A pair of proud teams off to very slow starts this season meet up Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center when the Rangers (2-5-0, 4 pts) face off with the Philadelphia Flyers (1-7-0, 2 pts). This is a game both teams are likely looking forward to as an opportunity to right their own ship at the expense of another team that is also struggling mightily. Of course that thinking did not work out so well for the Rangers in their most recent game Saturday night, when they dropped a 4-0 decision to the previously winless New Jersey Devils.
The Rangers have had five days to think about that most recent game, and much has happened to the team since that loss in New Jersey. Veteran goaltender Martin Biron announced his retirement on Sunday, the same day the club recalled forwards Chris Kreider and Brandon Mashinter from the Hartford Wolf Pack and sent veteran forward Darroll Powe back down to the minors. Then starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist did not practice this week due to an undisclosed, yet "minor", injury, setting the stage for 26 year-old Cam Talbot to make his NHL debut between the pipes Thursday against the Flyers. Add to the mix that Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan, and Carl Hagelin all remain injured and out of the lineup and, well, it's been some past five days for the Rangers.
All that said, the Rangers believe that the three days of hard on-ice work they put in this week will go far in helping them get their collective game back on track. Lines have been juggled again--most notably Kreider will get Top Line duty with Derek Stepan and Brad Richards, while J.T. Miller will receive second line minutes alongside Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. Mashinter is expected to add a physical presence to the lineup, skating on the fourth line with Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett; and Brian Boyle won't find out until Thursday morning which two of Mats Zuccarello, Taylor Pyatt, and Jesper Fast will line up as his wings in Philly.
Simply put, the new line configurations need to generate far more scoring chances and shots on goal then what the Rangers were able to generate Saturday against the Devils---and for much of the first seven games, so far, for that matter. The Rangers have managed just 11 goals in seven games, have been shut out twice already, and will have just one player in the lineup Thursday that has scored more than one goal--Richards, with four. To hopefully provide a spark offensively from the back end, head coach Alain Vigneault is reinserting Michael Del Zotto into the lineup after a two-game absence in the place of Justin Falk.
Of course all eyes will be on Talbot, who brings an unkown factor into this game. He has performed very well through traning camp and pre-season with the big club, and was 4-0-1 with a .924 save percenatge in five starts with the Wolf Pack this season, after playing admirably in 55 AHL appearances a year ago. How will he react in his NHL debut, on the road in a hostile environment, knowing the team is deperate for a victory? And how will the team play in front of him? Will they tighten things up, as Richards suggested on Wednesday, or will the defensive breakdowns from earlier in this season-opening road trip rear itself again?
The Flyers have their own questions to answer Thursday night, as well. Philly has had a full week off since last Thursday's 4-1 loss to the Penguins, so they will be rested and very well could have injured forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Scott Hartnell back in their lineup, too. Like New York, Philadelphia has had problems scoring---only 11 goals through eight games, being held to one goal five times already---and keeping the puck out of their net---the Flyers have surrendered three goals per game and have a goal differential of minus-13. in Many respects the Flyers and Rangers have been mirror images of each other.
Even the Flyers power play, considered to be a strong suit of the team heading into 2013-14, especially with the additions of Lecavalier and point-man Mark Streit, has struggled. The Flyers have just three power play goals in eight games, and they went five games without a power play goal before Wayne Simmonds' extra-man tally against the Penguins.
Not unlike the Rangers, the Flyers have seen key offensive players Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Hartnell, and Streit go without scoring a goal yet. The Rangers list includes Stepan, Brassard, Zuccarello, Pouliot, Del Zotto, and Boyle.
Thursday marks the third straight game the Rangers are playing within the Metropolitan Division, and the eighth of nine straight road games they are playing to open up the 2013-14 season. After Saturday's game in Detroit, the Rangers will finally play their season home opener at Madison Square Garden Monday night against the Montreal Canadiens. The contest against the Flyers starts a busy stretch of nine games in 15 days for the Blueshirts, with five of those games played on home ice.