With 17 games left in the season, the New York Rangers may technically be the best team in the NHL. Their lead in the Eastern Conference may be 10 points and their postseason chances may be locked up. But the rest of the year offers great opportunity, and the Rangers have a lot to play for. And that's first place in the Eastern Conference and the chance to avoid some of the Atlantic Division's feisty teams.
Thus, Thursday night's game (7:30 p.m. EST, MSG) at the Ottawa Senators carries significant meaning, more so because the Pittsburgh Penguins are just six points behind the Blueshirts. Inconsistent play could mean the Rangers fall to second in the division -- but worst of all, drop to fourth in the conference and practically guarantee themselves a series with the Philadelphia Flyers or New Jersey Devils.
New York has been a very consistent team this season, and its success has stemmed from some steady defense and solid goaltending. It has alternated wins over the past week, however, because that defense has not made the simple and smart play. The forecheck has also been lacking.
The Senators, seventh place in the conference, present a great test because the Rangers have had trouble with them all season as the 1-1-1 record suggests. Ottawa had begun the month with two consecutive losses, but recently demolished the Tampa Bay Lightning, 7-3. They Senators are comfortably in the playoffs, but have some postseason positioning on the line, so there's a lot to play for.
Ottawa, led by Milan Michalek's 32 goals, Jason Spezza's 72 points and Daniel Alfredsson's 68 points, ranks sixth in the league in scoring -- and sixth in goals given up. The Rangers will get their scoring chances, but it must all start with sound play in the defensive end.