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Rangers Schedule 2011: Big Test Against League-Best Penguins, Then Trips To Hurricanes, Lightning

A look at the week ahead for the New York Rangers

 The New York Rangers have pretty much reached the quarter-mark of the season and after a bounce back last two games, are now 12-5-3 on the season. At this posting, the Blueshirts have 27 points, are third in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference, but have played the fewest games in the conference by at least two or three. Besides having games in hand, New York has found success at Madison Square Garden (6-1-1), a place where they were only three games above .500 at last season.

The previous week begin with a 2-1 loss to the Florida Panthers that seemed closer than it actually was, but a 38-20 shot advantage for the winner's made it clear it wasn't too competitive. It created a mini two-game losing streak, however the Blueshirts rebounded in a big way in the following two games. They crushed a reeling Washington Capitals team on the road 6-3 scoring a season-most goals. Then, they took on one of the elite team's in the conference, the Philadelphia Flyers, and really left no doubt about which team had it together, shutting them out 2-0, while allowing the Flyers to generate very little offense.

Perhaps the best part of their last two games is that coach John Tortorella has retooled the lines in a way that allows him to more comfortably roll all four out. The top-two lines have stayed the same, but with John Mitchell and rookie Carl Hagelin being recalled and mixed in with Brian Boyle in the third line, Tortorella found a very serviceable and athletic third line. Brandon Dubinsky was demoted to the fourth line with Brandon Prust and Sean Avery and while the line as a whole has averaged around 10 minutes a game, they've been tough on puck battles, responsible on defense and a much more formidable bunch on the fourth line than most teams can throw out there.

This week, the Rangers will face one team with the best record in the NHL, and two others greatly disappointing.

Pittsburgh Penguins, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 7:30 p.m. EST, Versus/MSG
The Pens may have only had the NHL's best player, Sidney Crosby, in their lineup for four games this season, but that hasn't slowed them down one bit. They top the league in points with 32 and a 14-6-4 record, and they have the makings of a team primed for a deep playoff run: ability to score up and down the lineup, good defense that has offensive ability and a great goaltender. Pittsburgh currently has five players (not including Crosby) playing at nearly a point-per-game pace. James Neal leads the team with 13 goals and 23 points, Evgeni Malkin has 22 points in his 17 games played, and they have a blueliner who's among the most offensively gifted in the league in Kris Letang who has 19 points. Crosby has eight. The Rangers were 4-1-1 against a 106-point Penguins team last year, so they've shown they can compete with the league's best. This will be their biggest test of the season, and they'll have to play just as they concluded the past week to have a chance to really turn some heads.

at Carolina Hurricanes, Thursday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m. EST, MSG
After a 91-point season that saw them finish just outside the playoff bubble, many expected the 'Canes to steadily improve this year, Instead, they've struggled mightily with an 8-13-4 record (second-worst record in the Eastern Conference), and as of this posting, three straight losses. Thus, coach Paul Maurice was fired. This game has the makings of the Rangers' 5-1 at home on Nov. 11 only because Carolina has shown nothing to think it has turned it around. In fact, the Hurricanes have won three games since. Their biggest problem is that they aren't getting nearly enough scoring and they've allowed the most goals in the NHL. They rank in the bottom-third of goals scored and third in goals allowed. The defense hasn't been good, thus Cam Ward has an unsightly 3.10 goals-against average and .905 save percentage. Team captain Eric Staal continues to underperform with 11 points on the year and that is greatly hurting the Hurricanes' chances to contend this season. Sophomore Jeff Skinners leads the way with 21 points.

at Tampa Bay Lightning, Saturday, Dec. 3, 7:00 p.m. EST, MSG
This is another team not performing up to expectations -- especially after a season in which they reached the Conference semifinals. The Lightning are 11-9-2 and much of their problem stems from the fact they're giving up 3.05 goals per game, ninth-most in the league. Again, just like the Hurricanes, Tampa Bay is having trouble getting on track because of unsteady goalie play. Presume No. 1 Dwayne Roloson has been abysmal with a 3.46 goals-against average and .887 save percentage, and luckily for them Mathieu Garon has been reasonable with a 2.46 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. The two have split starts this season. Steven Stamkos leads the team with 14 goals and 24 points, and besides the big-time players like Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, the 'Bolts haven't gottent oo much scoring out of the rest of their lines. Even though they got two points, the Rangers did not win a game against the Lightning last season, and all were very close, defense-oriented affairs.

Rangers Schedule

Next 5 Games

Pittsburgh Tue 11/29 7:30 PM EST
@ Carolina Thu 12/01 7:00 PM EST
@ Tampa Bay Sat 12/03 7:00 PM EST
Toronto Mon 12/05 7:00 PM EST
Tampa Bay Thu 12/08 7:00 PM EST

Last 5 Games

Philadelphia Sat 11/26 W 2 - 0
@ Washington Fri 11/25 W 6 - 3
@ Florida Wed 11/23 L 1 - 2
@ Montreal Sat 11/19 L 0 - 4
@ New York Islanders Tue 11/15 W 4 - 2