By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers' magic number to clinch a playoff berth is now at seven.
Everyone knows that once the Blueshirts get that postseason-clinching check mark next to their name in the standings, the playoffs will bring a totally clean slate. Regular season trends, whether positive or negative, suddenly become a lot less meaningful once the chase for hockey's ultimate prize gets underway.
Only nine games and four home dates separate the Rangers from the postseason. Once the puck is dropped in the opening game of the first round, New York's record is reset. However, even though that will be the case, it sure would be good for the Rangers' psyche to get their home struggles out of their system before the real season starts.
That's why Wednesday's clash against the rival Islanders is so important. It's time for the Rangers to put their six-game home losing streak to bed. Their last home victory came all the way back on Feb. 19 against the Washington Capitals.
"It's the same ice surface, 200-by-85," head coach Alain Vigneault said on St. Patrick's Day. "Whether you're playing in Philly, Washington or New York, the ice is the same. There is no difference. There is a difference right now, obviously, in our record, our home record and our road record. We need our top players to lead and play the way they're supposed to, and they're supposed to do that at home."
Just as alarming, there's a clear disparity between the Rangers' special teams play at home and on the road. The Blueshirts lead the NHL with 26 road victories and their power play ranks fourth overall at 22.4 percent in away buildings. At home, their power play is 25th overall at 15.2 percent. Same goes with their penalty killing. They're eighth-best on the road at 82.8 percent and 25th overall at home with a lowly kill rate of 76.6 percent.
It seems like the Rangers are playing a more simplified and effective game on the road compared to at home. You can hear the groans around The Garden when the Blueshirts pass, pass, pass … looking for the perfect play on the man-advantage.
"We try to figure out why we are so good on the road and why it changes at home," winger Rick Nash said. "We have been through a lot of video and we can see the differences on video. It seems like we play straight lines on the road, get pucks deep, and at home we try to make the cute plays and not get as many shots on net. We are trying to bring that road game home."
After falling to the Devils in overtime on Tuesday night in Newark, the Rangers can expect a playoff-like home atmosphere on Wednesday and a feel similar to a playoff game as the desperate Islanders are chasing after the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Only three points separate the Isles and the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Isles should be recharged after having three days of rest and will be trying to take a bite out of the Rangers, who are playing the second of a back-to-back. So, it's up to the Blueshirts to put an end to their home woes.
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