For the third time this month---and a span of 26 days---the Rangers (8-8-2, 18 pts) will face off against the Tampa Bay Lightning (9-9-1, 19 pts) Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers will be looking to finish off a season series sweep of John Tortorella's former team, having beaten the Lightning 3-2 down in Tampa on February 2nd before skating to a 5-1 victory at The Garden eight days later.
The Blueshirts will also be seeking to end a four-game skid which they carry into this contest. The Rangers are winless at 0-3-1 in their previous four games, and are coming off a frustrating 4-3 defeat to the Winnipeg Jets which opened their four-game homestand Tuesday evening. Even with those three goals against the Jets, the Rangers have scored only six goals in the previous four games, and have been outscored 12-6 in losing twice to Montreal, once to Winnipeg, and once in the shootout in Ottawa.
The good news for the Rangers is that the reinforcements may be arriving in time for tonight's match against Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and company. Rick Nash, who has missed four consecutive games, has skated the past two days with his teammates and very likely could make his return to the Rangers lineup tonight. And the team's depleted defense corps may receive a major lift as both Ryan McDonagh---who missed one game---and Michael Del Zotto---who missed a pair---are set to return, as well. Veteran forward Arron Asham likely will not play, though, as he continues to suffer with a bad back.
Should Nash return the Rangers will receive a big boost up front for a second straight game after Darroll Powe returned from his concussion Tuesday night against the Jets. With Brandon Mashinter returned to the Connecticut Whale, rookie Chris Kreider would seem to have a secure place in the lineup even with Nash back and playing.
On defense, if McDonagh and Del Zotto both play, Tortorella will have to decide which defensemen will not be in the lineup. On Tuesday Steve Eminger played an extremely strong 20:33 in only his fifth appearance of the season, while Matt Gilroy was a -1 in 11:54 and Stu Bickel was a -1 in 7:16. Gilroy has played in 12 straight games, but Tortorella did praise Eminger in a chat with reporters Wednesday after practice.
Henrik Lundqvist, who took Tuesday's defeat especially hard after allowing a third period goal to Evander Kane which he felt he most definitely should have stopped, will start for the 16th time this season. He stopped 19 of 20 shots in the 5-1 Garden victory over Tampa Bay back on February 10th.
The Lightning come in to play a tiebreaker away from first place in the weak Southeast Division. Their 19 points do land them in eighth place currently in the Eastern Conference standings, but Carolina owns the tiebreaker against Tampa Bay, meaning that the Hurricanes---and not the Lightning---currently own the third spot in the East. Tampa Bay has lost two in a row and three of their last four---with a 5-2 win in Carolina last Saturday their only victory in that span.
Stamkos comes into The Garden leading the league in goals (14) and points (30), while St. Louis is tied for sixth in points (24) and ranks second in assists (20). Seven times already this season the Lightning have scored five goals or more in a game.
While Tampa Bay leads the NHL in goals scored, their team defense ranks 25th, allowing 3.10 goals per game.
Will the Rangers complete the series sweep over the Lightning? What is the biggest key for the Rangers tonight? Share your predictions below.