There was most definitely a playoff feeling in the air Monday morning as the Rangers and Maple Leafs took part in their respective morning skates at the Air Canada Centre. With ten games to play on the truncated 2013 schedule, the seventh-place Rangers are four points behind the fifth-place Maple Leafs, meaning that their home-and-home set with the Leafs---tonight in Toronto and Wednesday at Madison Square Garden---carries even more importance and helps foster that playoff-like atmosphere.
"I still think we can beat any team in the league, no matter what the standings are," stated goaltender Henrik Lundqvist following the skate. "We're getting closer to where we want to be."
Lundqvist is coming off a phenomenal 48-save performance Saturday night, one that boosted the Rangers to a 4-1 victory and a 3-0-1 mark in their last four games. Head coach John Tortorella emphasized his team needs to be better this evening, and his players were in full agreement.
"It's great to see, but you don't want to have to rely on Hank the way we did the other night," said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. "This is going to be a tough game against a tough opponent. We need to be better."
Both sides expect a punishing, physical game this evening, with that and some intense bitterness carrying over into Wednesday's tilt in New York. That alone helps charge this one tonight with more of a playoff feel.
In the Maple Leafs dressing room, there is respect for the Rangers, even though it is New York chasing Toronto in the Eastern Conference standings.
"I'm definitely surprised by where they are right now, but it's been a curveball of a season for all teams without the 82-game schedule," explained Maple Leafs defenseman Mark Fraser. "That they are fighting for the playoffs almost makes them more dangerous, though."
Added Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf, who was a minus-4 when these two teams met on January 26th, a 5-2 Rangers win at The Garden, "They are a team that comes hard at you, they have plenty of size and skill up front. And we know full well the skill players they have. They're a good team, but we need to play stingy defense and grind teams down in their own end."
Toronto's top scorer, Nazem Kadri, was asked how the Maple Leafs will deal with facing Lundqvist, who is at the top of his game right now and who was named the NHL's third Star of the Week on Monday.
"We have to get in his grill," Kadri stated simply. "We have to respect their talent, and certainly respect Henrik, but it's important we come out in our building and set the tone. We're probably the most physical team in the league. We ned to show that tonight."
Players from both teams emphasized the importance to dictate the game on their own terms. To a man the Rangers focused on what they need to do as opposed to what the Maple Leafs may try and do out on the ice.
Toronto will play without injured forward Joffrey Lupul while the Rangers will dress the same lineup as they have the previous three games, meaning J.T. Miller, Matt Gilroy, and Roman Hamrlik will be scratched.
With a clear playoff vibe in the building this morning, both teams should be ready to come with their best this evening at the ACC.
"We have a lot more balance in our lineup now, and we've been playing pretty well," noted Rangers alternate captain Brad Richards. "Things are rolling along. Now we have to keep it going."