The New York Rangers enter the month of April with a 50-21-7 record on the year and just four games remaining on the regular season schedule. They've clinched a spot in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they've clinched home ice in those playoffs, and now their only task left on the to-do list is to clinch first overall in the Eastern Conference entering the postseason. Depending on how things turn out in this afternoon's match-up between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Blueshirts may have the opportunity to cross their final goal off the list with either a point or a win this evening in front of their home crowd at Madison Square Garden.
A major reason the Rangers find themselves in such golden position in the final week of the regular season is their year-long dominance of the top dogs in the East. One of those top dogs is tonight's opponent in the Boston Bruins, who have also clinched a playoff spot in hopes of defending their Championship title from 2011. The first two meetings between these two clubs took place at the TD Garden in Boston, which set the odds heavily against visiting New York. However, an overtime winner from Marian Gaborik followed by an unbelievable performance by Henrik Lundqvist saw the Rangers go up 2-0-0 on their foes from Beantown on the season.
By the time the series made its way to Manhattan, the tables had turned and the Rangers became the favorites. A strong 4-3 effort from the Blueshirts proved why back on March 4, and things haven't changed since then. New York currently has an eleven-point advantage on Boston in the standings and will be pursuing the season sweep of the Bs in their fourth and final meeting with them of the regular season.
The Bruins had an ugly start to the year 2012, playing under .500 hockey for a good two months or so. Lately, however, they've begun to rediscover their game and have posted a 6-1-1 record in their last eight games. Just yesterday they came up with a huge 6-3 win over the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum to near closer to clinching the Northeast Division. And if you think that game had importance to Boston, tonight's will have even more.
As previously noted, the Bruins enter this tilt as the underdogs looking to send a message. They want to prevent being swept by the Rangers just as bad as the Rangers would love to go 4-0-0 against them on the season. You never know, this could be a potential Eastern Conference Final match-up in May, so both clubs will be looking to leave a lasting impression on their opponent until they meet again.
Here in the Big Apple, the Rangers have also regained their flow after a bumpy month of March. They've won four straight over the past week and their most recent was a 4-1 domination of the Montreal Canadiens on Friday night. Henrik Lundqvist has returned to form between the pipes, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards have been unstoppable along with linemate Carl Hagelin, and the defense has tightened up drastically led by sophomore Ryan McDonagh. Everything is coming together for this team at the perfect time.
But head coach John Tortorella has made it clear to his squad that there are still four games to be played and work to be done. Beyond clinching first in the East, the Rangers still must make any last adjustments prior to the playoffs in this final week of the regular season. It will also be Tortorella's last chance to establish solidified forward lines and defensive pairings heading into the postseason. So although it may not seem like so, these last few outings will have great significance to the Rangers.
Their lineup will remain the same for tonight, which means Henrik Lundqvist will be making his ninth straight start in goal. With a win tonight, Hank will reach a new career-high in victories for a single season with 39.
New York Rangers Lineup
Hagelin - Richards - Gaborik
Dubinsky - Stepan - Callahan
Anisimov - Boyle - Fedotenko
Rupp - Mitchell - Prust
McDonagh - Girardi
Staal - Del Zotto
Stralman - Bickel