Two of the Eastern Conference's heavyweights take center stage Thursday night (7:30 p.m. EST, NBCSN) at Madison Square Garden -- and quite frankly, it really doesn't get any better than this.
The New York Rangers are first place in the East and second-best in the NHL. Yet in the clash against the Pittsburgh Penguins, it's as if the Blueshirts are the underdogs, with something to prove to the entire league.
Maybe that perception is justified. The Penguins, six points shy of New York with one fewer game played, are riding a nine-game winning streak and are the hottest team in the NHL. They also will see their superstar captain Sidney Crosby return from concussion/neck issues. If that isn't enough, they'll get one of the best offensive blueliners in the game back as well in Kris Letang.
Pittsburgh has been successful with Crosby playing in only eight games this season (and Letang 40). The Rangers will have to show that they, too, can win with some valuable pieces out of the lineup. OK, so they don't come with the fanfare of Crosby's return, but they are vital players to how this team has been constructed. Captain Ryan Callahan will miss his third straight game with a bruised food. He may not have the offensive ability of Crosby, but he has the brand of the Rangers written all over him and is the model for what this team is all about. He plays a black-and-blue style, hits, blocks shots and plays in every situation. And he's enjoying a career year with 26 goals and 48 points, to boot. Michael Del Zotto, bruised right hip, may also miss the game, but his status is still up in the air. He's also missed three in a row. His breakout on the offensive end (35 points) has been a major shot in the arm, but his defensive play has been immeasurable. Against the Penguins, it never hurts to be fully loaded, either.
The series between what has now become a two-headed race for the Atlantic Divison and Eastern Conference began with two Rangers victories, split between home and away. New York dropped the last two (again home and away). It has also run into a brief dip (lost three in a row in regulation for the first time al year), but recently came back to win two straight, with the newly-constructed first line doing major damage. If the Carl Hagelin-Brad Richards-Marian Gaborik trio can play as they have over the past two games (five points, then nine points), the Rangers will become that more dangerous (of course so long as the second line continues to put up points as well).
This game will also pit two fronterunners for the Hart Trophy in Evgeni Malkin and Henrik Lundqvist. The Pens have been led all season by Malkin, who's tied for the lead in points with 84 and also has 38 goals. And Lundqvist, assuming he's recovered from the flu, will be back in net -- with a 32-14-5 record, 1.88 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
The King will have his work cut out for him, and so will the defense, which has played very well lately. James Neal also has 31 goals, but Pittsburgh has good depth throughout the lineup, only fortified with the stars' return. Marc-Andre Fleury has also had superb year -- 37-14-3 record with a 2.26 goals-against average and .917 save percentage.