Amidst all that the they are dealing with at the present---a three-game winless streak, struggles on home ice, and a pair of injuries to Marc Staal and Ryan Callahan---the Rangers (15-16-1, 31 pts) host a revived Columbus Blue Jackets team (13-15-3, 29 pts) Thursday featuring several ex-Rangers who have been looking forward to their Madison Square Garden return ever since the schedule was released last July. Add to the mix that this will be Rick Nash's first game against his former club since they traded him away two summers ago, and will be Dylan McIlrath's NHL debut, as well, and one can expect a lot of emotion being played out on the ice in front of the thrilled Garden Faithful.
Despite all the storylines surrounding this game, the bottom line is that the Rangers need a victory in the worst way. They are winless at 0-2-1 to start this nine-game homestand, and have lost two of their most important players to injury in the process. The Rangers are just 1-6-1 in their last eight games at The Garden, and are aware that they need to make a stand sooner rather than later before their home ice issues become a snowball rolling downhill.
It will be a big night for Nash, no matter how much he might downplay it beforehand. He was the face of the Columbus franchise for nine years before being traded to New York, and there's no question he would love nothing better than to have a strong showing personally, and a victory, collectively, at the end of the night. Nash is playing at the top of his game now, coming off a 20+ minute effort in Tuesday's 4-1 los to Nashville in which he scored the Rangers only goal. He may have missed six weeks due to a head injury, but Nash has been on the top of his game since, scoring six goals and compiling eight points in the 12 games since his return. He should be primed for Thursday's matchup against his former team.
The debut of McIlrath could elevate the intensity of this game even more. The Rangers top pick in the 2010 NHL Draft was recalled from Hartford on Wednesday afternoon and will play against the Blue Jackets. taking Justin Falk's spot on the lineup. A towering blueline presence, and one of the most feared fighters in the AHL where he led the league in penalty minutes with 115 at the time of his recall, McIlrath could supply a heavy jolt of energy into the Rangers lineup, not to mention a menacing presence on the ice. His debut is highly anticipated by Ranger fans, not to mention by those who drafted him and have brought him along the past several years.
With McIlrath debuting, he becomes the third gritty player inserted into the lineup this week by head coach Alain Vigneault. Derek Dorsett returned from a wrist injury Tuesday, and Arron Asham was also recalled from Hartford to play against the Predators Tuesday night. With Callahan missing up front, and Staal out on the back end, Vigneault seems to be injecting more toughness into his lineup to compensate for the loss in skill and experience Callahan and Staal both bring.
The Blue Jackets come into Thursday's game with a lineup featuring several former Rangers who are eager for their first Garden appearance as opposing players. Though Marian Gaborik remains out of the Columbus lineup injured and Tim Erixon has played only one game, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are regular contributors to the lineup and both will be returning to MSG where they were both very popular players when they wore the Blueshirt. As was the case when Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, and John Moore returned to Columbus last month for the first time and skated away with a Rangers victory, one can only expect how badly Dubinsky and Anisimov want this one Thursday night.
Dubinsky is coming off a career-high four-point outing in Tuesday's come-from-behind 5-4 win over the Devils. Cam Atkinson also had four points (2-2-4) while Nick Foligno was credited with the game winning goal with 1:31 remaining in regulation. Columbus has won three of its last four games, and four of six, and is doing it without the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who is injured. In his place Curtis McElhinney has fared well in goal with a 2.24 goals against average and .926 save percentage in 11 appearances.
Henrik Lundqvist, who has allowed 11 goals in his last three starts, will start again Thursday against the Blue Jackets.