The New York Rangers are playing the Atlanta Thrashers at Philips Arena in Atlanta tonight at 7:30 ET in a game that very well could have playoff implications. The Thrashers, currently the 9th seed in the East, are 4 points below the Rangers in the standings. As Henrik Lundqvist put it, it is important the Rangers win tonight “for many reasons.” Obviously the Rangers would love to widen the gap in the standings between them and the Thrashers, but perhaps more importantly the Rangers would benefit from ending the road trip on a high note as well as putting an stop to the losing streak. The Thrashers have been on a much bigger losing streak, with only 2 wins in the past 13 games. The Rangers are certainly slumping right now but spirits appear to still be high, and they are facing a team that is much deeper in their slump than they currently are. This is a very good opportunity for the Rangers to pick up 2 points that they very much need but also a prime chance to get this losing streak over with. Let’s look at the game notes:
Henrik Lundqvist- Henrik Lundqvist is the probable starting goalie tonight for the Rangers, getting the start after watching Biron play in goal the past two games. Lundqvist has admitted multiple times that he hasn’t play well enough in recent games, and that the time off gave him some time to put things into perspective and to focus on being the top-caliber goalie he is. Though Biron did a more than adequate job during his stretch of starts, simply reinserting Lundqvist’s presence into the lineup might do enough to reenergize the team and get them to play better. It would be great for the Rangers to score a bunch of goals tonight, but realistically, this is going to be a low scoring game, and Lundqvist will have to be at his best for the Rangers to get the two points they desperately need. In Lundqvist’s last start against Atlanta, the Rangers came back in the third period to tie the game up at 2 and eventually won the game in the shootout. Let’s hope he and the rest of the team can recapture that success tonight.
Tobias Enstrom- It’s likely not a coincidence that the Thrashers’ losing streak coincides with the time Enstrom was out due to a fractured finger. Enstrom, one of the more underrated defensemen in the NHL, returns tonight for the Thrashers, and will help them in both ends of the rink. Enstrom has an outstanding 41 points in the 50 games he has played this season, including 8 goals. He surely will rejuvenate the Thrashers offense, which has been lackluster in recent games. The Rangers have done well enough to limit Enstrom in games they have faced him. He has 6 points, all assists, in his 14 career games against New York. However, he is always a threat, especially when paired with Byfuglien, and I’m sure he’s going to be especially motivated to do well in his first game back.
Ondrej Pavelec- Pavelec is getting the start for the Thrashers tonight. After a dream start to the season, Pavelec has come back down to earth in recent games, with a 3.24 goals against average in January and a 4.01 goals against average in his last 4 starts. However, he has a 2.10 GAA and a .935 save percentage in home games this season, and again, Enstrom’s return should benefit him. Pavelec played well in his only start against the Rangers in his career, which was the 3-2 game the Rangers won in the shootout mentioned earlier. Pavelec has a plenty of potential and has shown that in flashes this season. If he is on his game tonight, then the Rangers are going to have a tough time scoring.
The Defense- The Rangers’ defense has been great the whole season, and outside of a few bad games, they have been perfectly fine the past few games, despite the losing streak. However I think it’s still important to bring them up at this point in the season. I talked to Steve Zipay earlier today, who covers the Rangers for Newsday, and he more or less said that he would be surprised if the Rangers didn’t acquire a defenseman of any kind in the next few weeks. Obviously Sather is going to look seriously into getting a puck moving defenseman, but I also could see him getting a more defensive veteran to add to the young blue-line. Staal and Girardi are the only locks to stay in the lineup, so if and when the Rangers add another defenseman, two of McDonagh, Gilroy, Sauer, Del Zotto, and Eminger will see their time in the lineup reduced heavily, if not eliminated completely. Thus, their play up until that point is going to be put under a magnifying glass by Tortorella, who is going to have to make that decision of who stays in and who doesn’t. Sauer and McDonagh have played well this season but haven’t proven their longevity, so they will have to keep up their play in order to stay in the lineup. Eminger, Del Zotto, and Gilroy are the more likely victims if Sauer and McDonagh continue to play well, so they are going to have to step it up a lot to prove to Tortorella that they are worthy.
The Rangers have not had so much as a lead in 214:24 minutes of playing time. That needs to change tonight. The good news for the Rangers is that they have done well enough this season that their recent slump isn’t fatal, but they need to break out of it soon, and it would be huge in numerous ways if they could do so tonight. Marian Gaborik and the power play, the two topics that just won’t go away, would help the team a lot of they could turn it around, and Lundqvist returning as his normal self is key. However, the team as a whole has been slumping and they ALL need to play better.