The biggest threat to the Rangers in their quest to finish on top of the Eastern Conference is somewhat surprisingly no longer the Boston Bruins, but rather the Pittsburgh Penguins. So for tonight’s crucial matchup between the Rangers and Penguins it was of course inevitable that everything that could go wrong before the game even started has, in deed, gone wrong for the Rangers. The Rangers will be without Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan, and Michael Del Zotto tonight once again; three key players. On the other end, the Pittsburgh Penguins welcome arguably the best player in the world back into the lineup tonight as Sidney Crosby plays his first game since December 5th.
But John Tortorella of all people is not going to be sympathetic. This is an important game for the Rangers and there is nobody in the locker room is going to be stressing over who isn’t in our lineup and who is in theirs. Let’s look at pre-game notes.
Martin Biron- Henrik is still sick and thus Marty Biron will get consecutive starts for the first time this season. Biron has gotten some heat from the fans after a few subpar starts but rebounded well against Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh’s a much more potent offense than Carolina, however, so Marty will have to be on top of his game tonight; no room for a soft goal like he’s been prone to this season.
Evgeni Malkin- Crosby’s name will be mentioned about as many times as Tim Tebow’s name appears in Skip Bayless’ diary, but the player on Pittsburgh who worries me the most is Evgeni Malkin. Malkin leads the NHL with 84 points and, although the Rangers have done a good job of shutting down the opposition’s top players this season, Malkin has 4 goals and 1 assist in 4 games against the Rangers this season. No doubt about it, Malkin is the player to focus on tonight.
Brad Richards- Brad Richards has made a career out of stepping up in important situations. He also has been the Rangers’ best player in the last week. With eight points in his last four games, Brad Richards has been The Man on offense for the Rangers. It’s highly unlikely that an already deadly Pittsburgh offense that now has added Crosby will find it difficult to get scoring chances. The Rangers will need to counter with offensive pressure of their own in order to come away with the two points tonight. Brad Richards absolutely has to match a Malkin or Crosby tonight; he needs to create offense for the Rangers.
Gain And Keep Momentum- It’s a divisional game and one with major implications on the standings. And the MSG crowd will be making extra noise when Crosby steps on the ice. The Rangers are 1st in the NHL in hits and 4th in blocked shots while the Penguins rank 10th and 23rd in those categories respectively. If the Rangers don’t come out sleeping or give up an early goal then the crowd will be loud and momentum will be on their side. Of course, the Rangers have to play their part. They can NOT wait 10-15 minutes, like they’ve done sometimes this season, before finally playing their game. While an early lead would be wonderful, simply doing the little things well combined with the playoff-like crowd will give the Rangers a significant advantage in momentum.