In terms of two teams headed on divergent paths, Thursday night’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets offered an interesting tableau.
In a game that promised little by way of cachet and buzz when the schedule came out in January, the match actually turned out to be one with significant implications as the Jets leapfrogged the Rangers in the standings with a 3-1 win at home and earned a spot among the top eight teams in the East.
The Jets, 4-0-1 in their past five games, are surpassing expectations and making a legitimate push to bring a playoff series to the MTS Centre this spring. Winners in seven of their past 10 games, the Jets are in eighth place with 30 points and 21 games left to play.
Leading the way for Winnipeg is captain Andrew Ladd, who tallied his 14th goal of the season Thursday. He’s getting help from Nik Antropov, who has six points in the past four games, and netminder Ondrej Pavelec, who has given up two goals or fewer in the past four games.
Meanwhile, the Rangers are skidding again after a four-game winning streak earlier this month that seemed to indicate they were shutting the door on their middling play.
Reamed out and ripped by coach John Tortorella for a wholly forgettable performance in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the downtrodden Sabres, the Rangers failed to respond again Thursday night.
As a result, the Blueshirts are now on the outside looking in as the Eastern Conference playoff picture continues to take shape. As of Friday morning, New York is in ninth place with 28 points.
Struggling sniper Marian Gaborik was held off the score sheet again despite a prime scoring opportunity on a breakaway and a subsequent penalty shot in the first period. Gaborik, whose streaky and inconsistent production has made him a liability and target of Tortorella’s fury, came up short on both against Pavelec.
Gaborik’s numbers aren’t shabby -- eight goals and 17 points -- but his play hasn’t been dependable enough to earn the trust of Tortorella or a lock on the team’s first two lines. Coming off a 41-goal season, Gaborik has scored once in the past 13 games and in only five of the Rangers' 26 games total.
Gaborik is not alone, as plenty of the Rangers’ offensive weapons have been less than stellar this season.
There is still plenty of time for the Rangers to right the ship. Heck, a lower playoff seed might not be the worst thing for them, either. (Imagine them getting a No. 6 seed, which would earn them a first-round series against whoever wins the weak Southeast division title.)
But the signs are not good. And with the parity (read: mediocrity) in the bottom half of the East, the Rangers will have to fend off some dark horses during the stretch run. As of Friday morning, both the Islanders (10th place, 27 points) and the Flyers (11th place, 25 points) are knocking on the door. Wouldn’t both those teams love to spoil the Rangers’ fun?
The Rangers wrap up a four-game road trip against the streaking Penguins on Saturday. If that’s not enough of a wake-up call, they might be in some real trouble.