There is no questioning that tonight's battle between the Rangers and Penguins at Madison Square Garden is more than just another regular season game. While it's true that the two points on the line this evening are the same as the other 81 games this season, there are far too many other factors saying otherwise, not the least of which is that the Rangers are looking to hold off Pittsburgh for first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference---with the end of the season result being that one teams grabs the top seed in the playoffs and the other slips to fourth seed.
As a result Madison Square Garden was packed with hockey journalists and media Thursday as both teams took part in their respective morning skates. Neither Ryan Callahan (sore foot) nor Michael Del Zotto (sore hip) skated in the Rangers' full-team skate this morning, and neither will be in the lineup tonight. Callahan will miss his third straight game and sixth out of the last nine. Del Zotto will not play for the fourth consecutive game.
In addition Henrik Lundqvist will not start in goal this evening, with veteran Martin Biron getting his second straight starting assignment. Lundqvist, who could not even dress as the backup for Tuesday's 4-2 win over Carolina due to the flu, has been bedridded for two days, and even though he practiced this morning he and the coaches decided it was best that Biron start against the Penguins.
"I really wanted to play tonight, but being off the ice for several days I felt it would be difficult to be game-ready from how I felt at the morning skate," explained Lundqvist, who will not dress this evening as Chad Johnson will back up Biron instead. "Sitting at home for two days really doing nothing doesn't help you get ready to play in games. I told Torts this morning that I wanted to try and at least see how it feels in the morning skate. But I could tell I just was not as quick as I wanted to be. And having Marty playing so well, it doesn't make sense to be selfish just because you want to be out there and playing."
Biron will be appearing in his 20th game---and making his 19th start---this season. He is 12-4-2 with a 2.23 goals against average and .910 save percentage. In 33 career games vs. the Penguins Biron is 13-15-5 with a pair of shutouts and a 2.98 goals against average.
"Playing Pittsburgh it's always a big matchup, a divisional matchup, very exciting and very emotional," said Biron. "Obviously with Sidney (Crosby) in the lineup it adds a different dimension, but I think they have a lot of weapons. It's always a tough game, and a special game, when we play them."
Crosby will play his first game in three months tonight, returning from his latest concussion. And he will be joined in the Penguins lineup by All Star defenseman Kris Letang, who has been sidelined a couple of weeks, to make the Pittsburgh lineup even more formidable. The Penguins enter play on a season-best nine-game winning streak.
"There's no doubting the fact of how good a player he is, but at the same time you have to take pride in how hard you play against him," Brandon Dubinsky said of Crosby. "But, other than the fact that we have ten times the amount of media we normally do here today, we're going to prepare for this game the same as we always do. We know they are a good team, and we don't care who's in or out of their lineup. We have to be prepared for a good team, and come out and try and dictate the pace right from the start."
Share your thoughts below on tonight's playoff-like tilt at The Garden, as well as all of the news coming out of the morning skate on Thursday.