Having earned five of a possible six points in the standings over their previous three games, stringing together some of their better performances of the season, the seventh-place Rangers (18-15-4, 40 pts) skate in Raleigh this evening to face the equally-as-desperate- for-points Carolina Hurricanes (16-18-2, 34 pts), who sit in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, six points out of the final playoff spot.
The Rangers are coming off an extremely well-played 2-1 shootout loss in Pittsburgh on Friday night, one in which they once again looked like a hungry, intense team playing solid and smart hockey in all three areas of the ice. That the Rangers did not secure both points Friday is due in large part to Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who put forth a spectacular 34-save performance, and who stopped all three shooters in the shootout. Still it was a well-earned point, especially on the road against the top team in the East.
Most important to the Rangers is that they have now strung together three very high-quality performances in a row --- the last two of which have come while incorporating new personnel into the lineup following Wednesday's trade deadline. On Monday it was an impressive 4-2 win at home over Winnipeg in which the Rangers scored twice in the final period. Wednesday night it was an all-out blitz of the Penguins, a 6-1 Garden triumph. And on Friday it was pretty much as good as a team can play on the road against an elite opponent and not earn both points.
To a man in the dressing room Friday night the Rangers spoke of needing to follow up Friday's quality showing with another 24 hours later against Carolina. The Rangers have thrived in back-to-backs under John Tortorella for several seasons, but that doesn't mean it will be easy in the least to snag the crucial two points on the line this evening. Though the Rangers are not looking behind them and are focused ahead, they could provide a serious blow to Carolina's waning playoff hopes should they beat their hosts tonight at PNC Arena.
After a strong start to the 2013 season, Carolina has won just once in its last 11 games, posting a 1-9-1 record in that span. They have fallen from first place in the Southeast Division---and subsequently third in the conference---to third behind Winnipeg and Tampa Bay, and 13th in the East. The 'Canes have lost three in a row, and are winless in their last six meetings with the Rangers.
The Blueshirts edged the Hurricanes 2-1 in the shotoout on March 18th at The Garden, and swept all four games against Carolina a year ago. Martin Biron started both games in Raleigh last season, winning 5-3 and 3-2, and is on an incredible 9-0-0 run in his last ten starts in Raleigh with a 2.17 goals against average. And Biron may get the chance to start on Saturday, not only because it's the second of a back-to-back for the Rangers or because of his success against the 'Canes, but because starter Henrik Lundqvist admitted to tweaking his hamstring during the shootout against Pittsburgh on Friday night. The Rangers coaches will evaluate the situation in this morning and make their call for Saturday night.
Carolina's recent problems have been at both ends of the ice. They have been outscored 42-17 over their last 11 games, pairing a woeful offense with a porous defense. Though they recently signed pending UFA Alexander Semin to a multi-year contract, they did trade veteran center Jussi Jokinen to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline---just in time for Jokinen to score Pittsburgh's lone goal in regulation last night, not to mention the only goal of the shootout against the Rangers.
Just 7-11-0 on home ice, the 'Canes continue to be led by team captain Eric Staal, who is the league's eighth-leading scorer with 40 Points (16-24-40) this season. Speaking of Staal, injured Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, who is limited to working out off the ice at present, traveled to Carolina with the Rangers to visit big brother Eric and younger brother Jordan.
Will the Rangers grab another crucial two points tonight against the struggling 'Canes? Share your predictions below.