New week, same script for the New York Rangers. That's a good sign for the NHL-leading Blueshirts, as they defeated three teams last week -- all three of which are playoff-caliber teams in their own right. Even better news was the return of No. 1 defenseman Marc Staal, who has seen his numbers slowly creep up from his Jan. 2 Winter Classic debut.
With victories over the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2, Florida Panthers, 3-2, and Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers' point total now stands at 56, with a 26-9-4 record, and they now have the fewest amount of losses in the NHL by two. And it doesn't matter where they play. Two of the three wins (Flyers at the Winter Classic and Penguins) were on the road, as this club has proven thus far that it can take care of business at Madison Square Garden and away from it.
In being an eighth seed last season, the Rangers were actually eight games above .500 and struggled more at home, but this year New York has been friendlier, as they're 12-3-2 there. The Rangers also have a plus-34 goal differential.
Granted, it can not be understated enough: The season is only 39 games old and a lot can change from now until the beginning of April. Marc Staal's return gives a patchwork and youthful defensive core a nice jolt. But in a game that's so physical, the Blueshirts will inevitably face more bumps along the way; they've proven that they have the depth on defense and offense so far this season as all the players that have come in have adapted well to coach John Tortorella's system.
Overall, to be a good team, you have to deal with the lows and highs of the season. Losing streaks cannot be prolonged, and winning streaks have to certainly be the norm. What the Rangers have going for them to this point is that they are a squad that is not satisfied and hungry to make a difference every night. They have 20 guys every night that buy into a gameplan and go to battle for one another -- and that's a very good thing.
The next week for the Rangers is a busy one, with four games, three in four nights (and a back-to-back). Two of the games are against teams in playoff position.
Phoenix Coyotes, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 7:00 p.m. EST, MSG
Hmmm ... the last time the Rangers played these Coyotes, they were a bit disjointed, but managed a victory on a last-second (0.1 left), miracle shot from Brad Richards. Their power play was woeful, going 1-for-6, and they let in a goal on the penalty kill as well. But, their two big-money players, Richards and Marian Gaborik, found a way to give the team two points. With 45 points, the Yotes are on the outside looking in at a playoff spot, and that's primarily because they've won four times since their Dec. 17 meeting with New York, and they also were without starting goalie Mike Smith for six games. Smith is back and has given up one goal in each of his past two games, and he needs to be that good to give Phoenix a chance as they're very low scoring. Veteran Ray Whitney leads the club with 36 points, while Radim Vrbata has come out of nowhere to score 19 goals. Shane Down (25) and Keith Yandle (25) are the only other players with more than 20 points. Phoenix has been a better road team this season, but the Rangers have depth that's hard to match.
Ottawa Senators, Thursday, Jan. 12, 7:00 p.m. EST, MSG
The upstart Senators are currently fifth in the Eastern Conference and just a notch over the Rangers in eighth place for goals scored. Jason Spezza paces the team with 41 points, while Milan Michalek (currently injured) leads with 19 goals. But in comparison to the Yotes, Ottawa has seven players with 20 or more points. Twenty-one-year-old defenseman Erik Karlsson has an incredible 41 points and is the most dangerous blueliner in the game, so obviously limiting his space at the point will be a key. The Rangers lost to the Sens, 5-4 in overtime, and won 3-2, so another close game should be expected. The stark differences for the teams is in goals allowed as the Rangers allow the second fewest, and Ottawa lets up the third most (3.26). One could only wonder how good they'd be if Craig Anderson had better than a 3.11 goals-against average and .902 save percentage. The plan of attack is easy for the Rangers in this one: Shoot the puck from all over!
at Toronto Maple Leafs, Saturday, Jan. 14, 7:00 p.m. EST, MSG
The Rangers have nine losses this season and two of them have come against the high-flying Maple Leafs, both 4-2 at home. Joffrey Lopul had goals in both games, but the real problem has been Toronto's speed. The Rangers are not the slowest of teams but have not taken good routes to their forwards, nor been in the right positions in the defensive zone. The Leafs are the fifth-highest scoring team, but like Ottawa struggles to prevent goals from going in the net (seventh in the league). While Ottawa's goal differential is minus-two, Tortonto's is only slightly better at plus-two. New York will attempt to match Toronto's first line which includes Phil Kessel's 24 goals and 48 points and Lopuls 19 and 47. There's a huge drop off in production beyond that.
at Montreal Canadiens, Sunday, Jan. 15, 7:00 p.m. EST, NBC
On a second game in two nights, the same goalie will not be seen on both nights. Martin Biron will get one of these Canadian road games. Against Montreal this season, the Rangers won at home, 5-3, with Henrik Lundqvist in net and lost on the road, 4-0, with the stellar backup. The Rangers only got 17 shots on net in their last game Nov. 19, but the offense has been much more consistent since -- and much more opportunistic. Montreal is two games below .500 and 12th in the Eastern Conference, with a negative-five goal differential. Tomas Plekanec and Eric Cole lead the team with 30 points, while Cole is tops with 17 goals, but Montreal really has no go-to guy at forward, which is why they're a middling goal-scoring team right now. This is another quick -- and often small -- team New York will have to defend against. It will be nice to catch the game on NBC Sports Network, too.