Rangers Schedule: Four-Game Week Features Leafs, Lightning, Sabres, Panthers; Three Home Games

The New York Rangers are off to their best 23-game start (15-5-3) since their 1993-94 Stanley Cup-winning season, according to NHL.com's Brian Compton. Not to suggest this version is as good as that one, but it puts it in perspective just how well they've played. The Blueshirts had just two games last week, won both, and are currently sitting at fourth in the Eastern Conference with 33 points, just three points behind the East-leading Pittsburgh Penguins and one more behind the league-best Minnesota Wild. However, New York has played the fewest games, 23, in the NHL and has four games in hand on the aforementioned clubs. They're also in a midst of a five-game winning streak and have 12 victories in their last 14 games. Everything appears to be going right for the red, white and blue.

Over their most recent winning streak, the Rangers have proven they're a versatile club, able to win in many ways with many contributors. They're also unfazed by third-period deficits as they showed at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday, with the ability to stick with their game plan regardless of whether they're winning or losing. Coach John Tortorella has also clicked all the right buttons: he's given Henrik Lundqvist five games off already, has found four balanced lines and has played the right late-game matchups.

The chances that the Rangers continue on this smooth ride is slim. They're bound to face more down moments. The way they counteract that will ultimately be what defines this team. New York has shown it can battle within games, but has not been tasked with facing any prolonged losing streaks, able to make improvements from game to game.

This week, the Blueshirts will be a busy bunch, playing four times in seven nights, and even more taxing: three times in four nights.

Toronto Maple Leafs, Monday, Dec. 5, 7:00 p.m. EST, MSG
The Rangers will played three games at Madison Square Garden this week -- a place where they've gone 7-1-1 on the season, with their only loss coming to the Maple Leafs, 4-2, in late October. Toronto (14-10-2_ is not nearly as hot as they were at the beginning of the season, but they've continued to play well. They're in a midst of a mini two-game losing streak, but they lost to a stellar team in the Boston Bruins. Now is a time for the Rangers to kick a team when its down. They'll be able to do that by keeping the league's leading scorer, Phil Kessel, in check. He has 16 goals and 32 points on the season and has meshed very well on the top line with Joffrey Lopul, who is also producing at over a point-per-game clip with 30 points. They're very reliant on their extraordinary first line, and do not have the widespread depth the Rangers do, but it hasn't mattered too much thus far. They've also seen James Reimer (seven games played this year) return from a concussion so they have the keeper who can win games for them on his own.

Tampa Bay Lightning, Thursday, Dec. 8, 7:00 p.m. EST, MSG
The Rangers topped the Lightning on the road just five days earlier. In general, they were able to keep the Big Three -- Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecaviler, and Martin St. Louis -- in check, and that's what they'll have to do again to win this game. Beyond these three, Tampa Bay is not very dangerous. And as the Rangers saw first-hand in the third period, they've had a myriad of problems keeping the puck out of their net, allowing 3.12 goals against per game, giving them a negative-13 goal differential. It remains to be seen if their current three-game skid becomes five by the time they visit Madison Square Garden.

at Buffalo Sabres, Saturday, Dec. 10, 7:00 p.m. EST, MSG
The Sabres may not have lived up to their expectations thus far this season, with a 14-11-1 record. But, if one thing is certain, they have a top-tier goaltender able to win games on his own in Ryan Miller, so this could present one of the toughest tests of the week for New York. Miller missed three weeks with a concussion, but bounced back with a great first performance back. He and his teammates have proven to be a little sensitive to scrums in front of the net (and rightfully so). The Rangers specialize in not running goalies, but creating traffic in net, hindering the netminder's view and scoring the "dirty" goals. Buffalo has lost five of its last seven games, earning points in three of them, but it has not been its best at home, with a 6-8-1 record. The Rangers will have their hands full with Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville -- each of whom have 27 points on the season.

Florida Panthers, Sunday, Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m. EST, MSG
On paper, this may be the most dangerous team the Rangers face this week. As of this posting, the Panthers lead the Southeast Division with a 14-8-4 record and are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. They will also be a weary team, just like the Rangers, by the time they meet, having played three games this week prior to New York, against legitimate-playoff worthy teams. New York has lost five games this season and will have played two teams this week who beat them earlier in the season. Florida snuck by the Blueshirts at home two weeks ago, 2-1, as the Rangers managed only 20 shots on goal. Just like last time, the Panthers possess one of the most dangerous first lines in all of hockey, with Kris Versteeg (28 points), Tomas Fleischmann (27 points) and Stephen Weiss (26 points) all producing at a point-per-game pace. They also have several very good puck moving blueliners, notablyBrian Campbell (20 points) and Dmitry Kulikov (16 points) and Jason Garrison who has eight goals on the season. It's tough to say who will be in net with such a busy week on the horizon, but Jose Theodore has been superb, with a 2.28 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. This will be a very telling game for two teams slogging through a very busy week.


Rangers Schedule

Next 5 Games

Toronto Mon 12/05 7:00 PM EST
Tampa Bay Thu 12/08 7:00 PM EST
@ Buffalo Sat 12/10 7:00 PM EST
Florida Sun 12/11 7:30 PM EST
Dallas Tue 12/13 7:00 PM EST

Last 5 Games

@ Tampa Bay Sat 12/03 W 4 - 2
@ Carolina Thu 12/01 W 5 - 3
Pittsburgh Tue 11/29 W 4 - 3
Philadelphia Sat 11/26 W 2 - 0
@ Washington Fri 11/25 W 6 - 3


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