Considering what a high-level road team the Rangers (35-28-4, 74 pts) have been throughout the 2013-14 season, they are in a somewhat surprising position Friday night when they face the Winnipeg Jets (30-28-9, 69 pts) at the MTS Centre. Having lost the first two games of their three-game road trip, the Rangers are in danger of being swept on the trip at a time in the season when points are at its most critical. With just 15 games remaining on the regular season schedule, and the playoff race is tightening up by the day in both the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference, the Rangers can't afford to get swept on this road trip, especially with the powerful San Jose Sharks on tap Sunday afternoon at The Garden and another three-game road trip immediately to follow.
The Rangers are 19-13-0 on the road this season after losing 3-1 in Carolina on Tuesday and 2-1 in Minnesota on Thursday. They still have the second-most road victories of any team in the East, though they have now lost three of their last four games away from Madison Square Garden since returning from the Olympic break. Prior to the break, the Rangers had won six straight on the road, and eight of their last nine. On Friday, the Rangers face a team that has been average on home ice this year. The Jets are just 15-13-6 at the MTS Centre, perhaps providing a prime chance for the Rangers to snap out of their recent funk and end this road trip with an important two points.
Thursday's frustrating one-goal defeat to the Wild, coupled with the Columbus Blue Jackets' overtime loss to the Sharks, dropped the Rangers into third place in the Metropolitan Division. They and the Blue Jackets each have 74 points, but Columbus has played one fewer game. To make the situation even more dire, the Philadelphia Flyers are one point behind the Rangers and have two games in hand on New York, and the Devils are only three points back with a game in hand.
After surging into the break with a 16-6-1 record overall, the Rangers have struggled to find their footing since. In eight games since the break the Rangers are just 3-4-1 and have won consecutive games only once. The Rangers have managed just two goals -- one at even strength -- over the past two games. Some shocking, shoddy defensive moments have crept into the team's play as well since the break, though the biggest issue is just an overall lack of consistency in the Rangers all-around game.
Head coach Alain Vigneault tinkered ever so slightly with his lines on Thursday night, moving Chris Kreider on to the Brad Richards and Marty St. Louis line, and sliding Carl Hagelin over to play with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. Kreider was quite visible all night and played a strong game, finishing with three shots on goal, but his line failed to score again, and St. Louis enters play Friday with just one assist and no goals in five games as a Ranger. Vigneault and the star forward both admitted that St. Louis is pressing far too much to make a splash with his new club. As for the other line, Stepan scored a power play goal and Hagelin had a breakaway scoring chance Thursday, but all three members of that line were on ice for both Wild goals, as well.
If Vigneault is planning any changes to the lineup Friday it will not be known until he meets with the media shortly before game time as the team did not have a morning skate in Winnipeg. Vigneault already did say that Henrik Lundqvist will make the start in goal after he watched Cam Talbot start and play extremely well despite the losing result in Minnesota. Talbot stopped 24 of 26 shots and heroically kept the Rangers in the game. Lundqvist comes in with a lifetime 10-7-6 record and 2.19 GAA in 24 games against the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise.
The Jets, who are on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, are winless in their last five games, though they did earn an overtime point in three of them, falling in the shootout to Vancouver and in overtime to Colorado and the Islanders. With 69 points, the Jets are five points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference with four teams ahead of them in the standings. Winnipeg has played 38 games decided by one goal this season, third most in the league, and its goal differential on the season is a minus-11.
One game the Jets played that was not decided by a single goal was on Dec. 2 at The Garden when they hammered the Rangers, 5-2.
Winnipeg will be without young rising star Mark Scheifele, who will miss a fifth straight game Friday with a lower body injury. However, the Jets recently got Evander Kane back from a prolonged injury absence, though he has yet to score a goal and has only three assists in seven games since the break.