Maybe some home cooking is just what the doctor ordered for the New York Rangers. Despite earning a respectable 3-2-2 record on a lengthy, 16,000-mile road trip dating back to the preseason, these Blueshirts are still trying to find their way, still trying to replay that identity that existed so often last season. They'll aim to begin to regain that feeling against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night in their first game at (the newly-renovated) Madison Square Garden since their heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals on April 20 in the first round of the playoffs (7 p.m. EST, MSG).
At first glance, New York won't have it as easy as they did last year when they recorded a point in every game against Toronto, and won three games (3-0-1). These Maple Leafs have started out strong, with a 5-2-1 record, but their success has been tied to streaky Phil Kessel, who currently leads the NHL in goals (nine) and points (15), and has consequently contributed to a hot start from Joffrey Lopul, who ranks second on the team with nine points. The return of skilled, but injury prone Tim Connolly (upper-body injury) will be a shot in the arm for the Leafs, and he's expected to fill the first-line center role, but the Rangers should win out purely on depth. The Leafs have received standout play from defenseman Dion Phaneuf, who ranks No. 4 in the league with a plus-7 rating, and a return to his early Calgary days would do wonders for their season. But Toronto does have a goal differential of negative-1, and they've lost three of their past five games, one of those losses in a shootout.
Toronto will give up a number of good scoring chances, and thus will rely heavily on their goaltending, which has been buoyed by youngster James Reimer, who is 4-0-1 on the year. Often lacking this year for the Rangers is consistency for all lines, from shift to shift. For the most part, it's been one game on for some, one game off for others -- and unpredictability from one minute to the next. A dominant Rangers' team has not been shown for a long stretch of time yet this season.
The Blueshirts need to return to their hard-hitting, forechecking game and take it to Toronto. Stay out of the penalty box and wear the Leafs down 5-on-5. Overall, play consistently and receive contributions -- read: at least generate offensive chances -- from more than just the No. 1 line. And keep the defensive game simple. With Michael Sauer returning, a steady presence will also be injected into the the blueline core.
Ultimately, though, coach John Tortorella said it best:
"We love coming in here today, we love what we see as far as the transformation that has gone on, but you need to win," Tortorella said. "That's what makes the building good -- winning in it. So that's our main focus."
And it starts tonight.
Thursday, Oct 27, 2011, 7:00 PM EDT
Madison Square Garden