Overshadowed by the three-ring circus (literally) that opened Monday's match-up against the New Jersey Devils, which later led to an off-ice feud between head coaches, was how well the New York Rangers performed in their 4-2 victory to clinch a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. We saw improvements in last Saturday's loss to the Colorado Avalanche, but all in all, it was exactly that - a loss. But the improvements made Monday led to a win and two points, which makes the Blueshirts 3-2-0 so far on their seven-game homestand. They will be facing a major challenge tonight when they look to extend that record to 4-2-0 and once again grab two points over the second place Pittsburgh Penguins in the Atlantic.
That challenge will come in the form of the Detroit Red Wings, who are currently in fifth place in the Western Conference with 92 points. No, that may not be all that impressive, but the Wings are still going to be a tough opponent for the Rangers. Despite being banged up right now, Detroit is a well-coached hockey club with some serious skill. I feel like their style of play has the ability to mute the Rangers effectively, even with Nik Lidstrom out of the lineup.
However, the Wings have struggled as of late. They are just 3-6-1 and are coming off a 5-3 loss to the unmotivated Washington Capitals. Like the Rangers, they went from red hot to cooling off, but with the West so tight, they've actually found themselves descending in the standings. Their rivals in the Chicago Blackhawks are right behind them so it's crucial for that team to start collecting points at a more consistent rate.
They'll be without starting goaltender Jimmy Howard, who is out with a groin injury, and will have recall Ty Conklin start in his place.
For New York, they key to tonight's game will be to have patience and be persistent. From what I've seen of the Wings this season, it's not easy to generate legitimate scoring chances against their defense. I think often we will see the Rangers grind and grind only to fall shot of getting the puck to the net. If they continue to grind, though, the lanes will eventually open and there will be mistakes to take advantage of.
That works the opposite way, too, as the Rangers will need to play a tight defensive game this evening. With Pavel Datsyuk out on the ice, turnovers are simply not at option. This is where I'm a little nervous going into this match-up, because the Rangers have been making more and more mistakes in the back end as the season has progressed. If that's the case tonight, Henrik Lundqvist is going to be tested from in close and often.
Some may consider the remainder of the season as cruise-control with a playoff spot already clinched, but I know for a fact that coach Tortorella will not allow that mentality to spread in his locker room. Home ice advantage in the playoffs is extremely important and the Rangers have work to do in order to defend it. That first place spot is gaining more onlookers as teams heat up, so any points the Rangers can grab to distance themselves are huge.
The lineup for tonight is expected to remain the same, although Artem Anisimov did skate this morning and said he feels "great". It has not been announced yet whether or not he will be in the lineup, but Torts will likely reveal that in his pregame meeting with the media later.
Henrik Lundqvist starts in goal.
New York Rangers Lineup
Hagelin - Richards - Gaborik
Dubinsky - Stepan - Callahan
Fedotenko - Boyle - Prust
Rupp - Mitchell - Zuccarello/Anisimov?
McDonagh - Girardi
Staal - Del Zotto
Erixon - Bickel