The six-day real-games NHL hiatus is officially on its last day, but most of the teams will get back to work Monday, with the New York Rangers holding their post-All-Star break practice at 2 p.m. EST.
With such a great first half of the season, 31-12-4 best in the Eastern Conference and second in the NHL, one mode of thinking says that the break could've come at a bad time for the Rangers. But the other says it comes at a perfect one, as New York plays that sacrifice-your-body-at-all-costs style and the rest could really be valuable.
For three Rangers, though, hockey was still part of the respite. Dan Girardi made his All-Star debut and recorded an assist on a goal that looked like it was his at first, though "only" had to play about 15 minutes in a very non-physical game. Henrik Lundqvist made nine saves on 12 shots and two of the goals he gave up were to regular-season teammate Marian Gaborik. The Slovakian superstar notched a hat trick and had an assist to earn MVP honors.
But now the fun and games are all over, and the Rangers are ready to get back to business with a three-game week in store and Eastern Conference supremacy to work toward. New York has steep shoes to fill after a first half that saw it finish with the third-best goal differential, negative-36, and finish with the second-fewest goals allowed per game with 1.98 (compared to the Blues' 1.96). The areas that could use some improvement are goal scoring (rank 11th with 2.77 per game) and the power play, which is 25th in the league at 14.1 percent. The Blueshirts have been successful, but they need more secondary contributors to step up and support Gaborik, who has nearly 19 percent of the team's goals.
At New Jersey Devils, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 7 p.m., MSG+
The Devils, 26-19-3, have been up and down this year -- stringing a bunch of wins together, but then getting into a bit of a losing funk. Case in point: they began the month with two straight losses, won two, lost won, won three and lost three straight entering Tuesday's game. Though the Rangers won 4-1 at New Jersey in their only meeting at the end of the December, they only had 21 shots -- a leaky Martin Brodeur could not compensate for a suspect defense. The Rangers have had a bad habit of beginning games slowly, and they did in this one, getting down 1-0 after being outshot 12-4 in the first period. Patrik Elias leads the team with 46 points and Ilya Kovalchuk paces the team with 19 goals (he had a stretch with seven in six games). The Devils have scored roughly the same amount of goals as New York, though they've given up 40 more -- because of shoddy goaltending and poor blueline play. The Devils will generate offensive chances, but the Rangers could wear down their rearguards and really cause trouble for whomever is in net -- Brodeur or Johan Hedberg.
At Buffalo Sabres, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 7:30 p.m., NBCSN
Buffalo has been a colossal disappointment this year, tied for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference (45) and a 20-24-5 record. The problems on this team are widespread -- it ranks 25th in the league in goals per game and it allows the fifth-most goals per game. The defense has been horrendous, but 2010 Olympic starter Ryan Miller has magnified those problems (or maybe its vice versa). Miller has a putrid 12-15-2 record, and he's allowing over three goals a game (3.07) with a .899 save percentage. Buffalo is 10 points out, but it has the keeper to steal games and really all it to get on a run. The All-Star break could be just what Miller needed to get away from it all. The Sabres are essentially a two-man offensive team right now, with All-Star Jason Pominville leading with 47 points, and Tomas Vanek tops with 19 goals. New York beat Buffalo in the only meeting of the year, 4-1, in early December on the road.
Philadelphia Flyers, Sunday, Feb. 5, 1 p.m., MSG
The Rangers have played the Flyers three times this year -- and they've won all three, with the latest the Jan. 2 Winter Classic, 3-2. Just because the Rangers won the first half of the set, doesn't mean this one will be any more predictable. The Flyers are an excellent team, with loads of scoring (second most in the league, with 3.35 a game) and a very feisty, in-your-face style. With a 29-14-5 record and 63 points, they are knocking on the heels of the Rangers. Philadelphia has been a better road team this season, with an 18-7-2 record, and even though it has a plus-20 goal differential, it would be much better (along with the overall record) if not for the struggles of newly-signed Ilya Bryzgalov (2.99 goals-against average, .895 save percentage). It's a tossup as to whether Bryzgalov or Sergei Bobrovsky (2.42 GAA, .919) will get the start in net. All-Star Claude Giroux, an emerging superstar at center, leads the team with 55 points in 44 games played. All-Star Scott Hartnell, enjoying a career year, has the most goals with 25. Philadelphia has six players with 30 or more points (New York has four) and nine players with 10 or more goals (New York has four). This is a dangerous offense. The Rangers need to continue to be sound defensively (Marc Staal getting back into a groove will help) efforts and their exceptional goaltending to make it 4-for-4 on the year.
|@ New Jersey||Tue 01/31||7:00 PM EST|
|@ Buffalo||Wed 02/01||7:30 PM EST|
|Philadelphia||Sun 02/05||1:00 PM EST|
|New Jersey||Tue 02/07||7:00 PM EST|
|Tampa Bay||Thu 02/09||7:00 PM EST|
|Winnipeg||Tue 01/24||W 3 - 0|
|@ Boston||Sat 01/21||SO - W 3 - 2|
|Pittsburgh||Thu 01/19||L 1 - 4|
|Nashville||Tue 01/17||W 3 - 0|
|@ Montreal||Sun 01/15||L 1 - 4|