After four days to get the streak-busting loss out of their system, the New York Rangers will finally take the ice Wednesday to try to begin a new stretch of wins against the Florida Panthers (7:30 p.m. EST, MSG).
From Nov. 11 to Nov. 23 (Wednesday's game) the Rangers will have played a grand total of four games. It's all the more impressive that they were able to keep their streak together until their latest 4-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens when they barely had any games to keep the momentum and positive flow going. Now, though, the Blueshirts will begin a fairly busy schedule -- they will not have more than two free days in between games until early January.
To defeat a very surprising Panthers (11-6-3) team, New York (10-4-3) has to generate more offense than they did against the Canadiens when they had only 17 shots. The power play, ranked 28th, has to begin to show signs of life. They have to skate with more energy, forecheck harder and win puck battles along the boards -- something they weren't able to do much of in their last game. Finally, the defense, which looked lost and was manhandled by Montreal -- and caught out of position many times because of their team speed -- has to bounce back and show the form from many of the games prior.
The Panthers, winners of two straight, are a squad that's opening eyes, and their latest 4-3 victory against the Devils, after being three goals down in the first period only adds to that realization. Nobody thought they'd be this competitive, let alone leading the Southeast Division. The biggest ingredient to their early-season success is the play of their first line, which could be considered the NHL's best at this point in the season. Right winger Kris Versteeg ranks third in the league with 25 points and fourth in goals (11). His center, Stephen Weiss, ranks second on the team with 21 points (eight goals), while left winger Tomas Fleischmann has 20 (nine goals). Defenseman Brian Campbell is also having a superb year with 18 points. All four of these players were acquired during the offseason and all are making immediate dividends. Granted Florida has played to more games, but to put it in perspective: Marian Gaborik leads New York in points with 15 ... and Florida's young defenseman Dmitry Kulikov has 15 points himself.
The way for the Rangers to slow down this team is to mitigate the impact of that first line. The Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh combination has to be paired against them as much as possible, though Panthers coach Kevin Dineen will certainly try to match against that. The Blueshirts also have to stay out of the penalty box, which they didn't do against the Habs. Florida has the seventh-best percentage on the man advantage. Ultimately, the Panthers are a team carried by their top-three forwards and offensive-minded defensemen. Danger does not really lurk on every single line; the Panthers don't really have the depth of a team like the Rangers ... but at this point, it's been working for them.