From the head coach to several of his key players, the Rangers (21-20-3, 45 pts) were saying the other day after practice that Wednesday's Original Six clash with the Chicago Blackhawks (29-7-9, 67 pts) is a measuring stick game--one in which New York can compare themselves, for one night at least, against the defending Stanley Cup champions. It is also an opponent Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault knows well dating to his seven years as coach of the Vancouver Canucks. The many regular season and post-season wars between Vancouver and Chicago makes Vigneault intimately aware of how big a test this will be for the Rangers Wednesday night.
The Rangers come in to Chicago playing some good hockey, though they continue to fight for consistency night-to-night, and quite often within games, as well. They are 5-2-1 in their last eight games overall, and have won three of their last four on the road where they currently own a 13-10-0 road record this season. They have scored 24 goals in their last eight games, including the seven-goal outburst Saturday in Toronto, and have surrendered 18 in the same span. However the Rangers have given up three or more goals in four of their last six games, a trend that needs changing.
Monday night at The Garden was a mixed bag for the Rangers, who played some terrific hockey--firing 43 shots on goal--and showed great resolve in rallying from a 3-1 third-period deficit to force overtime and a shootout before falling 4-3 to the Blue Jackets. Vigneault stated Tuesday that he thought the team played one of its best games until it had finally pulled even in the third period, and then he was not happy with how the Rangers stayed back and let Columbus take the game to them the rest of the way.
Despite allowing three goals--two on breakaways, another on a double deflection--Henrik Lundqvist was real good between the pipes for the Rangers Monday, finishing with 36 saves. Lundqvist will make his fifth start in the last six games when the puck is dropped in Chicago. In his career Lundqvist is 4-1-2 against the Blackhawks with a 1.97 goals against average. Chicgao head coach Joel Quenneville said on Tuesday that he will start Corey Crawford against the Rangers. Crawford is 17-6-5 in 29 appearances this season with a 2.47 goals against average after backstopping the Blackhawks to the Cup last spring, posting a 16-5 playoff record to go along with a 1.84 GAA and .932 save percentage. He has played in only two of the previous 13 contests for Chicago.
Rick Nash came alive against his former team on Monday, scoring a pair of goals, and Vigneault was firm in stating the next day that the team needs Nash, and all of its top players, to perform at consistently high levels moving forward. Grinding forward Brian Boyle also chipped in with his second goal in as many games on Monday, as secondary scoring is vital to the club, too.
Former Blackhawk Daniel Carcillo, acquired by the Rangers from Los Angeles on Saturday, did not play on Monday and as of Tuesday Vigneault had yet to decide if the rugged enforcer would make his Blueshirts debut against his ex team or not on Wednesday. With all four lines playing well of late, Vigneault would have a difficult decision as to whom he would remove from the lineup should Carcillo be inserted.
The lineups for both the Rangers and Blackhawks are filled with 2014 Olympians. The Rangers have seven players who will participate in the Sochi games come February--Lundqvist, Nash, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin, and Mats Zuccarello--while Chicago has ten--Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Michal Rozsival, Duncan Keith, Michal Handzus, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Marcus Kruger.
Needless to say Chicago has an extremely deep lineup, and with a pair of Stanley Cup championships in the past four years, they are a battle-tested and experienced team. They are also one of the most exciting offensive teams in the entire league. Seven different Blackhawks have recorded at least 31 points this season---by contrast only one Ranger has even reached 30, Zuccarello who has exactly that number. Sharp is the second-leading goal scorer in the NHL with 25, while Kane is the league's second-leading point producer with 54. Chicago leads the NHL with 163 goals scored, and they have scored five or more an NHL best 18 times already this season.
The Blackhawks have earned at least one point in each of their last ten games (6-0-4) and in 14 of their last 15 (9-1-5) dating back to December 6th. Chicago leads the tough Central Division by only two points over St. Louis, and the Blues have three games in hand. Right now the Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks lead the NHL with 67 points apiece.
To make things even more challenging for the Rangers, the Blackhawks own a 15-2-6 home record at the United Center and have not lost in regulation on home ice since December 3rd. Overall they have earned at least one point in 38 of 45 games this season.