Two good teams coming off discouraging losses meet up Thursday night at Madison Square Garden when the Rangers (27-22-3, 57 pts) host the St, Louis Blues (33-11-5, 71 pts). The Rangers had their three-game winning streak snapped Tuesday night when they let a 3-1 lead disipate into a 5-3 home-ice loss to the Islanders, while the Blues were mauled by the Devils, 7-1, the same evening at The Prudential Center. The seven goals surrendered Tuesday by the Blues represented the most they had allowed in a game all season, so far.
So one would expect to see two hungry teams seeking to get the bad taste out of their mouths at The Garden. Despite Tuesday's defeat the Rangers are an impressive 11-4-1 their last 16 games, and have won six of their last eight contests. The Blues, meanwhile, sit in second place in the Central Division with 71 points already and own a league-best plus-56 goal differential on the season. However three of their 11 defeats in regulation so far on the season have come in their last four games as St. Louis is currently dealing with its first mini slump of 2013-14.
Perhaps that will make the timing right for the Rangers to face such a deep and talented team. Of course the Blues may be hoping that they are catching a break themselves, that perhaps the Rangers could be looking past Thursday's encounter and ahead to their Stadium Series outdoor games at Yankee Stadium, Sunday against the Devils and next Wednesday against the Islanders, though Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault stressed Wednesday that he had warned his team against doing any such thing.
Henrik Lundqvist returns to tend the Blueshirts net against the Blues after missing the Islanders loss due to an illness. So sick was Lundqvist on Tuesday that he not only could not start, he was unable to back up Cam Talbot, as well, meaning David LeNeveu dressed as the back up before being returned to Hartford after the game. Lundqvist did practice Wednesday and said he was feeling better, whle planning on making the start against St. Louis. Lundqvist has surrendered two goals or fewer in six consecutive games and has seen his save percentage rise to .915 while his goals against average is down to 2.54.
Lundqvist's goaltending counterpart Thursday is not yet known. Brian Elliott, 13-4-2 on the season, started against the Devils and was pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots, though Jaroslav Halak---20-7-3 so far this season--surrendered four goals on 14 shots in relief Tuesday. Like Lundqvist, both Elliott and Halak have three shutouts on the season, tied for third most in the NHL, and though Elliott has played fewer games than Halak, his 2.06 GAA--fourth best in the league--is a quarter of a goal per game better than Halak.
New Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein is expected to make his Blueshirts debut after being acquired from Nashville in exchange for Michael Del Zotto on Wednesday. The 29 year-old Klein will skate on the third pair with John Moore while the Top Four defensemen remain intact.
Up front the Rangers will look to Rick Nash to continue his hot streak. After scoring five goals in his last three games--including a pair against the Islanders--Nash now has nine goals in his last nine contests, and now leads the team with 16 on the season. Brad Richards also extended his strong play with an assist Tuesday, giving him 11 points in his last ten games, and Derek Stepan stretched his point-scoring streak to three straight games with an assist, and now has two goals and three assists in the past three matches. Chris Kreider equaled his single-game high with three points against the Islanders--one goal and two assists--his first points in five games, his longest such stretch without a point this season. Kreider currently ranks second among all NHL rookies with 30 points, three behind Nathan MacKinnon of Colorado.
For the Blues Alexander Steen is back in the lineup after missing 11 consecutive games with a concussion. Despite having appeared in only 38 games this season, Steen leads St. Louis--and ranks fifth in the NHL--with 25 goals. He also is tied for the team lead in points with 41 after netting St. Louis' lone goal in their loss to New Jersey, a game which also saw Steen take a pair of penalties. Steen has played three games since coming off Injured Reserve and has three points (1-2-3).