This week for the New York Rangers is a clear reminder that the dog days of the NHL season are here. With four games against four Eastern Conference foes -- all with top-flight forwards -- New York can ill afford to take any night off, even with an East-leading 71 points. Thursday, the Blueshirts clash with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden (7:00 p.m. EST, MSG).
New York is coming off a heart-breaking loss to the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday after a goal with 3.5 seconds left was waved off. The Lightning, with 51 points, are 10 out of a playoff spot. They are the weakest opponent the Rangers will face with their frenzied week. The Lightning have underperformed this season primarily due to their struggles between the pipes and at the blueline. Tampa Bay has a negative-28 goal differential because it ranks first in the league in goals allowed per game. It ranks eighth in the league in scoring, while the Rangers are 13th; obviously, the big difference lies in the fact that the Rangers have given up the second-fewest goals per game in the league.
New York's defense has its hands full dealing with the Bolts' top line of Steven Stamkos (NHL's leading goal scorer with 38, 58 points), Martin St. Louis (16 goals, 49 points) and Vincent Lecavalier (20 goals, 44 points). Even with those guys, they struggle on the power play, just like the Rangers (26th to 28th-ranked man advantages). The power play has been a major flaw for the Rangers and will be their Achilles' heel down the road if the struggles persist. A 23rd-ranked Lightning penalty kill may provide a good opportunity for New York to get some goals on the board in that situation.
Marian Gaborik continues to perform at a high clip, with 26 goals and 43 points, but to be a more dangerous team, the 13th-ranked offense needs to be better. The onus has fallen on Brad Richards, who has only 34 points, only six of which have come since the start of the new year. He practiced on the fourth line Wednesday, but will coach John Tortorella really keep the proven guy there come game time? Even with his struggles, the Rangers need scoring, so it's hard to believe he receives checking-line minutes when the puck drops.