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By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
The Rangers enter play this evening as one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, having won an impressive 11 times in their last 17 games. To earn another victory this evening, they will have to be at their best as they skate against, perhaps, the hottest team in the entire league when they face the Pittsburgh Penguins at the CONSOL Energy Center.
Up until they fell 3-2 at Philadelphia on Tuesday night, Pittsburgh had won 12 consecutive games following a home overtime defeat at the hands of the Rangers on Nov. 15. The 12-game streak, which included a 3-1 win over the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 29, ran for just under a full month and came within five games of the league record Pittsburgh set in the 1992-93 season.
“Not too many teams have beaten this team, and we were the last team that has done it, so we’d like to get a bookend here and close it out that way,” Rangers head coach John Tortorella said on Tuesday afternoon before the Flyers snapped Pittsburgh’s streak. “We’re looking to go get a win.”
To accomplish that goal, Tortorella believes that his team needs to use its collective head as well as its skill. It is something the head coach thinks that the Rangers did quite well in their 3-2 overtime win in Pittsburgh a month ago, but were not as sharp with when losing at home to the Penguins two weeks later.
“We have to be smart, because they haven’t won all these games by fluke, they are a good hockey team,” said Tortorella. “We have to be a well-positioned hockey club (Wednesday) night to compete against them.”
The Rangers, who routed the Capitals 7-0 on Sunday night at The Garden after dropping a heartbreaking 3-1 decision in Columbus 24 hours earlier, will get team captain Chris Drury back in the lineup tonight as he finally returns from his second broken finger of the season.
Drury, whose index finger was originally broken during training camp, appeared in only one game -- the home opener against the Maple Leafs on Oct. 15 -- before breaking the same finger in two places in that very same contest. He has been champing at the bit to get back in the lineup, and now -- two months to the day of that second injury -- Drury gets that opportunity.
“It feels great to be back out there with the guys, and I’m looking forward to bumping out there and getting the feel again,” said Drury. “It’s a real exciting time. I’m going to try and hit the ground running. Hopefully, each and every day things get better and better.”
Tortorella said after practice on Tuesday that he will work Drury into as many different game situations as possible. Drury will start at even strength on the fourth line with Sean Avery and either Erik Christensen or Todd White and is expected to play on the penalty kill, as well.
“Our room respects him,” Tortorella said of Drury. “He’s our captain. Everyone knows what he’s about, and he’s well liked because of that. It’s great to have him back, especially because the team has been growing the right way while he and Vinny Prospal, and Gaby for a while, have been out. Now you put him back in, that should make your team better. And I think that’s what will happen.”
Tortorella is not the only one who believes the return to health of Drury and Prospal -- likely in the next few weeks---will further strengthen a Rangers squad that has been solidly in the Eastern Conference’s top eight throughout the extended absences of the two veteran forwards and leaders.
“We have played pretty consistently and now everyone in the room knows when these other guys come back in it will be automatic that we’ll be that much better because they’ll join right in how we are playing,” said defenseman Marc Staal. “It’s a nice feeling knowing that.”
Once again tonight Staal, along with defense partner Dan Girardi, will draw the difficult assignment of trying to shut down of the league’s premier talents. On Saturday night they faced Columbus captain Rick Nash, one of the best power forwards in the game, and oSunday evening the assignment was to stop Alex Ovechkin.
Tonight Staal and Girardi draw the NHL’s top scorer Sidney Crosby. And quite possibly, based on line combinations from Pittsburgh’s loss at Philadelphia on Tuesday, Staal and Girardi might also see Evgeni Malkin on Crosby’s line.
“The challenge is to play the same way defensively (Wednesday) like we did against Washington,” said Staal. “The idea is to not allow their players to get any room and to make sure we are responsible in the offensive zone and in our defensive zone.”
Certainly goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will play a major role against the Penguins tonight. Lundqvist is coming off a 31-save shutout on Sunday, and he is currently tied with Boston’s Tim Thomas with a league-leading five shutouts on the season.
Lundqvist, who likely will be making his sixth straight start tonight, is 17-13-4 lifetime vs. the Penguins.
Following this evening’s contest the Rangers head right back home where they will host the Phoenix Coyotes at The Garden on Thursday night.
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