The Olympic break is right around the corner, but before it officially arrives this upcoming weekend the Rangers (30-23-3, 63 pts) will play three games in four nights beginning with Tuesday's home game against the Colorado Avalanche (36-14-5, 77 pts). These three games also mark the first to be played in the month of February for the Blueshirts, who are coming off their best month of the season. The Rangers earned 21 points over 15 games in January, posting a 10-4-1 record, and surged into second place in the Metropolitan Division.
In fact the Rangers strong play of late actually pre-dated the month of January, starting in late December when they won four of their last five games of what was otherwise a dismal month for the team. In their last 20 games overall the Rangers are 14-5-1, garnering 29 of a possible 40 points, and they are hungry to close out this portion of the schedule in strong fashion-hosting the Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers, before facing the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Friday night, the Rangers final game before the Olympic break.
The Rangers have won seven of their last ten games on home ice, which bodes well for the upcoming week since they will play two of their three games at The Garden. Most recently the Rangers bested the Islanders 4-1 Friday night at MSG with Henrik Lundqvist turning aside 38 of 39 shots. Lundqvist will make his fifth consecutive start in goal on Tuesday night against the Avs. He has surrendered two goals in his last two games, and just eight in his last six starts. Lundqvist has given up more than two goals just once in his last ten starts--a total of 15 allowed in that span. Perhaps his recent run of strong play will help Lundqvist turn around his fortunes against Colorado against whom he is just 1-3-1 in five career starts.
Of course the Rangers have not seen much of Western Conference teams like the Avalanche and Oilers in recent years, and in fact will be facing both for the first time this season this week. That presents somewhat of a unique situation for the Rangers who have played five of their last six games against division rivals--the Islanders, Devils, and Capitals--though head coach Alain Vigneault is certainly well-acquainted with Western Conference teams and players having coached for so long up until last spring with the Vancouver Canucks. Still there is a bit of an unknown quality to these matchups since the Rangers are not so familair with teams like the Avalanche or Oilers, and vice versa.
The Rangers had better have their skates sharpened for the challenge presented by the real good skating team Colorado is. Quite often in their run of success the Rangers have been able to hurt the opposition by exploiting their own team speed and superior transition game; but the Avs are one of the best skating teams in the league--as are the Oilers--so it will certainly be a big challenge for New York to impose its will.
Considering the fact that contributions are coming from up and down the Rangers lineup recently it can be argued that the Blueshirts depth is as much a weapon as anything else the team has on its side. Four different Rangers scored goals against the Islanders on Friday, and 12 different Blueshirts have accounted for the team's 13 goals over the past three contests. Mats Zuccarello is the only Ranger with more than one goal--he has two--in this three-game winning streak. All three members of Zuccarello's line---including Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot---have scored in the last three games, and all three members of the team's fourth line--Brian Boyle, Dom Moore, and Daniel Carcillo--have also found the back of the net. Two members from each of the top two lines have scored in this stretch, and two defensemen--Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal--have also scored. Plain and simple, that is depth, contributions from the top all the way through the bottom of the lineup.
The Rangers will need solid contributions from the entire lineup again Tuesday against a very deep, young, and talented Colorado team that enters play with 77 points, good enough for third place in the extremely difficult Central Division. Perhaps the surprise team in the NHL this season, the Avalanche seem on their way to a playoff berth under first year head coach Patrick Roy after missing out on the post-season the previous three seasons. The fiery Roy has clearly sparked a young roster that features 18 year-old first overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon, 21 year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog, and 23 year-old star Matt Duchene, among others.
Roy's Avalanche won their first six games of the season as part of a 10-1-0 month of October to start the 2013-14 campaign. Though their paced slowed a bit after that the Avalanche have grown into a feared team, combining high-end offensive skill and solid goaltending--featuring Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere--to be both a dominant home team (19-7-3) and one of the league's top road squads (17-7-2). They enter play Tuesday on a four-game winning streak following their 2-1 overtime victory Monday in New Jersey over the Devils.
Colorado has played the previous two games with 11 forwards and seven defensemen due to injuries suffered by a pair of its top forwards--Paul Stastny and Alex Tanguay. It is expected they will use the same lineup Tuesday against the Rangers.