Since Dec. 30, the New York Rangers have occupied the top spot in the Eastern Conference. If the chips don't fall their way Saturday, March 24, that stay as the No. 1 team could officially come to an end.
The Rangers visit the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday (7:00 p.m. EST, MSG+), clinging to a one-point lead. If they lose outright (not in overtime or a shootout) and the Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the Ottawa Senators, New York will fall to fourth in the East, the first spot reserved for a non-division leader. New York has one fewer game (eight) left in the season than the Penguins, which means if the Penguins continue their recent torrid stretch (13-0-1) and the Blueshirts continue to play a bit inconsistent (4-6-0), home-ice advantage in the playoffs will not become a reality in a few weeks.
The Leafs present a grand opportunity for the Rangers, coming off a game in which they gave up three odd-man-rush goals, to feel good about their game again. New York lost the first two meetings, at home, but the won the most recent one at Air Canada Centre. It is 4-0-1 in its last five games played there. Toronto also only has eight wins since Feb. 1, a stretch that has dropped them to among the worst teams in the East -- just three points out from the basement. The Leafs are coming off a 4-3 shootout win versus the New Jersey Devils, a game that they led 2-0 and 3-1. With a very porous defense and shoddy goaltending, the chances will be there for the Rangers to create offense.
Toronto is led by Phil Kessel, who has 36 goals and 76 points, as well as Joffrey Lopul, with 25 and 67. No goaltender has a goals-against average lower than 2.87 nor a save percentage higher than .904. It has a negative-22 goal differential on the year, primarily because it has given up the third-most goals in the league (3.08).
The loss of Mats Zuccarello will be costly for the Rangers, but it's not like they haven't had season-long success without him. Ruslan Fedotenko will rejoin the lineup. The key for the Rangers for the rest of the year will be trying to find their balance on offense and getting other guys (not Marian Gaborik, Brad RIchards or even Ryan Callahan to step up. Of course, a power play not ranked 29th in the league would help. Zuccarello's loss will be felt the most there. Expect Martin Biron to get the nod in net as the Rangers set out on a three-game road trip, coming off their homestand that they went 4-3-0 on.