New York Rangers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins, 7:00 PM at Madison Square Garden
Where To Watch: MSG Network
Where To Listen: 1050 ESPN Radio
Live In-Game Chat: 6:45 PM on BlueshirtsUnited.com
Though they have performed on some of the biggest stages so far this season---including the NHL Season Premiere in Sweden and the outdoor Winter Classic in Philadelphia---the Rangers (44-18-7, 95 pts) will be playing under the true bright lights of a playoff-like cauldron Thursday night when they host the Pittsburgh Penguins (42-21-5, 89 pts) at The Garden. With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the Rangers grasp on first place in the Eastern Conference has slipped a bit, and they now lead the second-place Penguins by six points, with Pittsburgh holding a game in hand. And while the Rangers have struggled a bit of late---they have won two straight after a three-game losing skid, and are 3-3-1 their last seven games---the Penguins have been the hottest team in the NHL, winners of nine consecutive games coming into play Thursday. Dating back to January 13th the Penguins have a phenomenal 21-4-1 record---all achieved without supderstar center Sidney Crosby, who has been sidelined three months due to a concussion. Now Crosby returns to the Pens lineup Thursday against the Rangers to bolster a lineup that has outscored its opposition 35-13 during Pittsburgh's nine-game winning streak. While the Pens are getting healthier, the Rangers still have a few questions marks regarding the health of Henrik Lundqvist (flu), Ryan Callahan (sore foot), and Michael Del Zotto (sore hip) who all missed Tuesday's 4-2 win over Carolina. It is not yet known which of those three key Blueshirts will be able to play Thursday, though the expectation is that Lundqvist has the best chance to be in the lineup. Certainly the Rangers top line is healthy, though, as Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik-Carl Hagelin all notched three points Thursday night, and Richards has eight points (5-3-8) in his last four games.
The Rangers and Penguins are meeting for the fifth time this season, with one more game still to be played in Pittsburgh after this one Thursday at The Garden. The Rangers are 2-2-0 vs. Pittsburgh this season, splitting a pair of games played at Madison Square Garden. On November 29th the Rangers edged the Pens 4-3 in New York as Brad Richards notched a goal and added a pair of assists. Then on January 19th the Penguins skate dout of The Garden with a 4-1 victory, as Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 of 30 shots and Evgeni Malkin scored a pair of goals.
"It's definitely a big game. It's one, with this (few) games remaining, to get another two points out of it would be huge. And with their recent success and how close they are to us in the standings, it's a game we'll look forward to and get up for. It's a little bit more important to us."-Ryan Callahan
By The Numbers
With a pair of goals and six points in his last three games Marian Gaborik has increased his team-leading totals to 34 goals and 64 points on the season. Gaborik currently ranks third in the NHL in goal scoring and 16th in points.
The Penguins have a pair of 30-goal scorers---even with Sidney Crosby having played only eight games this season. Evgeni Malkin is second in the league with 38 goals, while James Neal has scored a career-high 31. Malkin is also tied with Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos for the league-lead in points with 84.
Who will win Thursday's battle which has so many playoff implications? Share your prediction below.