|NYR||1||1||1||0||1 (2 - 3)||4|
|PIT||1||1||1||0||0 (1 - 3)||3|
PITTSBURGH -- Friday night in Pittsburgh the Rangers (31-24-3, 65 pts) will play their 59th game of the season when they face the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins (40-15-2, 82 pts), and it will be their final one for a span of three weeks until they host the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 27 because of the break in the schedule caused by the league's participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics. While it is most definitely a "measuring stick" game, facing one of the true elite teams in the NHL, it is also an extremely important contest for the Rangers because they would like to finish on a strong note before the break and are coming off a disappointing 2-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on home ice the night before.
That loss — cemented when Nail Yakupov scored with under two minutes to play in regulation for Edmonton's game-winning goal — snapped the Rangers season-high four-game winning streak, and came in what was supposed to be the "easiest" of the three-games-in-four-nights the Rangers were playing this week before the break. The Rangers had skated to a resounding 5-1 victory over a Colorado Avalanche team that has been among the league's best all year long on Tuesday before succumbing to the Oilers two nights later. Now they face a Penguins team that is tied with Anaheim for the most wins in the league, 40, and which owns a 17-point lead on the second-place Rangers in the Metropolitan Division.
With how well they have played the past five or six weeks, there is no way the Rangers will want to enter the three-week hiatus from game action on a two-game losing skid, so an intense battle with the Penguins can be expected Friday night. The Rangers still have won seven of their last 10 games, 10 of 14, and are 15-6-1 in their previous 22 since Dec. 22. That is a lot of very good hockey; and even in Thursday's loss the Blueshirts received sound goaltending from Cam Talbot — who made 29 saves — and a string of excellent scoring chances. That they were held to only goal was as much a tribute to the play of Edmonton netminder Ben Scrivens — who stopped 35 shots — as it was a serious indictment on the Rangers.
Henrik Lundqvist will return to the nets Friday after backing up Talbot 24 hours prior. Lundqvist, who is three wins shy of 300 in his career, is now 21-18-3 in 43 appearances this season with three shutouts, a 2.43 goals against average, and .918 save percentage. He has held opponents to two goals or fewer in ten of his last 11 starts, has posted an 11-3-1 record with a 1.85 GAA in his last 15 starts, and posted a .950 save percentage and 1.50 GAA during the Rangers four-game winning streak.
Despite the defeat both Derick Brassard and linemate Mats Zuccarello continued their strong play of late, as both extended their point-scoring streaks to five consecutive games. Brassard netted his third goal in as many games with Zuccarello notching the primary assist to lift him into sole possession of the team lead in both points (42) and assists (27). Brassard and Zuccarello both have scored seven points during their past five contests.
Both the Rangers and Penguins will have seven players taking part in the Sochi Olympics. Ryan McDonagh and Carl Hagelin of the Rangers both said on Thursday that they spent the previous day off packing for their Olympic travels, though their focus remains on the Ranger games to be played first. McDonagh and Hagelin will be joined in Sochi by Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello as the Ranger players will represent four countries. The Penguins will be led in Sochi by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Brooks Orpik, and Paul Martin.
Like the Rangers, the Penguins are looking to end this portion of the schedule on a high note, which would just be a continuation of how extremely well they have played so far this season. The Penguins have already reached 40 wins faster than at any other point in franchise history. Not only did the Pens top their previous quickest rise to 40 victories (set in 1995-96), they did so in eight fewer games. A major part of the equation has been Pittsburgh's dominance on home ice this year. The Penguins are a league-best 23-4-0 at the CONSOL Energy Center, and have won 16 of their last 17 contests on home ice entering play on Friday.
That Pittsburgh has been so dominant despite a rash of injuries to key players throughout the season is both impressive and proof of how deep the talent pool is in the organization. However Pittsburgh has to be concerned about the latest issue involving defenseman Kris Letange, who already missed significant time this season with a knee injury and an elbow infection. Letang suffered a stroke, and has a small hole in his heart, and will be sidelined indefinitely in a frightening development that came to light Friday morning.
Pittsburgh will also play without the injured Pascal Dupuis, Beau Bennett, Chris Connor, and Joe Vitale Friday night. Marc-Andre Fleury, who leads the league in wins with 31 and ranks tenth with a 2.22 GAA, will make the start in goal for the Penguins.
Three different Penguins enter play with 55 or more points, led by Crosby who tops the NHL with 77 points in 57 games; and five Pens have scored 16 goals or more already with Crosby (28) and Chris Kunitz (27) leading Pittsburgh's high-octane offense.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rangers-Mats Zuccarello: Four years ago the Rangers scouted a breakout undrafted player at the 2010 Winter Olympics, eventually signing him to an NHL contract after his standout Olympics and season in the Swedish Elite League had ended. Now Mats Zuccarello is flourishing with the Rangers, leading the team in points (42) and assists (27) and tied for second in goals (15), as he gets set to reprsent Norway once again in the Olympic games, this time in Sochi.
Zuccarello arrives at Friday's game riding a career-best five-game point-scoring streak, and he has notched at least one point in ten of the last 14 contests, while registering 17 points total in his last 19 matches. On top of his offensive bounty, Zuccarello has played with a physical edge — which stands out considering his diminutive physical stature — and he remains one of the most popular players in the dressing room where his upbeat personality and quirky sense of humor has made him fast friends in all corners of the room. At the age of 26 it has come together for Zuccarello as an NHL player, and now he will be looked upon for a strong finish to the season as the Rangers continue to battle for playoff positioning in the standings.
Penguins-Evgeni Malkin: It has been somewhat of an injury-plagued season so far for Malkin, who is one of the league's truly elite players. A three-time 100+ point scorer who netted 50 goals in 2011-12, Malkin has won a Stanley Cup championship, the Hart Trophy, the Calder Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy, and the Conn Smythe Trophy already in his eight-year NHL career. This season, despite the injuries, Malkin has 57 points in 46 games, good for tenth most in the league. His 40 assists — nearly one per game — are good for sixth most in the NHL. Malkin is also revving up for the Olympics in his home country where he is expected to play on a line with Washington's Alex Ovechkin — arguably on of the most dynamic two-somes ever to be teamed on the same line at any level of competition in the history of hockey. Malkin carries a four-game point streak into Friday's action, having recorded three goals and three assists in that span.
Friday's game marks the fourth and final meeting this year between the Rangers and Penguins, the second of the four to be played at CONSOL Energy Center where the Rangers are 5-4-1 over their last 10 visits. Last month the Rangers dropped a 5-2 decision in Pittsburgh on Jan. 3, one of only six regulation defeats for the Blueshirts since December 22. Mats Zuccarello had a goal and an assist in that most recent visit to Pittsburgh while Derick Brassard notched a pair of assists. The Rangers are 1-0-1 against the Penguins at Madison Square Garden this season, hammering Pittsburgh 5-1 on Nov. 6 with five different Blueshirts finding the back of the net, before losing in a shootout, 4-3, on Dec. 18 despite third-period goals from Zuccarello and Brassard to force overtime.
|M. Del Zotto||42||2||9||11||-5||10||1||0|