For more than a week they have been on the road, experiencing a string of both highs and lows, and Saturday night the Rangers (20-20-2, 42 pts) close out their five-game road trip when they skate against the Toronto Maple Leafs (21-16-5, 47 pts) in an Original Six matchup at Air Canada Centre. To date, losses in Washington, and most recently Friday night in Pittsburgh, have sandwiched victories against the Lightning and Panthers on this road trip, while Marc Staal and Ryan Callahan have worked their way back from injury and back into the lineup and Derek Dorsett suffered a broken fibula in the team's most recent contest. So Saturday's game in Toronto will have a real swing effect on whether or not the Rangers view this road trip as a positive one or not.
After two straight wins to close out calendar year 2013 down in Florida, the Rangers dug themselves a 4-0 hole before losing to the Penguins 5-2 Friday evening. The Rangers defensive play was so loose early on, especially in the opening period, that following the game the players closed the doors to their dressing room to discuss things among themselves. Needless to say, against the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference---one featuring the NHL's leading scorer in Sidney Crosby---the Rangers play was a recipe for defeat.
Certainly the team can feel good about not quitting and making a game of it in the third period on goals by Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh, but in the end there was not a whole lot positive taken from Friday's defeat. The pain and frustration etched on Henrik Lundqvist's face showed exactly that postgame, as he tried to come to terms with allowing five goals where it can be argued none were his fault. Turnovers burned the Rangers in Pittsburgh, and will do so again in Toronto Saturday night should they continue.
Add to the mix that Dorsett, the sparkplug wing who has valiantly played through a very sore wrist for quite some time now, broke his fibula in the first period Friday and will be lost for up to 6 weeks from the lineup. His injury came on a night the Rangers had their lineup completely healthy and intact for the first time in exactly a month what with Callahan's return from Injured Reserve. Short-term, J.T. Miller will go back in to the lineup Saturday in Dorsett's place, but long-term it will be interesting to see of the Rangers choose to add a more physical player to the lineup to fill Dorsett's role.
As for the rest of the lineup Saturday, Vigneault did not tip his hand on whether or not Lundqvist would start in goal against the Maple Leafs or if Cam Talbot would get the call. A little less than two weeks ago it was Talbot who backstopped the Rangers 2-1 shootout victory over the Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden, but Lundqvist has started three games in a row and may deserve another whack at it Saturday after his team let him down 24 hours prior.
On defense Vigneault seems prepared to go with rookie Conor Allen for a fourth straight game on Saturday. Allen was solid again Friday, logging a career-high 16:03 and not being on ice for any Pittsburgh goals. Michael Del Zotto and Justin Falk again will be healthy scratches.
It will be interesting to see Callahan play on the second night of back-to-backs after returning from a nine-game layoff due to a sprained knee. He was clearly feeling his way Friday night, and played only 14:42, though he did tie for the team lead with four hits.
The Maple Leafs have not played since their exciting 3-2 shootout victory over the Red Wings in the Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium on New Year's Day. With the snow falling and millions of fans watching both in the U.S. and Canada, Jonathan Bernier starred with 41 saves before stopping two of three in the shootout for the come-from-behind victory. James van Riemsdyk scored for Toronto as did Tyler Bozak, who went on to score the decisive goal in the shootout, as well.
Toronto has now earned points in six consecutive games (4-0-2) and they are riding a three-game winning streak entering play Saturday. The Leafs currently sit in fourth place in the Atlantic Division, just a point ahead of the Red Wings, four ahead of Ottawa, and five behind Montreal. Somewhat streaky of late, the Maple leafs had lost five of six prior to their recent winning ways.
Phil Kessel leads Toronto's balanced scoring attack with 20 goals and 38 points. He is the NHL's ninth leading goal scorer. Six different Leafs have recorded 20 or more points so far this season, and team captain Dion Phaneuf---who just signed a long-term contract extension---is not far behind with 17 points. He also has a plus-15 plus/minus rating, tops on the team.
Following Saturday's contest the Rangers return home to host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night.