The New York Rangers will look to extend their longest winning streak of the season to five games in a row tonight as they face the lowly Florida Panthers at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers, who for the past few seasons couldn’t buy a goal (somewhat literally) have scored 20 in their last 4 games. Hopefully that offensive break-through can continue tonight. On the other side of the ice will be the Florida Panthers, who hold the longest active streak for consecutive seasons while missing the playoffs, and with 10 games to go and 11 points between them and 8th place, it’s almost a lock that they won’t be ending that streak this year. Florida was perhaps the biggest seller at the trading deadline this year, and the Rangers were of course benefited from that, acquiring Bryan McCabe from them. Since the deadline, the Panthers are 3-5-3 in the 11 games they’ve played and currently 13th in the Eastern Conference. Theoretically, especially with the way the Rangers have played the past two weeks, this should be an easy victory for the Blueshirts. However, this year’s team has made it a tendency to play to the level of their competition. For every dominating defeat of teams like Washington there’s been an equally pathetic effort against a team like the Wild. Let’s look at the keys to the game:
Henrik Lundqvist- In a matchup like tonight he ideally won’t have to be a major influence tonight. Doesn’t hurt to have him there just in case, of course. Lundqvist is 6-1 in his last 7 starts and has really cut down on the soft goals. Unless the Rangers come out and totally crap the bed tonight, Lundqvist will only have to be solid to get the victory. No soft goals tonight, Henrik. Lundqvist is 1-1 in his two starts against Florida this year, but has been stellar in both, with a 2.03 goals against average and a .930 save percentage.
Bryan McCabe- He’s facing the Panthers for the first time since they traded him. You have to figure that he knows what the Panthers will probably plan tactically, so perhaps that’s to his advantage. At the same time, though, the Panthers know him better than anyone else does, so they’ll probably have a good idea on how to prevent him from doing damage. McCabe wanted to stay in Florida at the deadline but they told him they had no intentions of keeping him on the team once his contract ran out this year, so there might be an element of motivation involved as well. Perhaps he’ll have even more incentive to go out there and play well tonight, to show Florida what they gave up.
Staal/Weiss- Both teams will be missing a key guy tonight. Staal will miss his second straight game with an undisclosed injury. The good news regarding him is that Tortorella came out today and said that Staal is simply “day-to-day.” The guy Staal would have been matched up against, Stephen Weiss, will also not play tonight because of a leg injury, so the Rangers catch a big break in that respect. Weiss leads the Panthers in goals (21) and assists (48) this year and is far and away their most important forward, both this year and for the long term.
Physical Play- Look, you never want to just give the other team power plays. But with Florida owning the 2nd worst power play in the NHL, the Rangers should go out and be extra physical tonight. An additional penalty isn’t the end of the world if it means that for the whole of the game they are completely dominating Florida physically. I’ll take that over trying to be safe and letting Florida walk into the slot with the puck. Again, that doesn’t mean reckless penalties are okay. Ones that are simply the result of the Rangers trying to bring their physicality aren’t the end of the world tonight, however. They don’t have to play as carefully as they would against a team like Washington or Tampa Bay.
Tomas Vokoun- Arguably the most underrated goalie in the NHL, Vokoun is a goalie that can steal games, even for a team as depleted as Florida. Accept the fact that he’s going to make some very good saves tonight, but that also means that the Rangers can’t throw away the scoring chances they get. Crash the net for rebounds. Put in any odd many rushes they get. Get sticks on shots from the point. Capitalize on the power plays. Aside from Gaborik and Anisimov, nobody on the team has a good enough shot to beat Vokoun from far out with no screen.
Eminger will fill in for Staal again on the first pairing. He had a shaky first period against Pittsburgh but otherwise was decent enough. Sean Avery is the healthy scratch once again tonight, though it probably has more to do with maintaining status quo while the Rangers experience this winning streak than it has to do with anything that Christensen or Wolski have done in recent games. Make sure to check out Frank’s thoughts about the game from the Florida point of view at The Rat Trick.