After playing just once in the previous five days---and winning for the first time in five games---the Rangers (16-17-1, 33 pts) begin their final push to the Christmas holiday break when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-1, 49 pts) Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, beginning a stretch of four games in the next six nights. While the Rangers can take some confidence in the fact that Pittsburgh will be missing ten players from its lineup---including their top four defensemen and the league's third-leading scorer---the Blueshirts will still be facing a team that sits atop both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference, and one that has still won four games in a row and nine of its last ten.
At least the Rangers head into this game with a good feeling, coming off Sunday's come-from-behind 4-3 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames. The Rangers erased a 2-0 deficit on Carl Hagelin's tying goal in the second period, and then rallied from a 3-2 third period hole on Chris Kreider's late goal, winning for just the second time this season after surrendering the first goal of the game (2-15-0). The game also marked the Rangers first shootout this season---they were the last NHL team to play a shootout in 2013-14---and though it was not vintage Henrik Lundqvist in the skills competition he did make the final stop on Mikael Backlund in the seventh round to make Benoit Pouliot's goal earlier in the seventh stand up as the game-winner.
Pouliot likely earned another look in the lineup against the Penguins with his gorgeous shootout winner, as well as his strong play on the fourth line which included an assist on Hagelin's goal. Head coach Alain Vigneault would not tip his hand Tuesday as to who the healthy scratches might be against Pittsburgh, and hinted he may dress seven defensemen and 11 forwards again as he did Sunday against the Flames. However Vigneault also said that it's his preference to go with the usual six defensemen and 12 forwards, meaning either rookie Dylan McIlrath or Justin Falk could be scratched on defense Wednesday night.
When the Rangers last faced the Penguins, on November 6th at The Garden, the Blueshirts were in the midst of winning six of seven games, and they defeated Pittsburgh handily that night 5-1. Now the Rangers are just 1-3-1 in their last five games and 3-5-1 in their last nine. On home ice the Rangers are just 2-6-1 in their last seven dating back to November 12th, and they follow Wednesday's contest with home dates against the Islanders, Wild, and Maple Leafs before the league-sanctioned holiday break.
The Penguins are coming off Monday's 3-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, despite playing without the injured Evgeni Malkin---who is third in the NHL with 41 points so far this season---and injured defensemen Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Rob Scuderi. In addition the rugged blueliner Deryk Engelland could not play as he awaited an in-person NHL disciplinary hearing for his actions in a game against the Detroit Red Wings over the weekend. All five of those defensemen will once again be missing from the Penguins lineup against the Rangers, meaning that 27 year-old Matt Niskanen will be the most veteran blueliner on the ice for Pittsburgh.
Among the players on the Pens defense corps right now are 2012 first rounder Olli Maata, 2009 second rounder Philip Samuelsson---the son of Rangers assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson, and the rugged Robert Bortuzzo.
Of course the Penguins still have the NHL's leading scorer and marquee player, Sidney Crosby, who is in the midst of a stellar season. Crosby's 47 points lead the league while his 28 assists rank third. With 19 goals already Crosby is one shy of his seventh 20+-goal season in the NHL. He is also riding a seven-game point streak in which he has recorded 11 points (6-5-11). Crosby has notched points in 28 of 35 games this season, and has 13 multiple-point games on his ledger. On November 6th the Rangers held Crosby off the scoresheet after a big-time collective effort aganst him, led by defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.
Crosby will not have Malkin nor James Neal---who is suspended for having recently kneed Boston's Brad Marchand in the head---to help out up front, but he is dynamic and clutch enough to carry this Pittsburgh team, especially when it plays as well defensively as it did Monday night.
Vigneault stated that Lundqvist will make his season-high seventh straight start in goal for New York, while Marc-Andre Fleury likely gets the call for the Penguins, who are playing a back-to-back set Wednesday and Thursday.