The New York Rangers enter tonight's match-up against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, having won 12 of their last fourteen games. They swept their southeastern road trip over the past week to extend their winning streak to five games, and now they will look to make a run at first place with four games (all winnable) on the schedule in the next seven days. It's pretty exciting that we can associate such accomplishments with the Blueshirts, isn't it?
Toronto will present the Rangers with a challenge, though, just as they did back in October when they defeated New York, 4-2, at MSG. Back then the Rangers were a different team, as we know, than they are now, so I think we can expect a bit of a different-looking tilt between the two tonight.
The Leafs currently trail the Rangers in the standings by just three points and have dropped each of their last two games. Overall, they've had a strong year to this point considering the expectations they are normally given heading into the season. I guess, in a way, you can compare them to the Rangers in that they are taking the league by surprise with their performance through two months.
Phil Kessel will be the player to key in on for the Leafs tonight, being that he leads the NHL in both goals and points so far. Kessel has carried some serious weight for the Blue and White this season, so you can guarantee he will be matched up against Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh all night long. The Rangers have the advantage since they are the home team and can get the match-ups they want. With the way they've played defensively, I wouldn't worry too much about Kessel.
From a Rangers standpoint, they need to focus on their forecheck. The Leafs can become a flustered team if pinned in their own zone for long periods of time, and throughout their winning streak, that's something the Rangers have done very well. It starts with their top line and works all the way through to the fourth and last trio. Again, the team unity and contributions have been what's fueled the Rangers' fire over the past fourteen games.
Brad Richards has been the highlight player as of late, scoring four goals and five assists in his past 5 games. I, for one, did not expect Richie to score as many goals as he has been this season so that's been a pleasant surprise. I expected the assists to rack up, though, and lately those assists have energized New York's powerplay as well. The Rangers have been much improved with the man advantage over the past two weeks, and more often than not they find a way to win games in which they've scored a powerplay goal.
Tonight's contest should be one of the more exciting we've seen. Both teams have speed and talent, and their coaches have similar mindsets as well. The advantage the Rangers have, though, will be in goal, and that may ultimately be what decides the final score of this one.
* This may not mean much to anyone, but it looks like the Rangers will be wearing their white jerseys at home tonight.