The National Hockey League and its broadcast partner, NBC Sports, have decided that games played on Wednesday nights this year and broadcast nationally are to be dubbed Wednesday Night Rivalry games, which the Rangers (6-8-0, 14 pts) next contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins (11-4-0, 22 pts) most definitely is. Rivalries aside, however, this is an important test for a Rangers team that lost 2-1 to one of the Western Conference's elite teams, the Anaheim Ducks, on Monday night and must now turn around and play the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins just two days later.
While the Rangers have won three of their last four games, and four of their last six, the Penguins game is crucial because they do not want to head into Columbus on Thursday for a divisional showdown against the Blues Jackets having lost two games in a row, including one the night before. And after already having lost three in a row and another two straight in October, the Rangers want to stay away from stringing together defeats, and instead are looking to put together some winning streaks as they just did in beating the Islanders, Sabres, and Hurricanes in succession.
A painfully slow start doomed the Blueshirts against the Ducks on Monday. Turnovers, poor decisions, and an inability to get out of their own end of the ice landed the Rangers in a 2-0 hole just nine minutes into the game. While they did regroup and finish with 33 shots on goal, the Rangers were still as disatisfied with how they played as with the losing result. That Michael Del Zotto scored his first goal of the season, and that Ryan Callahan returned from his broken thumb injury to play with verve and energy, were definitely among the highlights for the Rangers on Monday night.
The lineup on Wednesday is in a small state of flux. J.T. Miller was a healthy scratch against the Ducks, and Tuesday after practice head coach Alain Vigneault would not commit to his return against the Penguins. In addition rugged forward Derek Dorsett did not practice Tuesday, instead taking a maintenance day, though Vigneault was confident Dorsett could play against the Penguins. Among the toughest players in the league, and a valuable penalty killer, as well, Dorsett would be sorely missed if he could not play on Wednesday.
Rick Nash and Dominic Moore both will remain out of the Rangers lineup due to injury, while Pittsburgh will play without the injured James Neal, Beau Bennett, Chuck Kobasew, and Rob Scuderi. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun is on LTIR with a blood clot issue.
Pittsburgh will enter play riding a four-game winning streak, and having won four of their last five road games. The Penguins sit atop both the Metropolitan Division and the entire Eastern Conference with 22 points, and a win Wednesday would give them their longest winning streak of the season. They already have a pair of four-game winning streaks and one three-game run. The Pens won seven of their first eight games this season and have not looked back since, having already built a seven-point lead in their division.
Sidney Crosby once again is leading the Pens high-octane offense, notching an NHL-leading 23 points through 15 games. Linemate Chris Kunitz is rolling as of late, scoring goals in each of the last four games to give him eight on the season--tied with Crosby for the team lead. Jussi Jokinen has emerged as a goal-scoring threat, having potted seven so far this season; and despite a slow start Evgeni Malkin is up to 13 points (3-10-13) in 15 games.
On the back end, Paul Martin will play in his 600th NHL game Wednesday, while Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to oppose Henrik Lundqvist in goal. Fleury has been stellar with a 10-2-0 record, 1.83 goals against average, and .929 save percentage in 12 starts this season after an extremely disappointing post-season last spring in which the Stanley Cup winner was benched in favor of Vokoun.
After the game against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Rangers travel to Columbus to face the Blue Jackets on Thursday---as Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, and John Moore all return for the first time since being traded for Marian Gaborik last April.