Saturday afternoon at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, the Rangers (13-11-2, 28 pts) close out their four-game road trip when the face off with a Penguins team (20-8-0, 40 pts) that just might be the hottest club in the entire National Hockey League. While the Rangers come in having lost two straight, and three of their last four, the Penguins are riding a season-best seven-game winning streak.
After starting their season-high four-game road swing with an impressive 4-1 win in Washington last Sunday, the Rangers have managed to score just two goals in their past two games---a pair of 3-1 losses in Buffalo on Tuesday and in Winnipeg on Thursday. The most recent defeat saw the Rangers have a string of good scoring chances through the first 40 minutes---including a Marian Gaborik first period breakaway and penalty shot, and doorstep opportunities for Taylor Pyatt and Brad Richards---but hardly any in the third period while chasing a one-goal deficit. Head coach John Tortorella said after practice on Friday that his team needs to generate more scoring chances, without sacrificing anything in the defensive end, and perhaps just needs a lucky bounce or two to give some of his players more confidence.
Henrik Lundqvist suggested after Thursday's loss that the Rangers need to be better and tougher in front of both nets---offensively and defensively, too. Lundqvist, who has started eight of the Rangers last nine games in goal, thought that more aggressive play in front of other team's goalies would result in more scoring chances and goals. Tortorella agreed on Friday, saying that he thinks the Rangers are getting to the crease offensively, but "we need to stay there...we're good at skating by...we need to stay there".
Lundqvist should be healthy enough to make the start on Sunday. He has been hit by shots in the same exact spot on his left thigh against both the Sabres and the Jets, and said his leg went numb late in the third period Thursday after absorbing another blow. Of course that just makes Lundqvist one in a long-line of walking wounded Blueshirts who are playing despite being banged up. However only Marc Staal and Arron Asham actually are unable to play due to injury, and both will sit out again on Saturday.
The Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin, who is sidelined by an upper body injury, marking the fourth straight game he will not play. Along with a concussion he suffered earlier, Malkin has missed seven games in total so far this season. Yet the reigning Hart Trophy winner still has 24 points (5-19-24) in 21 games this season.
What is fairly amazing is that Malkin's 24 points are just the fifth highest total on the Penguins. Four other players have recorded more points, led by healthy-again team captain Sidney Crosby who leads the entire league with 47 points in 28 games. Another Penguin, winger Chris Kunitz, is second in the NHL with 39 points and second with 18 goals. Coming into Saturday's action Kunitz is riding a three-game point streak in which he has recorded eight points (4-4-8) in that span.
Add to the mix James Neal, who is tied for third in the league with 17 goals--and who like Kunitz has eight power play goals---and it is easy to see why the Penguins have an NHL-high 103 goals. The next highest total comes from the Anaheim Ducks who have 89 goals.
During their current seven-game winning streak, the Penguins have scored 32 goals, and never fewer than three in a game. Pittsburgh has also won nine of their last ten games, and 12 of 14, as they have surged to the top of the Atlantic Division standings, and are now tied with Montreal for first place in the East.
The Rangers lost two of the three games they played at the CONSOL Energy Center last season. Saturday marks their first of two visits to Pittsburgh this season. The two clubs have played twice at Madison Square Garden already in 2013 with the Penguins winning both---6-3 on January 20th and 3-0 on January 31st.
How will the Rangers road trip come to an end Saturday? Share your predictions below.