Tonight's opponent in the Toronto Maple Leafs is not in contention for first place in the Eastern Conference. In fact, they've fallen entirely out of the playoff race with just three wins in their last ten games. However, they could ultimately decide if the New York Rangers will remain atop the East at the night's end, or if the Blueshirts will surrender the position they've held for months straight.
How? With the Rangers' 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres last night at Madison Square Garden, they failed to answer the bell after the second place Pittsburgh Penguins gained two points on Thursday to come within one of New York for first. While the Rangers are playing the Maple Leafs this evening in Toronto, the Pens will also be going at it with the Ottawa Senators just several miles North. With a game at hand, Pittsburgh takes over first in the East even if they tie New York in points tonight. As a result, the Rangers would drop to fourth in the Conference and second in the Atlantic Division.
So the Rangers will be playing to defend their first place spot tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. This may be their final opportunity to do so, because with the way the Pens have been knocking off the wins, I'm afraid it will be very tough to regain first once they forfeit it. Of course, that wouldn't be the end of the world, but seeing how this fan base has reacted to single losses lately, it's going to cause mass panic for sure.
But the Rangers cannot worry about what the Penguins are doing in Ottawa tonight, as they have zero influence on the outcome of that game. What they can control is what goes on in Toronto, and right now the Leafs are a very weak team that should be beat. But what scares me with this one is that the Leafs have nothing much to play for at this point, and also have the ability to play spoiler for the Rangers. It's an original six match-up on a Saturday night in front of hometown fans, so there's going to be some incentive for the Leafs to come out with some energy tonight.
Not only that, but Toronto is also coming off a hard-fought shootout win over the New Jersey Devils last night, which has them in good spirits after poor performances against the Bruins and Islanders earlier in the week. And not to mention Toronto has won two of three previous match-ups with the Rangers this season, so they're not going to lay down for their original six foes in the final meeting of the year.
From a Rangers standpoint, they need to clean up their game and do so now. They were the better team in terms of puck possession on Friday against Buffalo, but they were unable to put pucks in the net and at the same time played shoddy defense and allowed odd-man rushes against. No matter who the opponent is, you're not going to get away with allowing three to four odd-man rushes per period. That's unacceptable for the defense, and also for the forwards who are not backchecking.
And somehow the Blueshirts need to find ways to score more goals. Granted Ryan Miller is red hot right now and wasn't easy to beat last night, there were still some prime scoring opportunities that were missed by the Rangers. For example, there was one sequence in the third period in which Miller was not even in his net, yet the Rangers still couldn't get the puck to cross the goal line. What's the excuse there? There is none.
As far as the lineup goes, everything is up in the air at the moment. With Mats Zuccarello now out with a fractured wrist, I assume we will see Ruslan Fedotenko re-enter the lineup after being a healthy scratch for the past two games. That exchange doesn't really help with the lack of scoring depth right now, but the Blueshirts are limited on recalls at this time of the year, so they're in a tough position there.
And in goal, Marty Biron is expected to get the start after Henrik Lundqvist played in last night's loss to Buffalo. Seeing how Hank's performed as of late, maybe the extra rest won’t be such a bad thing.
But again, none of this is confirmed. I'll be sure to update when it is.
New York Rangers Lineup