The Rangers upcoming pre-Christmas schedule presents them with a golden opportunity to get themselves back in the playoff picture. Tonight, they are in Raleigh taking on the last place, that's right, last place Carolina Hurricanes in a game that the Blueshirts should definitely come out of with two points, as long as the effort is there. So you figure they then have 37 points going into Wednesday's tilt with the Florida Panthers, the team holding onto the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference (8th place).
If New York can somehow tie the Panthers in the standings, they will get the nod over Florida being that they will have several games at hand. If they can come away with wins in both of their next two, it is likely that they will pass the streaky Panthers and grab eighth place for themselves. It sitting there on a silver platter, now it is just a matter of executing.
The Rangers have been playing a better product of hockey since the pathetic 2-1 loss to the Islanders last Wednesday, due in part to the new environment in the locker room with coach Tortorella strictly applying his "darwinistic" policy. Either you play consistently or you are benched. It is as simple as that and we know he means business with veterans Wade Redden and Ales Kotalik watching from the press box for the last two games. I like it, and feel that it is a possibility that Torts was being held back from doing this earlier by management, Glen Sather for example. That is just pure speculation, though.
I truly believe if the Blueshirts can come out with starts like they did in Philadelphia on Saturday, retrieving loose pucks, outskating the opponent, and keeping play in the offensive zone, then they will get two points more frequently than they have in the recent past. If this team allows the opponent to control the tempo from the opening faceoff, which tends to be the case much too often, they never seem to recover from that and the entire contest is one giant struggle. That is not a winning formula by any means.
When matching-up with a team like Carolina, it is crucial to jump on them quickly. Their fans are obviously a bit irritated knowing that their 'Canes were a playoff team just a year ago, and now only have nine wins on the season so far in 09-10. In a relatively low-scoring NHL, that first early goal, especially on the road, can go so far against any team, but it will definitely have a major impact on a club that has struggled since opening night.
The Rangers are 1-1 this season against the Panthers, falling on home ice but winning in the shootout when meeting again in Sunshine, Florida. The Panthers have been up and down the standings for the past month or so, but right now are at an even .500, just like our Blueshirts. This is a team in which the Rangers should defeat if they can capitalize on their scoring chances, but clearly that has not been an easy task for the team this year.
The fact that goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is red-hot and playing out of his mind lately factors into this as well. In the first period on Long Island and in the third period in Philly, Hank took center stage and stood on his head, making saves on just about anything and everything that was thrown his way. When this is the case, the Rangers always have a higher probability of winning than losing. If they can come away with victories in these next two games and re-enter the playoff picture, the entire struggle can be put behind them and they can start fresh after Christmas when they clash with the Islanders at Madison Square Garden on the 26th.