For more than a handful of players, Thursday's contest in Columbus between the Rangers (7-8-0, 14 pts) and the Blue Jackets (5-9-0, 10 pts) has been on their radar---and likely circled on their calendar---for several months now. Two teams with barely any on-ice history to speak of consummated a pair of major trades in the span of a year and a half, and then the two clubs were joined together in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division prior to this season, giving new meaning to each and every Rangers-Blue Jackets game moving forward.
In particular the first face-to-face meeting Thursday night at Nationwide Arena holds a special place for many players on both sides. Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, and John Moore will all skate in Columbus for the first time since being dealt to New York last April the 3rd. In addition Rangers associate coach Scott Arniel returns to Columbus for the first time since being relieved of his head coaching duties by the Blue Jackets during the 2011-12 season and defenseman Anton Stralman faces his former club for the first time since becoming a Ranger in 2011-12. In the other locker room, Marain Gaborik will be amped to square off with a Rangers team that dealt him away at the trade deadline last April, and Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov get their first crack at New York since being shipped to Columbus in the Rick Nash trade two summers ago.
While tonight's game will hold a special meaning to those just mentioned, the Nationwide Arena crowd will miss the chance to salute Nash---the face of the Blue Jackets franchise for nine years and Columbus' all-time leading scorer---who was traded to the Rangers on July 23, 2012. Nash, who has missed 12 straight games due to a head injury suffered in early October, remains out of the lineup and did not travel with the team to Columbus.
Reunions aside, Thursday's game is an important one for these new division opponents. The Rangers are beginning to surge, coming off a 5-1 win over first place Pittsburgh on Wednesday, and winners in four of their last five games, and five of seven. Columbus, though, has been trending the opposite direction, having lost four in a row, their second four-game skid already this season. A Rangers win would not only continue the Blue Jackets' slide, it would lift them to .500 for the first time since the second game of the season, a modest goal yet an important one for a team bent on moving far past that number.
The Rangers have allowed two goals or fewer in eight straight games, and have surrendered only four total in their previous four games. Henrik Lundqvist, who starred Wednesday night with a 28-save effort against the Penguins, has been a major part of the defensive resurgance posting a 1.45 goals against average and .943 save percentage in his last seven appearances. After a painfully un-Henrik-like start to the season, Lundqvist's season numbers now read 2.42 goals against and .919 save percentage, and are headng in the right direction by the game.
Even with Lundqvist playing so well, it appears there's a good chance Cam Talbot starts in goal against the Blue Jackets on Thursday with the Rangers playing on back-to-back nights. Head coach Alain Vigneault alluded to this earlier in the week. Talbot has not played since last Tuesday's 3-2 win on Long Island, but has impressed in his first three NHL starts, posting a 2-1-0 record, 1.96 goals against and .929 save percentage.
Though Columbus does have some firepower---most notably Gaborik, the three-time 40-goal scorer who leads the Blue Jackets with five goals and ten points this season---they have scored just once in their past two games, and three times in their previous three. The Rangers continued commitment to playing solid team defense could, and should, be an important key to Thursday night's contest, especially with Columbus struggling to put the puck in the net anyway.
Wednesday night at The Garden the Rangers had five different goal scorers, and it was the second time in three games the Blueshirts had scored five goals---their season high. Among the hottest Rangers entering play Thursday are Mats Zuccarello, with seven points in his last seven games, Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan who both have six points in the previous five games, and Ryan McDonagh who has two goals and two assists in the last five contests.
The reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, will start in goal for Columbus on Thursday. However after a breakout season a year ago--21-11-6 with four shutouts, a 2.00 goals against average and .932 save percentage---Bobrovsky has struggled so far this year, going 4-7-0 with a 2.79 goals against and .910 save percentage.