The Rangers (3-3-0, 6 pts) are looking to finish off a perfect three-game homestand tonight when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins (3-3-0, 6 pts) at Madison Square Garden. In fact the Rangers, who have defeated the Maple Leafs 5-2 and the Flyers 2-1 so far on this homestand, have won three of four games played so far on home ice this season, with their only defeat at The Garden coming in the home opener against these very same Penguins.
Of course the Blueshirts not only face a quality division opponent this evening, they will also have to do so without their captain Ryan Callahan, who suffered a shoulder subluxation in the third period of Tuesday's win over the Flyers. Callahan will miss tonight's contest, and is expected to miss the next 10-14 days while his shoulder heals.
With Chris Kreider (chipped bone in ankle) sidelined as well, the Rangers will need increased efforts and production from up and down their entire group of forwards. Players like Taylor Pyatt, Mike Rupp, and Arron Asham likely will have increased roles with Callahan, and Kreider, missing from the lineup. And young second-line forwards Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin---who both played very well in Tuesday's contest against the Flyers---need to start producing points. Through six games neither Stepan nor Hagelin has scored a goal.
What head coach John Tortorella is wrestling with is whether or not to split up his top line of Marian Gaborik (5-3-8), Brad Richards (2-4-6), and Rick Nash (1-5-6) to provide more balance throughout the Rangers lineup. That threesome has clicked immediately and played major minutes since being put together in the third game of the season. All three have excelled, with Nash singled out by Tortorella following practice on Wednesday for his outstanding play in phases of the game.
Most likely the key for the Rangers tonight---and moving forward without Callahan---will be stout defensive play and the goaltending of Henrik Lundqvist, both of which have been keys in the first two games of this homestand. The Blueshirts have played solid team defense in front of Lundqvist and in turn the reigning Vezina Trophy winner has picked up his play, surrendering only one even strength goal the past two outings. To take things back a bit further the Rangers have allowed only five goals total in their previous three games, including their 2-1 loss in Philadelphia last Thursday, with only two of those coming at even strength. After a bit of a slow start defensively and in goal, the Rangers and their No. 1 netminder seem to be finding their collective stride the past week or so.
That is in stark contrast to the Rangers team which surrendered six goals in a 6-3 Garden loss to the Penguins ten days ago. Pittsburgh held a 5-1 lead before the Rangers made it interesting by scoring a pair of third-period goals. Lundqvist---who allowed four goals on 18 shots---played less than half the game before being pulled in favor of Martin Biron. James Neal, a 40-goal scorer a year ago, had a pair of goals for Pittsburgh that night, and Evgeni Malkin, the reigning Art Ross Trophy winner with 109 points last year, added three assists.
However the two teams have taken divergent paths since that contest at MSG less than two weeks ago. The Rangers have won three of their last four games, while the Penguins have lost three of their last four, including a 4-1 home-ice loss to the Islanders on Tuesday in which goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled after 40 minutes. In their last four games Pittsburgh has been outscored 13-6, with Sidney Crosby having scored three of his team's six goals in that span.
The Penguins always play the Rangers tough at Madison Square Garden, no matter the circumstances. The Pens, who wil be missing defenseman Matt Niskanen for the next four weeks due to a lower body injury, have won eight of their last ten games played at The Garden.
Will the Rangers finish off a perfect homestand with a win over the Penguins tonight? Share your thoughts and predictions below.