Location: Madison Square Garden
With the All-Star break in the rear view mirror, we’re closer to the end of the regular season than the beginning. This means that points are more crucial than ever because it’s not November anymore, the standings actually mean something now. The Panthers currently sit in the fifth spot in the Atlantic Division, eight points out of a wild card. The Rangers, on the other hand, find themselves in the third hole in the Metropolitan Divison, but with three games in hand on the second place Pittsburgh Penguins and two games on the New York Islanders. Even after tonight, they’ll have games in hand on all seven other teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs. In a perfect world on any given night, the Rangers win and all other teams in the Metro don’t even get a point. With these games in hand, they control their destiny and have to opportunity to gain ground since the other clubs are inactive. Tonight, they can take advantage of a team currently outside the playoff picture, a team they should beat, and grab two points. This would pull them within two points of the Penguins and within three of the Islanders…..still with games in hand.
Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
This Panthers team way be out of the playoff picture, but that certainly doesn’t mean they can’t steal away two points at MSG. The Rangers are 5-1 against Florida since March 22, 2011 but those wins haven’t come easy. All-Star net minder Roberto Luongo gets the nod tonight, and is fully capable of standing on his head to win a game. Rookie Aaron Ekblad has been more than just impressive this year, tallying 7 goals, 21 assists as a defenseman and a +6 rating. The top guns up front include Nick Bjustad (29 points), Jonathan Huberdeau (26 points), Jussi Jokinen (25 points), Brad Boyes (22 points), and Jimmy Hayes (20 points). Clearly they don’t have that bonified stud to score goals like an Alex Ovechkin, rather the load of the offense is distributed evenly on the shoulders of these top guys. They do rank 25th for goals per game (2.34) but that does not mean they can’t give the Rangers trouble. The Panthers’ pure size is going to be a huge factor in this game. Bjustad is 6’6, 211 lbs, Hayes is 6’6, 221 lbs, and Ekblad is 6’3, 216 lb. These three lead a team of bigger, rugged forwards that can beat you if you don’t play the right way. The Rangers must be smart with the puck and force Florida to defend in their own zone if they want to win.
Players to Watch
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: When is he not a player to watch? “The King” has displayed his unwavering competitive nature yet again after getting hit in the neck with a puck last game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Said coach Alain Vigneault, “Hank is the ultimate competitor and shows it daily with the way he practices, the way he prepares, and the way he plays.” He was lightheaded and unable to breathe properly, but he has since recovered. Expect Hank to be his normal, focused self tonight at the Garden.
Jimmy Hayes, Florida Panthers: There’s reason to believe this game means a little bit more to Jimmy, as he is the older brother to New York Rangers youngster Kevin Hayes. Jimmy is another big bodied forward on this team capable of controlling the puck and contributing to sustained pressure in the offensive zone. He scored a goal against the Rangers back on New Years Eve after a shift where he did just that – keep the possession alive and jam the front of the goal. It will be up to Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, primarily, to clear Jimmy’s huge frame away from the front of the net.