Tonight in Sunrise, FL the Rangers (24-17-4, 52 pts) look to take another step closer to clinching a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference when they skate against the Florida Panthers (13-26-6, 32 pts). With three games remaining on the schedule, the Rangers reside in seventh place, tied in points with eighth-place Ottawa but owning the first tiebreaker. They are also a point up on ninth-place Winnipeg and own a game in hand on the Jets, who won on Monday and play a big game Tuesday in Washington. A Rangers win and a Jets loss in regulation would clinch a playoff spot for the Blushirts for the third straight season, and for the seventh time in the past eight years.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who will make hisseason-high 12th consecutive start tonight, says that a tunnel-like vision of focusing on just the next game and nothing else has helped the Rangers as has more consistent play in the team's all-around game. The Rangers enter play tonight having won three in a row, five of six, and they are on an 8-2-1 tear so far to close out the season. Sine the trade deadline day---one that helped solidify the lineup, accoding to head coach John Tortorella---they have posted a 7-2-1 mark.
The offense has exploded of late, with goals coming at a rate better than at any other point this season. During their current three-game winning streak, the Rangers have scored 18 goals---including six against these very same Panthers, whom the Blueshirts beat 6-1 at The Garden just five days ago. While their have been a fair share of fortuitous bounces the past few games, most have been the result of hard work and a more consistent aggressive forecheck.
Brad Richards---the NHL's Second Star of the Week---has come alive with seven points (4-3-7) in his last three games. Ryan Callahan (3-3-6) has a four-game point streak, as does Derek Stepan (2-4-6). In fact Stepan now has points in ten of his last 11 games. And even Taylor Pyatt, elevated off the fourth line after an injury suffered by Brian Boyle, has recorded points in three straight games (1-2-3).
No let up can be allowed by the Rangers tonight in facing the last-place Panthers who have lost six games in a row, and seven of their last eight. The Panthers just concluded a four-game road trip---which included a stop at Madison Square Garden---and were outscored 20-5 in losing all four games. They were blanked for the sixth time this season in their last game, losing to Boston 3-0 on Sunday afternoon. This is Florida's worst stretch of the season. They were 0-5-1 from March 7-16.
The Southeast Division champions a year ago, the Panthers are just trying to hold it together for one more week as head coach Kevin Dineen tries to will his club to better efforts against teams, like the Rangers, who have a lot to play for still. So it also becomes imperative that the Rangers do not look past the Panthers or take them lightly tonight. The Rangers have split their first two games against Florida this year, with both conetsts having been played at The Garden.
Will the Rangers make it four in a row tonight? Share your thoughts and predictions below.