Saturday night at the Bell Centre the Rangers (16-14-3, 35 pts) close out their three-game road trip by playing the Montreal Canadiens (21-7-5, 47 pts) in an Original Six, Hockey Night in Canada match-up. New York comes in tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, while Montreal leads the Northeast Division and sits second overall in the East. This will be the final meeting this season between these two teams, with the Rangers trying to avoid a season-series sweep at the hands of the Habs.
The Rangers will also be seeking yet again to establish some consistency in their all-around game, particularly offensively. After breaking the dam and scoring five goals in Tuesday's 5-2 victory in Philadelphia, the Rangers were shut out for the fourth time this season, falling to the Senators in Ottawa 3-0 on Thursday night. What most irked head coach John Tortorella on Thursday was that the team could produce such a completely different effort coming off one of their best wins of the season. Tortorella was most distressed by the team's lack of drive over the first two periods of play, though he did believe the final 20 minutes was much better. On Friday he noted that his club needs to seize the deciding moments in each game and make them go the Rangers way---believing that too many prime opportunities have slipped away from the team this season.
Mats Zuccarello will be inserted back into the lineup tonight, as Tortorella looks to the creative Norwegian to help improve the Rangers offensive game. However Zuccarello alone can not be the answer. It will take a complete group effort to get the ship righted offensively---not just in Montreal, but over the final 15 games of the season. After practice on Friday Marian Gaborik (one goal in 11 games) took much of the blame and responsibility on his shoulders, though such responsibility needs to be shared throughout the lineup.
The Rangers have scored the fewest goals (78) in the National Hockey League this season. That's in stark contrast to a Canadiens team that just scored five goals Wednesday in Boston and ranks fifth in the league with 104 on the season. Add a stingy team defense backstopped by goaltender Carey Price and the Canadiens have an impressive +21 goal differential as opposed to the Rangers who are a -3 goal differential despite having surrendered the fifth fewest goals in the NHL.
Montreal is coming off a wildly exciting 6-5 shootout victory over the Bruins, lifting them one point ahead of Boston for first place in the hotly-contested Northeast Division. Montreal scored three third-period goals in that come-from-behind shootout win Wednesday night, with rookie Brendan Gallagher netting one of those goals, as well as the shootout winner.
The Canadiens, who have beaten the Rangers 3-1 at Madison Square Garden on February 19th and 3-0 at the Bell Centre four days later, had lost two in a row prior to Wednesday's big win, and they are just 2-2-1 in their last five games, not dissimilar to the Rangers 3-2-1 mark in their last six contests. However the Canadiens have solid footing in the Eastern Conference standings, buoyed by a pair of five-game winning streaks and another four-game winning streak, and they have not lost more than two games in a row in regulation all season.
Former Ranger Brandon Prust likely will return to the Canadiens lineup tonight. He has missed the previous eight games with a separated shoulder, but practiced on Friday and declared himself fit to play. Prust leads the Habs with 81 penalty minutes and a +13 plus/minus mark, while registering four goals and nine points in 25 games played. Along with Prust the Rangers will also be facing ex-Blueshirt Jeff Halpern tonight. Halpern was claimed off waivers from the Rangers last week.
Will the Rangers end their road trip on a happy note? Share your predictions below.