The distractions are gone: No more European road trip, Winter Classic build up or HBO cameras to deal with. But how will the New York Rangers deal with "normal" NHL life now that the limelight is off the team? Coach John Tortorella addressed that with reporters Wednesday, and he has his worries about it.
Thursday night against the Florida Panthers the Blueshirts will return to Madison Square Garden (7:00 p.m. EST, MSG) after nine days away to begin to answer that very question. Instead of the cameras filming their every action, New York will now also prove to the skeptics that they truly are an elite team -- one that is tied for second-most points in the NHL, with 52.
The Florida Panthers are right on the Rangers' heels, with 47 points, and currently lead the Southeast Division. Despite their latest 3-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens, they've run into a rut recently with just two wins in their last six games, as they've dealt with a myriad of injuries. The latest injury came to their goalie Jose Theodore, who is expected to miss about two weeks with a knee injury, thus the team will rely on former Devil Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom. Former Devil John Maddon was recently signed and will debut Thursday night. The Rangers lost the first game of the year against Florida, 2-1, but have won the last two by a 10-2 margin
While their latest win against the Philadelphia Flyers was a great one, the Rangers need to learn that they cannot always go down early and expect to win. Granted, it reveals a lot about your team when you can bounce back, but the ball is never in your court. Their 3-6-1 record when down after two periods is the best in the league -- further proof it's no easy task to win games in the final 20 when down.
The Panthers rely heavily on their top line and a number of offense-first blueliners to produce offense. The Rangers need to forecheck hard and play physically so that the speedy forwards are thrown off their game. They also need to clog shooting lanes that the defensemen may find.
On offense, the Blueshirts need more puck possession like they had in the latter half of the Flyers game. They do that by winning battles on defense, making the simple outlet pass and then sustaining pressure in the offensive zone.