The surging Rangers (12-8-2, 26 pts) play their first Friday night game of 2013 this evening when they host the Ottawa Senators (12-8-4, 28 pts) at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts have won a season-high four games in a row and have moved to within two points of sixth-place Ottawa, meaning a win in regulation tonight would pull the eighth place Rangers into a tied for sixth place with the Blueshirts still holding two games in hand on the Senators.
Tonight's contest also carries a certain level of importance because it is the last one on home ice for the Rangers for more than a week as the team heads off on a four-game road trip to Washington, Buffalo, Winnipeg, and Pittsburgh next week. Five of the next six games, and eight of the remaining 11 this month, will be played on the road by the Rangers, who are currently 9-4-1 at The Garden and 3-4-1 in away games.
The Rangers did extend their current winning streak Thursday night with a road victory, rallying to beat the Islanders 2-1 in overtime at the Nassau Coliseum. Rick Nash continued to weave his late-game magic, scoring the tying goal late in the third period before setting up Marian Gaborik's overtime winner on the power play. Nash now has eight points (5-3-8) in four games since returning from injury, and all eight of his goals this season have been scored in the third period. Gaborik's goal was his first in nine games, though he did extend his point-scoring streak to three consecutive games (1-3-4). Gaborik and Nash are tied for the team lead with eight goals apiece, while Nash leads the team in scoring with 20 points (8-12-20). Gaborik ranks second with 16 points (8-8-16).
Not to be lost in last night's heroics, or the team's recent surge, is the quiet steady play of Derek Stepan, who assisted on both goals last night. Stepan now has at least one point in each game of the winning streak (2-4-6) and has posted back-to-back multiple point outings. Henrik Lundqvist has done his part, too, between the pipes. Lundqvist stopped 27 of 28 shots on Thursday and has backstopped each of the victories on this current winning streak, never surrendering more than two goals in a single game, and just six in total.
Head coach John Tortorella played all six of his defensemen quite a bit Thursday in the absence of the injured Marc Staal---with Roman Hamrlik playing a solid 15:48 in his Rangers debut, paired mostly with Steve Eminger, who played a strong 15:04 that featured a team-high five hits and a team-best four shots on goal.
Staal, who is out indefinitely, and Arron Asham (back) will not play again this evening as the Senators visit The Garden for the first time since the Rangers eliminated them from the 2012 Eastern Conferenece Quarterfinals with a 2-1 victory in Game 7 last spring. Brad Richards, who has sat out the last two games because he is "banged up", is questionable this evening. The Rangers will announce their lineup later in the afternoon.
The Sens come in to The Garden closing out a five-game road trip that has seen them go winless so far (0-2-2). In fact Ottawa---which has an Eastern Conference-best 9-1-2 record at home, has lost nine of their last ten on the road, including Wednesday's 5-4 defeat in Toronto.
Though winger Milan Michalek is back in the lineup, the Senators are still without injured goalie Craig Anderson and star center Jason Spezza. In addition Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson is out for the year after having his achilles tendon cut by a skate blade. Either Ben Bishop or rookie Robin Lehner will tend goal for the Sens this evening, in what is expected to be another low-scoring affair between these two excellent defensive clubs.
Ottawa has won five straight regular-season games at Madison Square Garden, and they won two of four at MSG during the playoffs a year ago, so there will be no fear on their part coming into the World's Most Famous Arena.
Earlier this season the Sens grabbed a 3-2 shootout decision over the Rangers up in Ottawa, the first of three scheduled meetings this season between the Blueshirts and Senators.
Will the Rangers be able to win on back-to-back nights and push their winning streak to five games? Share your predictions below.