The Rangers and New Jersey Devils are meeting tonight at Madison Square Garden for the first time since
October 24th. Much has changed since that date. The Devils were very much in the playoff race, if not a Stanley Cup threat, waiting for then-coach John McLean to work magic with fresh talents Ilya Kovalchuk and Henrik Tallinder. The Rangers, on the other hand, were destined to struggle for a playoff spot as John Tortorella battled for his job. Tonight does not at all reflect these previous beliefs. The Rangers, despite the injuries, are in a relatively comfortable position in 7th place in the Eastern Conference while the Devils have watched their season fall apart. For the Rangers, a true transition took place nearly overnight. Veterans such as Chris Drury and Michal Rozsival (eventually traded) saw their importance to the team diminish, while youngsters such as Michael Sauer and Derek Stepan took their place. For the Devils, John McLean was fired in late December as Jacques Lemaire returned for his 3rd stint as Devils coach. Captain Jamie Langenbrunner was shipped to Dallas, where he started his NHL career. Former Rocket Richard winner Ilya Kovalchuk has just recently increased his offensive production enough to put him on pace for a whole 23 goals. Paul Martin’s absence is still being felt on the blue-line. Ultimately, the Devils are in the middle of a battle for the #1 overall pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft, and as of now are last in the league in the standings. Regardless of the discrepancy between the two teams’ accomplishments thus far into the season, Rangers-Devils games are always intense. Let’s highlight some important points for tonight:
The biggest pre-game story for tonight is the return of Vinny Prospal to the lineup. After an outstanding year last year for a bargain price, Prospal was retained for yet another year during the offseason. However, Prospal’s season took a critical hit even before exhibition games started, and setback after setback ultimately led to him receiving surgery on his right knee. Though the possibility of Prospal not returning to the lineup was always lingering, luck eventually took his side and he is coming back at a time where the Rangers are happy, if not desperate, to add him to the lineup. Though Callahan and Dubinsky both came back against Pittsburgh two nights ago, the Rangers still are battling the injury bug. Erik Christensen is still out for a few weeks. Ruslan Fedotenko is out for another 3-4 weeks after receiving an unexpected appendectomy. Alex Frolov is out for the season. Though I respect the job Kris Newbury has done in his short time up with the Rangers, it will be nice to get a player with offensive talent and veteran leadership like Vinny Prospal back into the lineup.
But Prospal’s return might do more than suppress depth issues.Vinny Prospal could be the spark the Rangers need to get the power play, and more specifically, Marian Gaborik, going. Prospal contributed 6 goals and 13 assists on the powerplay last year, and was a key contributor to the 13th ranked power play in the NHL. Without him, the Rangers have free-fallen down to 23rd. Gaborik especially could benefit from Prospal’s return as the chemistry between the two was one of the few positives of last year’s miserable season. Gaborik is currently on pace for only 6 PP goals, after putting up 14 last year. Though Gaborik’s production hasn’t falling off nearly as much as Ilya Kovalchuk’s, the Rangers absolutely need him to produce like he has proven he can. Prospal might just be the remedy for Gaborik’s scoring slump.
Though Prospal and his, perhaps needed, veteran presence are returning, Marc Staal will be maintain his position as assistant captain, something I’m sure Prospal accepts, if not welcomes. Staal has improved significantly every season, but I think this year he is taking on the role as a leader of the team. It’s no secret that the clock is running out on Pizza Boy Chris Drury, and you have to believe that Staal will be one of the leading candidates to assume his position as captain.
The Devils are on what is their best string of games this season, posting a 7-2-1 record in their last 10. However, they are 7-17-1 on the road overall and have lost all three games against the Rangers so far this season, being outscored 9-2 in the process. Lundqvist will look to improve on his 21-7-5 record against the Devils in his career. Brandon Dubinsky has 9 career goals against the Devils, more than he has against any other team. In 6 games with the Devils, Ilya Kovalchuk has produced 2 goals and 1 assist versus the Rangers.