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Rangers Schedule: Blueshirts Host The Islanders, Then Travel To Capitals And Panthers

The New York Rangers have a 21-8-4 record that has vaulted them to the top of the Atlantic Division, to second in the Eastern Conference and third in the entire NHL. While the season is only 33 games old, at this juncture it may be safe to say that they've at least set themselves up to be an elite team, even if they don't fully have to support of the "experts" and hockey community.

New York is coming off another perfect week, going 3-0-0 against a variety of teams: one that wants to prove it's a contender, a flailing squad and one that shares the ranks of the East's elite. Over the week, the Rangers scored 12 goals -- four in each game -- and allowed five. New York took down the New Jersey Devils on the road 4-1 after surrendering the first goal; then, it hosted the New York Islanders and got some timely goals and great goaltending from backup Martin Biron to win 4-2. Its most impressive performance came against the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that had claimed its stake atop the East, and dismantled them 4-2. Their goal differential now stands at plus-27, fourth in the NHL. They rank in the top 10 in goals scored and the No. 3 stingiest defense with 2.09 goals allowed per game.

Suffice to say, there's a lot going right for the Blueshirts right now. A two-day hockey break -- no games or practice -- for the Christmas holiday is good for a team that's battled so hard this season, but also bad because they've been on such a roll this season and it could stunt their momentum.

Quite simply, the Rangers are a team firing on all cylinders right now. First and foremost, the coaching staff has done an exceptional job with a patchwork defense -- Marc Staal, Michael Sauer and Steve Eminger sidelined -- putting the journeyman-types like Jeff Woywitka and Anton Stralman and the youngsters like Stu Bickel and Tim Erixon in spots to excel. Their young players are also growing immensely this season: Derek Stepan is third in the team with 25 points, Artem Anisimov has 22 points and Michael Del Zotto has been stiffer on defense and excellent on offense, with 19 points.

New York Islanders, Monday, Dec. 26, MSG
The Rangers will play the Isles for the second time in five days, and this could be a blessing in disguise after a break from hockey action as both teams will be forced to play with energy and find their legs from the get-go. Granted, the Isles are a team that either brings out the best or the worst in the Rangers because they often don't stay composed enough. The Rangers are 2-1-0 against the Islanders this year and have shown they've got a distinct talent advantage with a team that's buying into the coaching staff's style. The Islanders have lost two straight and six of their last eight. John Tavares, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau all have 28 points to lead the team, but besides that there isn't a lot of depth, which is where the Rangers have them beat. The Islanders are one of the worst teams at preventing and scoring goals this season, signaling their problems run deep.

at Washington Capitals, Wednesday, Dec. 28, Versus
The season is still relatively young, but experts abound had the Capitals as once of the aces of the NHL this season. Who would've thought that they'd be three points out of a playoff spot, with 36 and just three games above .500. Simply, Washington has been far too inconsistent, even after the coaching change. Alex Ovechkin has not put up the star-type offensive numbers this season everyone expected, as he only has 24 points (second on the team). Nicklas Backstrom leads the way with 34, but even more telling is that Jason Chimera paces the squad with 13 goals. The offense hasn't gelled as consistently as many expected (10th in the league), but even more worrisome is that they've given up the eighth-most goals in the league. Defensive breakdowns and shoddy goaltending have contributed to that problem, though Michal Neuvirth has been very solid in his four straight outings. The Caps are 11-5-1 at home; the Rangers, though, have nearly the same record on the road: 11-5-2.

at Florida Panthers, Friday, Dec. 30, MSG
While the Capitals' struggles have been surprising, the Panthers' success could be considered an even bigger shock as they're 18-11-7, three points back of the Rangers. The Blueshirts slogged their way through a 2-1 loss in late November at Florida, but bounced back in a big way against them at home two weeks ago, with a 6-1 win. However, the Panthers are currently in the midst of their first prolonged funk, with three losses in a row and six in their last eight games. Maybe the Rangers caught them at the right time. In order to have success against the Panthers, the Ranges will have to contain their team speed. their strong first line -- as Kris Versteeg, Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleishmann all have over 30 points -- and contain their puck-moving defensemen. The best way to counteract that is for the Rangers to play physical, get the puck out of their own zone quickly with simple plays and make the Panthers play in their zone for extended periods to limit their offensive chances. Florida is 8-3-5 at home.

Rangers Schedule

Next 5 Games

New York Islanders Mon 12/26 7:00 PM EST
@ Washington Wed 12/28 7:30 PM EST
@ Florida Fri 12/30 7:30 PM EST
@ Philadelphia Mon 01/02 1:00 PM EST
Florida Thu 01/05 7:00 PM EST

Last 5 Games

Philadelphia Fri 12/23 W 4 - 2
New York Islanders Thu 12/22 W 4 - 2
@ New Jersey Tue 12/20 W 4 - 1
@ Phoenix Sat 12/17 OT - W 3 - 2
@ St. Louis Thu 12/15 L 1 - 4