Tonight at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers (19-16-4, 42 pts) not only have a rematch with the Toronto Maple Leafs (22-13-4, 48 pts), who beat the Rangers 4-3 Monday night at the Air Canada Centre, but they have a crucial contest on their hands when considering the current state of the Eastern Conference standings. Following last night's action around the conference, the Rangers dropped into eighth place. They are tied in points with the Winnipeg Jets, who won last night, but have two games in hand on the Jets. The Blueshirts are also just two points clear of the Devils, who sit in tenth place. Ahead of them the streaking Islanders and the struggling Senators both have 44 points---two more than the Rangers---meaning a win this evening would pull the Rangers even in points, creating a virtual three-way tie for sixth place in the East.
Rangers players and coaches will tell you, however, that they are not focused as much on the standings as they are on their own game. And after feeling pretty good about all aspects of their game last week, there have been cracks in the team's defensive play the last two contests. While Henrik Lundqvist was able to cover up most of those cracks with a 48-save gem in a 4-1 win Saturday in Carolina, he was often left naked and alone as the Maple Leafs crashed his crease repeatedly for in-tight chances and rebound opportunities during Toronto's 4-3 victory over the Rangers on Monday night. A more skilled and confident team then the Hurricanes, the Leafs were able to make the Rangers pay, handing New York a bitter loss as the game-winning goal by Phil Kessel came 39 seconds after the Rangers had erased a 3-1 third-period deficit to pull even at three apiece on a Derek Stepan goal.
New York still is 3-1-1 over its last five games overall, including a pair of Garden victories in which they combined to outscore Winnipeg and Pittsburgh by a 10-3 margin. But they had the chance to put some fear into Toronto Monday night and crawl within two points of fifth place, only to head into tonight's match up further down the playoff ladder with one fewer game to play.
While it seemed the rest of the team was not as sharp offensively, Rick Nash continued his red-hot play Monday in Toronto. Nash played with power and passion, and a distinct will to win, scoring twice and leading the Rangers with seven shots on goal. He now has seven goals and ten points in his last eight games. Stepan also kept up his strong play with that clutch game-tying goal. The third-year center has been as consistent as they come recently with 23 points (11-12-23) in his last 21 games, including a career-high-tying five-game point streak heading into this evening's battle with the Leafs.
With rookie J.T. Miller sent back to the minor leagues on Tuesday, there is no question as to what the Rangers lineup will look like on a nightly basis down the stretch of the season now. Head coach John Tortorella has settled on his current group, using the same lineup in all four games since the trade deadline. Defensemen Matt Gilroy and Roman Hamrlik remain the extras for now.
Monday's win was Toronto's fifth in the last six games as they have solidified their spot in the standings, a tremendous turnaround from their previous non-playoff seasons. Part of their success this season has been their strong play oin the road where the Maple Leafs enter tonight with an 11-6-2 mark, making them one of only nine teams in the NHL with that many victories on the road this season.
Interestingly each of Toronto's 22 wins this seasion has come in regulation or the five-minute overtime period, with not one having been secured in the shootout. The Maple Leafs are winless in four shootouts this season, making them one of only three teams---Carolina and Calgary are the others---who are winless in the shootout.
The first goal becomes crucial again this evening, as does special teams play. The Rangers are 12-2-1 when scoring first, but allowed the Maple Leafs to jump out to a 2-0 lead on Monday---and Toronto is now 15-6-3 when scoring the first goal. And in a one-goal game Monday the Rangers were 0-2 on the power play and the Maple Leafs went 1-2 with the man advantage.
Will the Rangers gain some redemption with a victory over the Maple Leafs on Wednesday night? Share your predictions below.