It’s not a Metropolitan Division game, but the New York Rangers may as well be playing the Toronto Argonauts tonight and it wouldn’t matter — New York is a team at odds with itself and it needs a win. Badly.
Both the Rangers (28-16-1) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (21-13-8) came off their respective bye weeks at the same time. The two teams have responded to that league-imposed hiatus in diametrically opposite ways: Toronto has won three straight while the Rangers have spit the bit and lost three in a row.
Toronto has been surging of late and are currently in a points dogfight against division rival Ottawa, with whom they are tied in games played, points and regulation + overtime wins (ROW), but are up two in the loss column. The Senators, like the Rangers, are currently the Wild Card in the Atlantic Division.
The Rangers, on the other hand, have come up against a bulkhead at the 57-point mark. They trail both the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets (T-1st) by seven points and the Pittsburgh Penguins by four. Their current Wild Card position in the standings is safe for now from any incursion by the defensively weak Philadelphia Flyers, but it’s anyone’s guess how long that will last.
Both teams need to win this game from a standings perspective, but the Rangers need to win it for morale and confidence – things no team can go without for very long.
Neither team is fully healthy. The Rangers will be without D Marc Staal and F Matt Puempel (concussion protocol), F Jesper Fast (upper body Injury) and G Antti Raanta (lower body injury). Toronto will skate without it’s top defender in Morgan Rielly (listed as day-to-day), D Martin Marincin, F Joffrey Lupul & Ben Smith.
Raanta is the biggest name on that list for the Rangers. Veteran starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist has allowed 12 goals on a combined 49SOG in 80:00 of play (translation: any shot on goal against him right now has a 24.5% chance of going in) and 16 goals over his last seven periods. The Rangers could use a spot start out of a reliable backup right now. They just don’t have anyone fitting that description on their roster.
Tonight’s confirmed goalie matchup is Henrik Lundqvist for the Rangers and Frederik Andersen for the Leafs.
Things to watch:
Special Teams. The Rangers are fifth in the league and Toronto is second on the power play.The Rangers’ penalty kill has dropped out of the top ten and is currently ranked 15th while the Leafs’ PK sits at fifth. The Rangers are third in the NHL in penalty minutes. With a PK on the descent, they have to stay out of the box. If they can’t, look for “Power Killers” J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes on short-handed opportunities.
Auston Matthews. Toronto’s 19 year old first rounder is hot. White hot. He’s amassed 15 points in his last 12 games, scoring eight goals in that span, only going pointless once. Matthews is doing something productive with almost every shift and will undoubtedly be shark-like against a beleaguered Lundqvist. The Rangers have to contain him and his linemates from start to finish.
Holding a lead. Much like the Rangers, Toronto has thus far proven to be able to mass goals late in games. They are ranked 19th overall in goaltending, so if the Rangers find themselves trailing in the third, look for an uptick in shots. There is no reason whatsoever to give Andersen a light night. There is also every reason to be more defensively responsible in the third if the blueshirts are up. Three goals against in a minute already happened in Canada less than a week ago.
The Rangers don’t just need a win. They need an outstanding defensive effort all around, starting with the guys whose job it is to lead in that aspect of the game. No one else is going to help them and they simply cannot afford to leave Lundqvist alone and unafraid, staring at three forwards and a puck. The whole team to a man knows they need to be stronger defensively, but the blueliners absoutley cannot any lapses in coverage or boneheaded plays like what we’ve been seeing. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see strong games out of Ryan McDonagh and Nick Holden. It would be a pleasant surprise, however, to see Kevin Klein show up to the arena tonight.
Grabs leads all Rangers with 19 goals and is playing against his former team. His explosive speed is disruptive and at times, he is just sstraight gangsta on opposing defenses. Seeing him torch Toronto on a breakout would go a long way in a tough building.
If ever there were a time for Big Rick to drop a monster regular season performance, now is it. Nash has been the Rangers’ best overall player this season when he’s been healthy (that’s me, eating crow). He is a letter bearer and a veteran on a team that needs a serious infusion of backbone right now. This is a “big boy” moment for someone with his stature and league tenure to step into and own. Hopefully he knows it.
Also of note: Former Ranger Matt Hunwick will be skating for Toronto’s second defensive pairing tonight. He may pop up on Toronto’s second PP unit as he knows the Rangers’ PK well.
This is the 599th all-time game between the Rangers and Leafs. The Leafs hold a 54.1% advantage in wins (283-220-95). Puck drop is at 7:30EST at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.