By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Three games against Metropolitan Division rivals across five nights will provide a major test for a Rangers team that is looking to scale the standings.
In a tightly packed division where only five points separate first-place Columbus from the sixth-place Rangers, the Blueshirts will have an opportunity to gain vital points and play leapfrog. At present, the Rangers are on the outside looking in at a wild-card spot – though the Washington Capitals have played two additional games.
Coach Alain Vigneault understands the importance of gaining maximum points over the challenging three-game stretch. The Rangers will play the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Penguins in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, followed by a Friday visit to D.C. to face the Capitals and return home Saturday to square off against the second-place Devils.
Tuesday’s showdown in Pittsburgh will be a clash with a resurgent Penguins team that has rolled off four straight wins and gotten outstanding netminding from rookie Tristan Jarry. The 22-year-old goaltender was forced into the spotlight after Matt Murray suffered a lower-body injury Nov. 27. Jarry possesses a .937 save percentage through six games played.
“You don’t want to look too far ahead there, but these next three games are against teams that we’re battling with head-to-head here,” Vigneault said. “It should be another great game against Pittsburgh. Their goaltender that replaced Murray has been playing really well. I think he’s played six in a row and is 4-2. His goals-against (average) is below 2.00. A young guy stepping in and, obviously, he’s been given an opportunity and is making the best of it. That’s obviously going to add to our challenge for (Tuesday).”
Of course, it will be difficult to contain the all-world talents of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. Crosby, Malkin and Letang each recorded two points in Pittsburgh’s 5-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
“We know how good they are and that if we’re not on top of our game in all facets – both defensively and offensively — they can make us look real bad,” Vigneault said. “We’re going to have to be ready, and we’re going to have to be ready to execute and compete real hard. There’s no doubt – and I’ve said this many times when we’ve played against them – you can’t stop (Sidney) Crosby or (Evgeni) Malkin or (Phil) Kessel. They’re going to get some looks. You just hope that the looks they’re getting are from a decent situation and a decent place. You work real hard, and you hope you earn your looks, too, offensively.”
Lately, the arrow is pointing up for the Rangers. They have gone 7-3-0 over their last 10 games and are playing stingy defense. Vigneault’s men have allowed two goals or fewer in seven of the last 10 games. Additionally, the Blueshirts have outscored opponents 24-11 over their past six games.
Captain Ryan McDonagh returned to game action in Friday’s 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. McDonagh recorded an assist and led all skaters with five blocked shots and four takeaways while leading Rangers skaters with 22:54 on the ice. His steadiness on both ends of the ice and ability to drive offense provide a huge boost that solidifies New York’s defensive pairings.
Though the return of McDonagh’s all-around presence on the blue line is welcomed, it’s unclear how long concussion symptoms will keep No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad out of the lineup. The absence of Zibanejad’s goal-getting, playmaking and sound two-way play could loom large should he miss all three games. The 24-year-old center rode a stationary bike Monday, but there is no timetable for his return.
Washington defeated San Jose Sharks 4-1 on Monday night. Captain Alex Ovechkin gained the league lead with his 20th goal of the season. Meanwhile, the Devils have impressed with their blazing team speed, and the addition of skilled puck-mover/right-handed defenseman Sami Vatanen fills a longstanding need.
The quality may be down in the Metro this season, but parity is at a high. With the jockeying for positions likely to continue through Game 82, every point is precious, and the Rangers know that getting positive results over the next three games can give their season a shot in the arm.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey