Heading into the Olympic break two of the hotter teams in the National Hockey League were the Rangers (33-24-3, 69 pts) and the Philadelphia Flyers (30-24-6, 66 pts), and as a result both of these arch rivals moved up in the standings in the Metropolitan Division by time the break in the schedule arrived. Now with the Olympic break in the rearview mirror, the second-place Rangers and the third-place Flyers will meet in a Saturday afternoon matinee at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Rangers had won 11 of their final 15 contests before taking a three-week hiatus, and then returned to action Thursday night with a 2-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. The Flyers had won four in a row and five of six before the break, but returned to action Thursday with a dud, falling 7-3 on home ice to the San Jose Sharks.
With just three points separating these two clubs, and with only 22 games remaining on each team's schedule, Saturday's game shapes up to be an extremely important one for both the Rangers and the Flyers. Add some bad blood to the mix, and the fact that the Flyers will be looking to erase Thursday's embarrassment from memory, and it seems likely the Wells Fargo Center will be hosting an entertaining and intense contest on Saturday.
The Rangers continued their strong defensive play in their win over Chicago. They have allowed just nine goals in their last six games, and have held opponents to two goals or fewer in 13 of their last 16 contests. On Thursday Cam Talbot backstopped the victory, stopping 31 of 32 shots, coming within 11.6 seconds of a shutout. Despite his strong performance, Talbot will be watching from the bench again on Saturday as Henrik Lundqvist makes the start, his first since returning with a silver medal from Sochi earlier in the week. Lundqvist has surrendered only 19 goals in his last 12 starts. He will carry a personal five-game winning streak into Saturday's game; and including his six starts in the Olympics for Sweden, Lundqvist has won 10 of his last 11.
Philly will counter with Steve Mason between the pipes despite the fact that he was knocked out of Thursday's start against San Jose. Ray Emery, the Flyers other goaltender, was injured while playing in relief of Mason against the Sharks and is sidelined on an indefinite basis with a lower body injury. Cal Heeter was recalled from Adirondack Friday and will serve as Mason's backup while Emery heals. Mason--a former teammate of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, John Moore, Derek Dorsett, and Anton Stralman in Columbus--is 23-15-5 this season with a 2.55 goals against average and three shutouts.
Nash and Brassard scored for New York on Thursday, and Brassard will carry a season-high seven-game point-scoring streak into the game against Philly.
New York has an Eastern Conference-leading 18 road wins so far this season, and has won six straight away from Madison Square Garden. The Rangers have not lost on the road since a 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh on January 3rd, a defeat which was avenged right before the break when New York bested Pittsburgh 4-3 in a shootout on February 7th.
Saturday's contest is the first of back-to-back games for both teams. The Rangers will turn around and host the Boston Bruins on Sunday, while the Flyers will travel south and skate against the Washington Capitals Sunday afternoon. The Rangers are 5-4-1 this season in first games of back-to-backs and 7-3-0 in the second contest.