The Rangers (18-15-3, 39 pts) and Penguins (28-10-0) conclude their home and home set with a match at CONSOL Energy Center on Friday night, two nights after New York grabbed the first half of this set with a resounding 6-1 victory at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. The win was the Rangers second in a row after being shut out in back to back games last week in Ottawa and Montreal, while the defeat was Pittsburgh's second in as many nights following a 15-game winning streak which capped a perfect record in the month of March.
In winning two straight on home ice, the Rangers totaled ten goals. And in fact the Rangers have netted 15 goals total in their last three victories, dating back to last Tuesday's 5-2 win in Philadelphia. What the Rangers need is more consistency with their offensive game. These scoring outbursts surely show the potential of the Blueshirts' offense, but can not be sandwiched around a scoreless streak of nearly 130 minutes as was the case last week.
The visitors will be hard-pressed to dominate the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins tonight the same way they did on Wednesday at The Garden, but a similar commitment to an aggressive forecheck and focus on puck possession will be key if the Rangers expect to have any success this evening in Pittsburgh. It will be fascinating to see if Ryane Clowe, Derick Brassard, and John Moore will be able to ride the wave of their outstanding Ranger debuts into tonight's game. Just as fascinating will be to watch and see if Brad Richards and Brian Boyle---who both have played much better as of late---will be able to follow up on their breakout games from Wednesday night.
With how well all four lines and all three defensse pairings played in that Garden match against Pittsburgh, it was no surprise that John Tortorella kept everything intact for practice on Thursday. Do not expect any lineup changes, especially with rookie J.T. Miller nursing a sore left wrist.
The Rangers had lost their first three games againt the Penguins this season, prior to Wednesday's 6-1 victory. They will close out their season series with the Pens this evening, seeking to avenge a 3-0 loss at CONSOL Energy Center on March 16th---the only other game played in Pittsburgh so far in 2013. Both James Neal and Pascal Dupuis have scored three goals in four games against the Rangers this season, while goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun have split the work between the pipes againt New York. Both have recorded a shutout against the Rangers this season with Vokoun winning both of his starts and Fleury splitting his.
Interestingly it will be the first-place Penguins looking to right their ship tonight. They have lost two straight without Sidney Crosby in the lineup. Crosby is out indefinitely with a broken jaw, and Pens GM Ray Schero spent much of Thursday denying reports that Crosby had suffered another concussion. Crosby still leads the NHL with 56 points, but the Pens do not lack firepower without him. This is a lineup that still features Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Neal, Dupuis, and newcomers Jarome Iginla, and Brendan Morrow. Yet the Penguins looked very sloppy and disorganized their last two games, falling to the Sabres 4-1 on Tuesday before being shellacked at The Garden on Wednesday.
To a man the Rangers expect a big-time bounce-back effort from Pittsburgh tonight. While this is the Pens fourth two-game mini skid of the season, they have not lost three in a row all season---the type of consistency that has eluded the Rangers for sure.
After tonight's game the Rangers get right on a plane and fly to Raleigh where they face the Hurricanes on Saturday night. From there the Rangers head to Toronto to close out their three-game road trip with a game against the Maple Leafs on Monday.
Will the Rangers grab both ends of this home-and-home against the top team in the East on Friday? Share your predictions below.