Friday night in Pittsburgh the Rangers (20-19-2, 42 pts) look to get off to a good start in 2014 and follow up two consecutive victories which closed out 2013 when they face the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins (29-12-1, 59 pts). The contest between these two rivals will be the Rangers fourth game of a five-game road trip that has seen them earn a 4-3 win in Tampa and a 2-1 shootout victory over the Panthers after it started with a 3-2 loss a week ago in Washington.
The game against the Penguins will be a true test, though, for a Rangers team still seeking overall consistency in its game. New York has won four of its last five games and is on an upswing after a largely disapppointing month of December, but as head coach Alain Vigneault said when asked his assessment through 41 games of the season Sunday, "We are one game above .500. We have to be better."
One area where the Rangers have been good, among one of the better teams in the league this season, is their record on the road. The Rangers are 12-9-0 away from The Garden this season and are tied with Detroit and Pittsburgh for most road victories by an Eastern Conference team, just two shy of league-leading Anaheim. Counted among some of their bigger road wins in the first half of the season are ones in Detroit, Montreal, Los Angeles, and Tampa. To start the second half with a road victory in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins are a league-best 17-3-0 at CONSOL Energy Center, would be quite the feather in the cap of the Rangers.
In order to achieve that victory Friday night the Rangers will need to play a better all-around game then they did in their come-from-behind shootout win over the Panthers on Tuesday. The Rangers spent large parts of that contest trying to find their offensive game, and when they did generate scoring chances they struggled to put the puck in the net. Fortunately Dan Girardi scored a clutch late goal, and Brad Richards then got them a second point in the shootout.
There were positives, as well, Tuesday night. Henrik Lundqvist played an excellent game, finishing with 21 saves while being perfect through three rounds of the shootout. The penalty killers were 4-for-4, including a clutch kill of Richards' four-minute double-minor in the third period, and the overall team defense drastically limited Florida's scoring chances.
The team may receive another huge boost Friday--or if not Friday, then very soon--as team captain Ryan Callahan is close to a return to game action far sooner than expected from his sprained knee. Callahan has missed nine straight games, but is practicing without limitation and seems poised for a lineup return. The fact that Taylor Pyatt was waived---and claimed by Pittsburgh Thursday---seems to add fuel to the fire that a roster spot needed to be freed up for Callahan.
What Vigneault will do with his defense corps is another question for Friday. Marc Staal and Anton Stralman both returned from injury against the Panthers---and both played very well---while Michael Del Zotto and Justin Falk were both scratched. Will the coach go with the same lineup, or will rookie Conor Allen and/or John Moore switch a place or two with Del Zotto and/or Falk? That will be answered on Friday night.
Though the Penguins still have eight players--including Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin, and Kris Letang--on Injured Reserve, they continue to run away from the pack in the Metropolitan Division. The Pens are 14 points up on second-place Washington, and 17 ahead of the Rangers; while they also own a three point bulge on the Bruins for the top spot in the East, though Boston does have a game in hand. The Penguins have won 9 of their last 11 games, though they are coming off a 2-1 loss in New Jersey on New Year's Eve and they did lose two of four on their just completed road trip.
Pittsburgh leads the Eastern Conference with 131 goals, with Sidney Crosby leading the NHL with 59 points in 42 games. The team already has a pair of 20-goal scorers in Crosby (22) and Chris Kunitz (21), while James Neal has scored an incredible 16 in only 22 games played this season, to go along with 30 total points. Consider that the Rangers have only one player who has reached double digits in goals---Chris Kreider has ten--and their leading point getter is Mats Zuccarello with 28. Needless to say there is quite the contrast between these two teams, though New York always plays Pittsburgh tough, and this season they are 1-0-1 against the Pens so far.
Henrik Lundqvist and Marc-Andre Fleury is the expected marquee goaltender matchup. Lundqvist has won two starts in a row, stopping 58 of 62 shots in beating the Lightning and Panthers. Fleury has surrendered 16 goals in his previous five starts, winning three of them, though his excellent goals against average has risen only to 2.15 on the season after a scorching start this year.
Following Friday's game in snowy Pittsburgh the Rangers will travel immediately to Toronto where they will skate against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night.