Late Tuesday afternoon the Rangers (19-19-2, 40 pts) reach a pair of milestones when they skate against the much-improved Florida Panthers (15-20-5, 35 pts). First they will reach the official midway point of their 2013-14 schedule by playing their 41st game of the season, and secondly they will close out calendar year 2013 by playing their 89th regular season contest since the abbreviated 2013 season began back on January 19th.
Much has happened with the Rangers since they took to the ice as defending Eastern Conference regular season champions in that January 19th contest up in Boston---there's been a shakeup of the roster including a major trade at the deadline in early April, there's been a coaching change, as well as the typical ups and downs and injuries and highlights that come regularly over a pair of seasons---but the Rangers enter action on New Year's Eve fully focused on the task at hand and with improving its lot when the calendar flips to 2014 and the final 41 games of the regular season commence.
Tuesday's contest will also be the third of five straight on the road for the Rangers, who lost up in Washington on Friday 3-2 before scoring three power play goals in a 4-3 victory over a very good Tampa Bay Lightning team on Sunday. Still to come is a back-to-back set in Pittsburgh Friday night and in Toronto on Saturday before the Rangers return home to play five of their next six games at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers have won nine of their last 12 road games and are 11-9-0 on the season in their first 20 games away from The Garden. Their 11 road victories are second most in the Eastern Conference. Only Detrout and Pittsburgh---each with 12---have won more often on the road. Among the Rangers road victories already this season was a 5-2 decision over these very same Panthers in Sunrise on November 27th. In that game Henrik Lundqvist sparkled with 31 saves, and he enters play Tuesday coming off a very solid performance in Tampa Bay where he stopped 37 of 40 shots, including 15 of 16 in the third period with the game on the line. Afterwards Lundqvist said he hoped the win, and the way he performed in it, would be a launching pad to getting his game back on track. Even with the victory on Sunday, Lundqvist has allowed three goals or more in eight straight starts.
Lundqvist and the rest of the team will receive a major boost Tuesday when Marc Staal returns to the lineup. Staal has missed the last ten games due to a concussion, but announced on Monday after practice that he is ready to play again, and head coach Alain Vigneault confirmed his return. There is also the chance that Anton Stralman could be back in the lineup after a one-game absence due to a sore left wrist. Stralman practiced Monday and said the wrist had improved.
Should both of those defensemen play against the Panthers, Vigneault would have some serious decisions to make regarding the makeup of his defense corps. It seems that the head coach is inclined to play rookie Conor Allen again after his solid NHL debut in Tampa---and given the fact that Allen paired with Staal during practice on Monday--so that would mean Michael Del Zotto and Justin Falk could be on the bubble of playing or not playing.
While the Rangers have earned the well-deserved title of Road Warriors so far this season, they, too, are becoming the Power Rangers. New York scored three power play goals in three opportunities against the Lightning and right now have the eighth-ranked power play in the entire NHL, converting at 20.7 percent. They have scored power play goals in five of their last six games---with eight power play tallies in that span---and Benoit Pouliot, who netted the game-winner on the power play Sunday, leads the team with five on the season. Pouliot enters play with a career-high seven-game point-scoring streak, and he has notched nine points in his last 11 games.
On the road this season the Rangers are 17-63 on the power play, for a 27 percent success rate, which is best in the league.
The Rangers have beaten the Panthers twice this season, but Florida is playing much better then when the Blueshirts faced them two times in the month of November. The Panthers snapped a three-game losing skid with a 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday, and are 8-4-0 in their last 12 games. Playing in the tough Atlantic Division, the Panthers sit in seventh place with 35 points, ahead of only Buffalo, but their recent play suggests a possible run at a playoff spot.
Despite their recent success the Panthers do own a shocking minus-33 goal differential on the season, tied for second worst in the entire NHL. Florida owns the fourth worst team goals against. Scott Clemmensen has played a lot of late, and has lowered his goals against to 2.91 on the saeson, while veteran Tim Thomas sits at 2.75 in his return to the NHL after a one-year absence.