Thursday night at the First Niagara Center the Rangers (14-14-0, 28 pts) will once again look for a complete 60-minute effort when they skate against the Buffalo Sabres (6-20-2, 14 pts), the team hitting the reset button again after Monday's dreary 5-2 home-ice loss to the Winnipeg Jets. That defeat has continued a disturbing trend of alternating impressive victories with losses that have irked head coach Alain Vigneault more and more of late.
Vigneault bemoaned his team's lack of consistency following practice Tuesday, and called on his top players and leaders to step up and become the examples of how the team needs to perform on a game-in, game-out basis. Clearly 28 games into the season, Vigneault has had it with his club's inconsistencies, and it will be interesting to see how the Rangers respond to their coach's ire when they skate against the Sabres on Thursday---and then how they continue on with a nine-game homestand opening up Saturday against a Devils team that has twice giving them fits already this season.
With the fact that every other team---except the Penguins---is struggling in the Metropolitan Division, the Rangers frustrating .500 record can be viewed in two ways. The first is that at least other teams have struggled worse and the Rangers still own the third-best record in the division---with the top three teams guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. The second way of viewing the Rangers situation is that they are missing out on a prime chance to distance themselves from their struggling division rivals before any one, or a group, of these teams begins to turn their season(s) around.
So the Rangers get set to face the team with the fewest points in the National Hockey League Thursday, and Henrik Lundqvist after watching the past two games from the bench will be back in goal as the starter. It has been an up and down year for Lundqvist--arguably the Rangers most important player---though he will enter play Thursday on a major high, having agreed to terms on a long-term contract extension just the day before. Perhaps a bit more settled now, Lundqvist---who blanked the Sabres earlier this season---will look to help his team right its ship.
As for the rest of the Rangers lineup, Vigneault wasn't providing any answers after practice on Wednesday, though he did allude to the fact that Benoit Pouliot could be scratched for the first time this season and former Sabre Taylor Pyatt could very well return to the lineup after sitting out the previous two games as a healthy scratch. On defense Vigneault seems to be wrestling with if, and at who's expense, John Moore should return to the lineup after being scratched two straight for the first time this season.
Since the Rangers' October 31 meeting with the Sabres at The Garden, Buffalo has undergone a major shake up. Head coach Ron Rolston was fired, as was long time general manager Darcy Regier, and a pair of gentlemen with past ties to the organization returned to fill the vacancies. Former head coach Ted Nolan returns nearly 20 years later as the interim head coach, and former Sabres star (and ex-Ranger) Pat Lafontaine was hired November 13th, as well, to be the team's President of Hockey Operations. The Sabres are 2-5-1 under Nolan, but have recored points in back-to-back games for only the second time this season entering play Thursday.
The Sabres were defeated 1-0 in overtime by the Devils on Saturday, following Buffalo's 3-2 win over the Maple Leafs 24 hours prior. Two of Buffalo's six wins this season have come against the Maple Leafs.
Buffalo has scored just 45 goals this season, an average of just 1.6 per game, fewest in the NHL. They have given up 85 goals, for an average of three per game, among the worst in the league. Incredibly the Sabres have scored first in only five games this season, and are winless in those contests, posting an 0-4-1 record. They are also 0-2-0 when leading after the first period and 0-17-0 when trailing after two periods of play.
Clearly the opportunity is there for the Rangers, 9-8-0 on the road this season, to bounce back Thursday night.