Up until about a week ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins were ripe for the taking. Losers of six straight games, it appeared that the number of crucial losses (Sidney Crosboy and Kris Letang as two of the biggest ones) had taken its toll. But now they've won three straight, and they come into Madison Square Garden with a little extra added motivation, trying to seek their first win against the New York Rangers, who are 2-0 against them this season.
New York, meanwhile, is trying to get on a roll again, after a bumpy past few games. It hopes the 3-0 win over the Nashville Predators on Tuesday is the start of another fruitful stretch of games. Thursday night (7:00 p.m. EST, MSG/NHLN) will be another test, against a seventh-place conference rival. The Rangers are 14-4-2 at home, while the Penguins are 12-10-2 on the road. The Blueshirts are tied for the league lead with 62 points; the Pens have 52.
Letang may be back for Pittsburgh, which will certainly provide an offensive jolt as he's one of the premiere offensive defensemen in the league. But the Rangers know who their focus has to be on, and that's Evgeni Malkin, who is tied for the league lead with 52 points (in only 38 games) and 11 goals. Being the home team, coach John Tortorella will have the slight advantage in playing the match-up game, as he'll be able to pair Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh against one of the game's best as much as possible. Malkin has been on fire over the past few games (and in January, really). He has points in all but two games this month and has seven points and five goals in the Pens' last three games. He's elite and the Rangers will have their hands full trying to defend him.
Despite two wins -- 4-3 at the end of November and an almost undeserving 3-1 decision Jan . 6 -- the Rangers need to find a way to generate more offense. Sure, they're 10th in the league with 2.80 per game, but the offense has been hot and cold over the past few games (with eight in their past five). They've been opportunistic at times, so it would be nice to have an offensive explosion for once. Either way, New York's identity this season has been one of a defense-first team with excellent goaltending -- they rank tied for first in the league at limiting goals with 1.98 per game. The offense comes from the Blueshirts' smart defensive play, and that will be crucial against an uptempo Penguins team.