New York Post

DIVISION QUEST

Break over, Rangers tackle bunched Metro as King leads way

- By BRETT CYRGALIS bcyrgalis@nypost.com

It wasn’t lost on the Rangers what team is waiting for them on the other side of this Christmas break, and how within the clustered Metropolit­an Division, one game could end up being the difference.

The Rangers come out of the league’s civil three-day break, with a matchup against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals on Wednesday night at the Garden, off two straight losses. They are 4-3-2 in their previous nine games, but still have managed to position themselves in the first wildcard spot with 42 points in 36 games.

There are four points between the Rangers and the second-place Capitals, who have 46 points in 37 games. The Blueshirts are five points behind the first-place Devils, who have 47 points in 35 games. Looking down, there are the Islanders, tied in points and games played, but in the second wild-card spot due to having one fewer win in regulation or overtime. Not far behind are the Hurricanes (39 points), the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins (39), and the last-place Flyers, with 38 points.

That’s nine points between first and last, and the Rangers are jammed right in the middle. It makes all of the divisional games even more important, and keeping pace is going to be an arduous task.

“It’s not going to get any easier in here as we continue,” captain Ryan McDonagh said after the Rangers’ 3-2 loss to the Maple Leafs at the Garden on Saturday night. “It’s always tight. We have to find a way collective­ly as a team here to put together some good efforts back to back.”

The efforts of the team have varied quite a bit since they came off a six-game winning streak, which ended Nov. 15 in Chicago. Since then, most of their victories — of which there are 10 in 17 games — have come on the back of the brilliance of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

As coach Alain Vigneault repeatedly has said, the one common denominato­r of good teams in this league is good goaltendin­g, and the resurgence of the 35-year-old Swede after a subpar start to the season has been the best gift the franchise could have received. That not only stands for the Rangers’ chances at

reaching the postseason this year, but also for contemplat­ing the near future of the franchise, with Lundqvist’s annual $8.5 million salary-cap hit (along with a no-trade clause) on the books through 2020-21.

But even as much as the organizati­on’s success over the past decade has been predicated on Lundqvist’s play, the Rangers know they need to play better in front of him if they want to stick around in the division. They allowed 48 shots against in Thursday’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Devils in Newark, and it was the eighth time they had allowed 40plus shots in the past 17 games.

The forecheck has been inconsiste­nt, and poor puck management has slowed the fast-paced transition game to a standstill. Against both the Devils and Maple Leafs, the Rangers looked pedestrian in both speed and skill. Granted, both opponents have rosters with previous No. 1-overall picks in Nico His- chier and Auston Matthews, as well as other high-end young players who came with picks that were the results of years of failure.

Instead, the Rangers have made the postseason in all but one year since the hard salary cap was implemente­d following the 2004-05 lockout. They have been just about as successful as a team can be without winning the Stanley Cup, and that has made general manager Jeff Gorton’s job a little more complicate­d as he tries to retool on the fly.

Yet here they are again, rolling up to the new year (and the Winter Classic) in the thick of a division battle that is only going to get more competitiv­e.

“It’s a fun time of year, enjoy it with your families,” McDonagh said. “But at the same time, kind of reflect on your game individual­ly in here and collective­ly come back ready to play some good hockey.”

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 ?? Getty Images; AP ?? GARDEN PARITY: There hasn’t been a lot of celebratin­g recently as the Rangers have leveled off at 4-3-2 over their past nine games, but the play of Henrik Lundqvist (inset) in goal has them hopeful in a tight Metropolit­an Division race.
Getty Images; AP GARDEN PARITY: There hasn’t been a lot of celebratin­g recently as the Rangers have leveled off at 4-3-2 over their past nine games, but the play of Henrik Lundqvist (inset) in goal has them hopeful in a tight Metropolit­an Division race.

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