Yes, it’s just one game, but the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins both likely realize that these Metropolitan Division matchups are that much more important.
Update: The Penguins beat the Rangers 5-2, so now Pittsburgh has 51 standings points in 46 games played while the Rangers have 49 points in 44 games. The two teams have tenuous grips on the East’s two wild-card spots.
Read about the Penguins’ win here and a milestone night for Phil Kessel in this post.
At the moment, both teams have 49 standings points, with the Rangers having a significant advantage in holding two games in hand (43 games played for Rangers, 45 for Penguins). As you can see from the standings, the Metro races are indeed skin-tight.
You’d think that the Rangers’ two games in hand would be enough to give them a substantial edge in the race, at least as of this writing, but it’s fascinating to take a look at which models smile more upon the Penguins or Rangers.
Sportsclub Stats gives the Rangers a 66.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, while handing the Penguins a dicey 36.1 percent chance. On the other hand, Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic’s model (sub required) favors the Penguins considerably, while others are very close.
To some extent, Penguins optimism comes from their past successes and some bad bounces in 2017-18. PDO is often used as a measure of luck, and Pittsburgh stands as the lowest-ranking team in that stat in the entire NHL (via Natural Stat Trick).
Another factor working against the Rangers is their remaining schedule.
Yes, they have games in hand on the Penguins (and in some cases, other rivals), but they’re also slated to pay for what’s been a remarkably home-heavy start to the season. The Rangers have played 26 games at home, the most in the NHL, while only playing 17 on the road, the least in the league.
Things start to heat up in a week:
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
You’d think a bye week would help, and it does break up some of the challenge, but it could also be rough if the Rangers limp into that break with a bad California road trip.
After tonight’s game, the Rangers and Penguins only meet one more time in the regular season, a March 14 match at Madison Square Garden. It’s quite possible that both teams will miss or make the playoffs this season, but it’s very difficult to say how things will ultimately shake out.
One can only put so much weight in one game during an 82-game campaign, yet looking at how small the margins seem to be, this could be an important decision. Especially if it ends in regulation.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.