Originally posted on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 12/26/11

Hearing the words “first place” before “New York Rangers” never gets old, and with a win
tonight, the phrase “first place” will take on a whole new meaning for the Blueshirts. At the moment, the Rangers lead the Atlantic Division with a 21-8-4 record, but are second to the Boston Bruins (23-9-1) in the Eastern Conference. With the Bruins not in action tonight, the Rangers can surpass the B’s for first place in the East if they find a way to earn two points out of the Isles. For obvious reasons, this isn’t a predicament the Rangers mind being in the middle of at all.

The Rangers are coming off an emotional 4-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night, right before splitting up for the holiday break this past weekend. In a game that had loads of hype surrounding it prior to puck drop with it being a preview to the 2012 Winter Classic and all, New York dealt with the added pressure and audience just fine and was able to take over the division in the process.

The night before that contained a match-up between the Rangers and the rival Islanders, which also ended in favor of the Blueshirts, 4-2. With that win, the Rangers improved to 2-1-0 against the Isles this season, which they will be looking to extend to 3-1-0 in tonight’s rematch at Madison Square Garden.

As for the Islanders, they dropped back-to-back games last Thursday and Friday, with the second being a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nassau Coliseum. At this point, the Rangers are probably the last team the Islanders want to be facing right now since each of their last two losses to their rivals have been extremely frustrating for them, and frustration is not what they want to be dealing with after a poorly-officiated outing on Friday.

I think my buddy, who’s an Islander fan, spoke on behalf of the team and their fans the other night when saying this to me: “We really have to [expletive] play you guys again?”

On the Rangers’ side of things, they couldn’t be happier with the match-up. As we saw last week in a divisional-packed schedule, John Tortorella’s squad absolutely loves playing in rivalry games and, for the most part, they have a very solid record when doing so this year. I give some credit to the coach for always making sure his team is alive and ready for these games, and a little extra push or urgency for the Rangers tonight may be exactly what they need to take over first in the East.

The most impressive part of the Rangers’ game as of late, at least in my opinion, has been their defense. As I discussed in this morning’s article, the Rangers are without four of their top seven defensemen, yet have still been lights out in their own zone against some of the NHL’s better teams. The jobs that call-ups Stu Bickel and Tim Erixon have done are amazing, especially Bickel, who picked up another two points in Friday’s win over Philly.

And credit to Michael Del Zotto as well, because he’s really turned his game around nicely after a rocky start to the season. On both sides of the puck, Michael has been playing smarter hockey, and that’s will keep him in the lineup long-term.

As far as tonight's lineup goes, it appears that no changes will be made, which means both Erixon and Bickel stay in on defense and Henrik Lundqvist will be in goal.

New York Rangers Lineup


* Good news for defenseman Marc Staal if you haven't heard already, as he's officially been cleared for contact. Read more on that in my report from earlier.

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