The difference between a 3-1-0 homestand and a 2-2-0 homestand is actually much bigger than one victory/loss or two points, even if just on a pshycological level, and the Rangers (24-21-3, 51 pts) are well aware of that as they head into the finale of their four-game hometsand Thursday night with an Original Six clash against the Detroit Red Wings (20-16-10, 50 pts) at Madison Square Garden. Having won the first two games of the homestand---and three straight overall---the Rangers dropped a 2-1 decision to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday and they do not want the good feelings from the start of this homestand to wash away with another defeat on Thursday evening.
In addition the standings in the Metropolitan Division, and in the Eastern Conference, too, are extremely close and change by the day, so points can not be squandered. After Sunday's win over the Flyers, the Rangers vaulted into second place in the division, but just a few days later the Blueshirts were back down to fourth place, just a point out of fifth place, three ahead of sixth, and only four in front of the seventh place team. At this stage, with every team having picked up its game lately, no club in the division can afford a string of losses without the fear of falling backawards in the standings.
Despite the loss Tuesday--in which the Rangers outshot and outchanced the Lightning but could not solve goaltender Ben Bishop, who is no 5-0-0 lifetime against New York--the Rangers are 8-3-1 in their last 12 games and are playing some of their most consistent hockey of the season. Back in late October/early November the Rangers won six of seven games, their other real solid run so far this season.
Henrik Lundqvist again was sharp Tuesday--allowing only a screened goal and a breakaway goal on 25 shots--and he is expected to make his sixth straight start against Detroit, which would give him nine starts in the Rangers last ten games. Alain Vigneault did point out the other day that backup goaltender Cam Talbot would start one of the team's back-to-back contests this weekend, either against the Senators up in Ottawa on Saturday or at home against the Capitals on Sunday.
The Rangers are in the midst of 15 games in 29 nights and as such Vigneault has been trying to roll four lines and parcel out minutes to his defensemen on a bit more of an equal basis, but on Tuesday he rode his top three lines and top two defense pairs. It will be interesting to see how the head coach plays it against the Red Wings, who have struggled to score this season and are not quite as deep as they were in years past, especially beginning a three-games-in-four-nights stretch.
One surprising aspect of Tuesday's game is that the Rangers lost despite scoring the first goal of the contest. It marked only the third time this year that the Rangers lost in regulation when scoring the game-opening goal, though their 19-3-1 record in such games is still fourth best in the entire league and is a winning percentage of .826. The Rangers also were held without a power play goal against the Lightning in two chances, the first time in the last six contests they failed to score a power play goal. New York's power play still ranks sixth-best in the NHL, with its penalty kiling also ranked in the top ten, at ninth best.
The Red Wings will be closing out a five-game road trip Thursday at The Garden a building they have not visited since March 21, 2012. It is a bit of a bizarre trip, having started in Dallas and then making three stops in California before coming cross country for this showdown with the Rangers in New York. The Red Wings have split the four games on the trip, so far, and are coming off Sunday's 1-0 loss in Anaheim, their fourth shutout defeat of the season. Detroit's 14 road victories are tied for second most in the NHL, two behind the Ducks' 16, and they have played much better on the road then at home--14-6-3 on the road, 6-10-7 at Joe Louis Arena.
While the Rangers will be sending seven players to the 2014 Winter Olympics next month in Sochi, ten Red Wings will be participating. In addition Red Wing veterans Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk will captain their respective countries--Zetterberg for Sweden, Datsyuk for host country Russia. Despite all of that star power the Red Wings are tied for fifth place in the tough Atlantic Division, though only a point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, due in large part to their struggles on home ice, their minus-nine goal differential, and their offensive woes, which has the team record only 118 goals to date this season.
Jimmy Howard, hurt earlier this season, but healthy enough to have started four of the last five games for Detroit including their 3-2 shootout loss to the Maple Leafs in the Winter Classic on January 1st, wll likely get the starting nod against Lundqvist on Thursday. Howard is 8-10-8 this season in 26 appearances, with a 2.67 goals against average and .913 save percentage.