At one point in time the Rangers nine-game homestand in December was seen as a beacon, nearly three weeks spent at home playing in front of their supportive fans offering the opportunity to find consistency in their all-around game and gain some ground in the standings. Now seven games into the longest homestand in franchise history, the Rangers (16-18-2, 34 pts) are reeling with only one victory to show for their efforts coming into Sunday's match with the Minnesota Wild (20-12-5, 45 pts).
The Rangers are 1-4-2 on the homestand coming off Friday's 5-3 loss to the Islanders, a game that had a little bit of everything it seemed--except the two points the Rangers desperately needed. They fell behind 2-0 in the first period on a pair of shorthanded goals scored by the Islanders---including one on a penalty shot---before scoring three straight of their own to secure a 3-2 lead, incredibly their first lead in six games. That lasted just three and a half minutes before the Isles tied the game and went on to score twice more to hand the Rangers a 5-3 defeat.
Make it six games in a row the Rangers have surrendered the game-opening goal, and also six straight in which they have trailed by more than one goal at some point during the contest. It is a wickedly difficult way to try and win games, and as such, the Blueshirts have not been winning that often, even despite spirited comebacks in each of their last three contests. The Rangers are 2-16-1 when allowing their opponent to score first this season, with only one of those victories---a week ago against the Calgary Flames---coming on home ice.
Along with the team's overall struggles have been those of the extremely frustrated Henrik Lundqvist, who has surrendered more than three goals while starting all seven of the games on this homestand to his point. Lundqvist's goals against average has risen to 2.77 on the season, and his save percentage is down to .905. He lamented not being able to make the game-turning save for his team after the Islanders loss, despite the fact that the first two goals he allowed that night came on a penalty shot and a clean breakaway.
Head coach Alain Vigneault had stated last week that he expected back up Cam Talbot to make a start sometime this weekend. Talbot has not played since a relief effort on December 12th against Columbus, and has not started since a 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on December 2nd. Sunday may very well be the time to get Talbot---6-2-0 in 10 appearances and eight starts this season with a 1.74 GAA and .934 save percentage---in there.
Since the team did not practice Saturday it is not known if Vigneault will make any change to his lineup. Right now the Rangers have only one extra player---veteran forward Taylor Pyatt, who has been scratched in three straight games---but Vigneault seems committed to giving 20 year-old J.T. Miller a look at center between Brad Richards and the suddenly-hot Benoit Pouliot (who has a three-game point streak), likely meaning Pyatt again will watch from upstairs.
Minnesota enters play with 45 points, which is just good enough for fourth place in the extremely competitive Central Division. They are in the midst of a stretch which sees them play seven of eight games on the road, and they are coming off a 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh on Thursday night. Overall the Wild have won two of their past three games---both wins coming in the shootout---though they are just 1-5-1 in their last seven road contests dating back to late November. Much of Minnesota's success this season has been based on a tremendous 14-3-2 gome record. The Wild are just 6-9-3 on the road.
The Rangers catch somewhat of a break with the Wild having placed goaltender Josh Harding on Injured Reserve earlier in the week. Harding, last year's Masterton Trophy winner, leads the NHL with a 1.51 goals against average this season, is tied for the league lead with three shutouts, and ranks second with a .939 save percentage. He owns an 18-5-3 record in 27 appearances this season.
Veteran Nicklas Backstrom allowed five goals on 36 shots in the loss to the Penguins Thursday. The 35 year-old Finnish native, and former No. 1 goalie for the Wild, is just 2-6-2 this season and has lost five consecutive decisions. He is backed up now by Swedish rookie Johan Gustafsson, who has yet to appear in an NHL game.