Focusing on Rangers' first-round foes

We know the Rangers are now locked into a playoff spot. We know their 105 points lead the NHL and give the Blueshirts a 5-point edge on the Pittsburgh Penguins with just five games remaining in New York’s season. We know that five more points will secure the No. 1 seed in the East for the playoffs.

What we don’t know is whether the No. 1 overall seed would produce the most favorable first-round matchup for the Rangers.

Based on this season’s head-to-head meetings, you don’t see the kind of lopsided results you’d expect in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 series. Here’s a look at how the Rangers have fared against the three most likely No. 8 seeds in the East.

Rangers Head-to-Head Results 2011-12

Obviously this is only a very basic overview, but a plus-1 goal differential doesn’t really seem to signal a walkover first-round matchup. Not to mention the fact that the Sabres have been red-hot of late and have a far better goalie than either the Sens or Caps could boast.

But the above chart assumes the Rangers will claim the top seed. What if they were to be passed by the Pens or -- far less likely -- the Philadelphia Flyers? How would the Blueshirts stack up in a No. 4-5 matchup instead?

Rangers Head-to-Head Results 2011-12

This season the Flyers have been the bug to the Rangers’ windshield. At every turn it feels like the Blueshirts have outplayed the boys from Broad Street and these numbers seem to suggest more of the same in the postseason. Or do they?

It was just a year ago that New York completely dominated Washington during the regular season. But the Rangers’ 3-1-0 record and plus-11 differential over the Caps didn’t mean much when Alex Ovechkin and Co. easily discarded the Blueshirts in the first round.

With that in mind, you can start to see why NHL coaches don’t really worry about who they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs. In short, it’s an entirely different game. Injuries (like Ryan Callahan’s unavailability last season) and momentum can mean far more than a random game played in January. What might be more significant is home ice, particularly when it comes to a potential series against the Caps, Sabres or Pens. Respectively, those teams are nine, seven and six regulation losses worse on the road than when they skate in their home barn.

Grabbing the No. 1 seed and home ice throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs could be a big boost for the Rangers. And thanks to the help of the rival New York Islanders taking down the Pens, that outcome is looking more and more likely.