The month of March didn't exactly go as well as the New York Rangers had hoped heading in. They knew a busy schedule with tough opponents was awaiting them, so it was no surprise to see them struggle at times along the way. But in this final week of the month, in which the Rangers have played four games in seven nights, things couldn't be going any better. They topped the Leafs in a shootout on Saturday and then hit the road to defeat the Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets on back-to-back nights. Meanwhile, the second place Pittsburgh Penguins lost two straight to the Islanders and gained no points while the Blueshirts gained six. Not too shabby, eh?
So New York currently sits atop the Eastern Conference with a five-point lead on the Penguins and a seven-point lead on the Philadelphia Flyers. By the end of tonight, the spread could be seven and nine, respectively, which would put the Rangers just three points away from clinching first going into the playoffs. A win this evening at Madison Square Garden could very well take what once was going to be a tight race to the finish line and make it into a favored competition with the Rangers obviously being the favorites.
The opponent tonight will be the last place Montreal Canadiens. This will mark the fourth and final meeting between New York and Montreal, and despite the huge gap between the two in the standings, the Habs have managed to take two of three against the Rangers so far this season. Why? Another case of the Rangers playing down to their opponent and also struggling to win at the Bell Centre.
But thankfully tonight's tilt will be held at MSG and the Rangers, if they were successful in bottling their momentum from Wednesday, should not be subject to matching their opponent. The Canadiens have lost seven of their last eight games, they struggle to score goals on a nightly basis and they are currently in the midst of a management change. The drama that has surrounded this hockey club in 2011-12 has been unbelievable, so fans up in Montreal are probably looking forward to the early end to the season in a few weeks just so they can relieve themselves of the pain.
John Tortorella's Rangers should be looking at this situation and licking their chops. As I said, the Blueshirts can pretty much separate themselves from the rest of the East with a win tonight and the Habs, without making this sound condescending, are probably the easiest opponent to do that against right now.
As Tortorella pointed out, the club played their best thirty minutes of hockey in a long while in Wednesday's 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets. If the Rangers can bring that commitment and team effort into tonight's match-up, this will be a breeze of a game for the home team. And there's no excuse not to considering the scenario and what is at stake here.
The lineup will remain the same, which means goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will be making his season-high eighth consecutive start between the pipes. He's been returning to normal after the slump he went through in prior weeks, so I'm fine with the decision. He's becoming accustomed to the playoff feel, and I think that's the coaching staff's approach here.
New York Rangers Lineup
Hagelin - Richards - Gaborik
Dubinsky - Stepan - Callahan
Anisimov - Boyle - Fedotenko
Rupp - Mitchell - Prust
McDonagh - Girardi
Staal - Del Zotto
Stralman - Bickel