More than halfway through their five-game road trip, the Rangers (12-12-0, 24 pts) not only continue that road swing Wednesday evening against the Florida Panthers (7-13-5, 19 pts) at BB&T Center, but they also start a difficult stretch of three games in four days. After their Thanksgiving Eve clash with the Panthers, the Rangers will skate against the Bruins in Boston in a nationally televised game on Friday before hosting the Vancouver Canucks in John Tortorella's Madison Square Garden return on Saturday afternoon.
First things first, though, for the Rangers who lost for the first time on this road trip Monday night in Tampa. The Rangers were shut out for the fifth time this season, falling 5-0 to the Lightning and goaltender Ben Bishop, in a game the visitors did produce 37 shots on goal---including 17 in the opening period---to no avail. Heading into play Wednesday the Rangers have scored just seven goals in their last six games. They have recorded more than two goals in a game only nine times in 24 games played this season.
Despite victories in Dallas and Nashville to start the trip, Alain Vigneault likely will shuffle some of his forward lines for the Panthers game. In the third period against Tampa---and at practice Tuesday---Vigneault moved Ryan Callahan off of the top line and inserted Carl Hagelin alongside Brad Richards and Rick Nash, and Callahan moved on to a line with Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. Nash has scored once in four games since returning from injury, while Richards has not scored a goal in seven games, and Hagelin is without one in eight straight contests. Callahan does not have a goal in five games, while Brassard has one in nine and Pouliot has not scored a goal in 13 games and is without a point in 11 straight.
Though the line of Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Mats Zuccarello has cooled somewhat of late, Vigneault seems prepared to keep that threesome intact as a line. The fourth line of Brian Boyle-Dom Moore-Derek Dorsett, which has been effectively solid, also will remain together. Taylor Pyatt, who is closing in on a return from a concussion, is expected to miss his ninth straight game tonight. Vigneault said Tuesday he would not commit to his lineup Wednesday except to say that Henrik Lundqvist---who surrendered four goals on 22 shots before being replaced after 40 minutes of play on Monday---will start in goal.
The Rangers will be facing a team that has the second fewest points in the Eastern Conference and one they beat 4-3 at The Garden 17 days ago. However since that loss in New York the Panthers have played some of their best hockey of the season, posting a 4-2-1 record in seven games, including a 3-1 win over the Flyers on Monday night. Also included in that stretch were victories over tough Western Conference opponents Anaheim, Colorado, and Vancouver.
The return to health of veteran netminder Tim Thomas certainly has solidified things for the Panthers. Thomas, who sat out last season and then signed with the Panthers this past summer as a free agent, is 6-7-1 with an improving .914 save percentage and 2.66 goals against average. Thomas has started nine games in a row since returning from injury; and in the four recent wins he he surrendered two goals or fewer each time.
In an interesting sidelight the Panthers recently honored their first head coach---and former Rangers bench boss---Roger Neilson by naming the press box at BB&T Center after him. A pair of former Rangers---with ties to the Panthers organization---Brian Skrudland and Randy Moller took part in the ceremony.