Down to the final four weeks of the season, the Rangers (36-29-4, 76 pts) are well aware that they need to start stringing wins together if they plan on taking part in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there's no better time to begin a stretch of wins than with their next game, Tuesday night in Ottawa against the Senators (28-26-13, 69 pts). Coming of a well-played, yet bitterly frustrating, 1-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on home ice Sunday, the Rangers enter play Tuesday having lost three of their last four games, and having posted a 4-5-1 mark since returning from the Olympic break.
As a result the Rangers have slipped from second place in the Metropolitan Division--and a guarantee of at least one round of home-ice advantage in the post-season--to fourth in the division and eighth place overall in the the Eastern Conference. They currently hold the second and final Wild Card spot in the East, though the Rangers are just two points up on Washington and three on Detroit, so their hold on to that final playoff berth in the conference is precarious at best with just 13 games remaining on their schedule.
Of course the Rangers sights are set on moving up, not just holding on to the final playoff spot; and moving up in the standings--which seem to change by the day--is certainly an achievable goal. The Blue Jackets--whom the Rangers face later this week in Columbus--have the same 76 points as do the Rangers, they just have played two fewer games. And the Flyers, sitting in second place in the division, are just one point ahead of New York, though they, too, have two games in hand.
It's no wonder then why Henrik Lundqvist called Sunday's defeat to one of the true elite teams in the league "so painful in so many ways". The Rangers fired 41 shots on goal, had an apparent goal not stand up to a video review, missed several wide-open opportunities, and surrendered a shorthanded goal to Logan Couture for the game's lone score.
So Lundqvist and the Rangers will look to pull themselves off the deck and add to their terrific road record this week. After going just 1-2-0 in a three-game road swing last week before Sunday's loss at The Garden, the Rangers seek better results on this week's three-game road trip to Ottawa, Columbus and New Jersey. New York's 20-13-0 road record this season is best in the Eastern Conference, and fourth best in the entire National Hockey League. Now it's time for the Road Warriors to regain their footing and solidify the Blueshirts' playoff push.
Certainly an offensive awakening would help the Rangers achieve their stated goal. Marty St. Louis is without a goal since being acquired at the trade deadline. Derick Brassard does not have a point in eight consecutive games. Brad Richards does not have a goal in seven straight games. Mats Zuccarello has not scored a goal since returning from a fractured hand six games ago--and has gone 11 straight without scoring. Rick Nash has one goal in nine games.
As a team the Rangers have just six goals in their last four games, with three losses among those results.
Head coach Alain Vigneault has not shared what his lineup will look like Tuesday. Defenseman Anton Stralman was granted a maintenance day Monday after suffering a bruised foot blocking a shot Sunday afternoon. It is not known whether or not he'll be available to play against the Senators, or if newcomer Raphael Diaz will make his Rangers debut in Stralman's place.
As for the Senators, with 69 points Ottawa is seven points behind the Rangers for that final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, making Tuesday's contest pretty much a must-win for the home team. The Senators have lost three in a row (two in overtime) and five of six. At the root of Ottawa's issues this season is a minus 31 goal differential and 221 goals allowed--third most in the NHL. Both Ottawa goalies--veteran Craig Anderson and young Swede Robin Lehner--have goals against averages north of 3.10.
However the Sens also have three 20-goal scorers offensively--Bobby Ryan 22, Kyle Turris 21, Clarke MacArthur 20--and that's not even counting the team's top two scorers, Erik Karlsson (17-44-61) and Jason Spezza (18-37-55). Needless to say, the Senators can explode if given the opportunity.