The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins have only met once so far this season, in a game which the Rangers were able to defeat their division rivals, 4-3. The pregame scenario for this contest is not one we normally see when these two clubs clash. The Rangers are statistically the best team in the National Hockey League right now, while the Penguins are only sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 21-13-4 record. Very rarely in the past have the Pens been looking up at the Rangers in the standings, but as of right now that's the case heading into tonight's tilt at the Consol Energy Center.
New York is riding in on a high, having won eight of their last nine games and coming off a thrilling 3-2 overtime win over the Florida Panthers just last night at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers are just three games away from reaching the midpoint of the 2011-12 season, and so far they have surprised many with what they've been able to accomplish. But head coach John Tortorella has strongly urged that this team will only get itself into trouble if they get too high, which is why a game like tonight against a division competitor within range means so much.
The Penguins, meanwhile, have lost their last two games and 5 out of their last ten. Both of their back-to-back losses came against division teams -- Devils and Flyers -- so they can't be thrilled to see the Rangers on the schedule for their first game of 2012.
According to defenseman Brooks Orpik, they are well aware of what they are dealing with, though:
"They have been on a roll even besides the Winter Classic," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik told NHL.com. "They are playing really well. Lundqvist played really well for them. I think under (coach John) Tortorella, they just play a real good team game. It's not real flashy, but it's definitely effective."
With Sidney Crosby out of the lineup with post-concussion issues, Evgeny Malkin is obviously the leading scorer for the Pens at the moment. However, the team's biggest surprise this season has been the play of winger James Neal, who has the most goals on the team with 21. Neal has really proven himself to be a dangerous player out on the ice this year, so the Rangers need to keep in close touch with him throughout the game.
As opposed to last night's game against Florida, expect tonight's contest to be a little more uptempo, which then puts an emphasis on the Rangers' defense. The Blueshirts have played very well defensively as of late, but the Penguins, even without Crosby, are going to put the Rangers to the test in their own zone tonight. New York needs to avoid allowing Pittsburgh to forecheck for long periods of time, because as we've seen in the past, they can quickly tire a unit out.
Henrik Lundqvist will most definitely be a player who will play a huge part in the outcome of this game. The Penguins are near the top of the list of teams that Hank most loves to play against, so he'll have plenty of motivation to steal this one if need be. Plus, his last game played was the Winter Classic, and I'm sure he is still re-living his epic shutdown of Daniel Briere on the penalty shot.
New York Rangers (Probable) Lineup
* John Tortorella has clinched a spot as an All-Star coach.