Now back to our regularly scheduled season...after a three-week layoff the Rangers (32-24-3, 67 pts) resume their push to solidify a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as they return to action Thursday night by hosting the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks (35-11-14, 84 pts) at Madison Square Garden. The contest will begin the final stretch drive of the season and will see the Rangers close out the 2013-14 regular season with 23 games in 44 days. Thirteen of those contests--including ten in the month of March--will be played on the road, while ten will take place at The Garden where the Rangers are just 14-14-3 on the season.
It will be interesting to see how the Rangers pick up after not having played since February 7th due to the Olympic break. The Blueshirts had put together their best run of hockey all season heading into the break, having won five of six and eight of 11, while posting an impressive 16-6-1 mark since December 22nd, to secure second place in the tight Metropolitan Division. The team had been firing on all cylinders--receiving superb goaltending, stout defensive play, and getting offensive contributions from the entire lineup. Henrik Lundqvist suggested Wednesday that it's best the Rangers do not focus on their pre-break success, but instead hone in on the fact that their success was a direct result of hard work and smart decision-making--things that they will have to carry forward over the final 23 games.
Lundqvist will not be in goal when the Rangers resume play on Thursday night. After backstopping Sweden to a silver medal in Sochi, playing all six games at the Olympics, and then returning from Russia on Monday, Lundqvist will be given another day to rest. That means Cam Talbot will make his 16th start of the season. He will bring a 10-5-0 record, 1.79 goals against average, and .935 save percentage into the contest against a Chicago team that was just 3-3-3 the final nine games before the break, though one that is still tied with St. Louis for first place in the Central Division with 84 points. Head coach Alain Vigneault did say on Wednesday that Lundqvist will start New York's next game, Saturday in Philadelphia.
The Rangers had seven players participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics. Three of those players--Rick Nash (gold), Carl Hagelin (silver), and Lundqvist (silver)--earned medals, but one of the Ranger Olympians returned home injured. Mats Zuccarello, the club's leading scorer, will miss approximately another two weeks of action due to a non-displaced fracture in his left hand. That injury prompted the recall of J.T. Miller from Hartford. The 20 year-old will take Zuccarello's spot in the lineup alongside Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. Meanwhile Derek Dorsett, who has been practicing with the club since last Thursday, will get at least another couple days to work his way back from a fractured fibula that has cost him 17 games of action already.
Chicago sent ten of its players to the Olympics, with team captain Jonathan Toews, forward Patrick Sharp and defenseman Duncan Keith coming home with gold medals, teammates of Nash's with Team Canada. How the 15 Olympians (not counting Zuccarello and Lundqvist) from both teams fare in their first game action since the intense Olympic games will be an interesting component to Thursday's matchup. Will there be any letdown from those players? Are they all fully recovered from the exhausting travel? We will find out starting at 7:00 Thursday night.
It will also be intriguing to find out if the Blackhawks are at all looking past their game against the Rangers, and looking ahead to Saturday night's Stadium Series clash with the Pittsburgh Penguins outdoors at Soldier Field.
No matter what the Rangers will have to be on their toes against the defending champs, whose 207 total goals are tops in the NHL so far this season. Chicago's lineup features three 20-goal scorers and four 50-point producers, headed by Patrick Kane who is fifth in the league with 63 points. Sharp leads Chicago with 28 goals, sixth most in the NHL.