particularly during a season when they’ve already “cheated death” once.

Still, with things so tight in the Metro races, that schedule stands as foreboding, especially since their peers have experienced more home-road balance. For all we know, every standings point could really end up counting … so hey, maybe this Winter Classic win might mean quite a bit.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.