The Rangers next home game will be on February 19th when the Blueshirts will host Alain Vigneault's old club, the Vancouver Canucks, at Madison Square Garden. Starting with tonight's game in Toronto, the Blueshirts will be on the road for their next four games and will be playing three teams that are already considered to be out of the playoff hunt. The Rangers have a huge opportunity, especially in the next three games, to pick up some crucial points on the road that will go a long way in ensuring their return to the postseason. Getting just one point in the game against Dallas was both fortunate and a bit disappointing, but it also felt like a great example of the way the team has been playing lately. It feels like the Rangers make things harder than they have to be and will either figure things out late or only for a shift or two at a time.
Even without Henrik Lundqvist in the lineup, these next three games are against teams that the Rangers can and should beat without much difficulty. The fourth game of the road trip is noteworthy for another reason because it is a team that the Rangers have to find a way to beat. However, we all know that things are never quite that simple for the Blueshirts.
2/10, Rangers at the Maple Leafs
The road trip starts tonight with an original six showdown between the Rangers and the crumbling Maple Leafs. In their last ten games the Leafs are 1-8-1. The Leafs have fired their head coach, Dion Phaneuf is out of the lineup for the time being, and they have been scratching David Clarkson... who they have signed at a cap hit of $5.25 million for another five seasons after this one. Yikes. The Leafs have more problems than they know what to do with this season. They will be putting orange stickers on a bunch of their players on deadline day in the hopes of turning things around next season.
It's worth noting that we should keep a sharp eye on Mike Santorelli of the Leafs who has been repeatedly tied to the Rangers as a trading target. Santorelli can play the wing and center and would, presumably, fit in at center on the third line to take Kevin Hayes off of face offs. The asking price for Santorelli could be something along the lines of J.T. Miller or a 2nd round pick which seems pretty steep for a guy on the last year of his contract.
Tonight it will be James Reimer in net trying to stop the Rangers from turning the Toronto crowd against their own team. The offense in Toronto has been bad, the defense has been bad, and there are a lot of players who are seriously underperforming. It's ugly, jerseys thrown on the ice kinda ugly.
2/12, Rangers at Avalanche
The Avs will be without Erik Johnson (who is week-to-week with a knee injury) when the Rangers head to Colorado and Jamie McGinn and Ryan Wilson are done for the season. What is amazing is that things were just as bad, if not worse, before Colorado lost Johnson. Matt Duchene, Jarome Iginla, Nathan McKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly, Alex Tanguay, and Gabriel Landeskog sounds like a pretty damn good offense, right? It's 24th in the league. How about the defense? The 2.74 goals the Avs allow per game is the 10th worst in the league. Just so we all remember; Colorado won the Central Division last season. Chicago and St. Louis play in the Central Division.
The Avalanche are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games and have a record of 22-21-11, which is good for dead last in the Central Division behind the Dallas Stars. There isn't much quality on the Avalanche blue line and that is where the Rangers will have to make an impact with their speed and strength.
2/14, Rangers at Coyotes
Let's just get this out of the way now. The Rangers have been repeatedly connected as a trading candidate with the Coyotes regarding center Antoine Vermette. The asking price for Vermette is astronomically high, but it might come down by deadline day. If Vermette still has a small cannid on his jersey when the Rangers head into Phoenix on the 14th, we should all keep an eye on how the veteran center looks and try to imagine how he might fit into the lineup. I suppose we should also do the same for the gigantic Martin Hanzal who has also been tied to the Rangers in trade rumors. The somewhat fragile Hanzal, 27, is a big bodied center with a cap hit of $3.5 million for another two seasons.
Enough about potential trading targets, how are the Coyotes doing? Pretty badly, actually. It is no secret that everyone not named Shane Doan is apparently on the market for the Coyotes. Arizona is 20-27-7 and stuck at second to last in the Pacific Division, ahead of only the adorably awful Edmonton Oilers. The Coyotes allow the 4th most goals per game and are the 5th worst goals per game team in the league. Mike Smith has been a garbage fire this season (but he's so athletic!), and Keith Yandle is the team's point leader with 39 points in 54 games. It's pretty ugly in the desert right now.
2/16, Rangers at Islanders
What is there to say about the Islanders that hasn't already been said on this blog? How about some uncomfortable truths, gang? The Islanders are a better hockey team than the Rangers. Not because they have better players, mind you, but because they are better at playing Islanders hockey than the Rangers are at playing Rangers hockey. In the three previous meetings between the Isles and Rangers the guys who have citrust accents in their jerseys have won all three games... handily. The scores of those games were 6-3, 3-0, and 4-1 in the most recent contest on January 27th.
Right now the Islanders seem to have the Rangers' number, so much so that the Rangers seem to be going out of their way to add some players that would help them against teams like the Islanders and Bruins. Kyle Okposo remains out of the lineup for the Isles and is expected back in mid-to-late March, and he hasn't been an easy guy to replace on the Tavares line. In their last ten games the New York Islanders are 5-5-0 which has allowed the Rangers and Capitals to move in ever closer to the top of the division despite both teams just playing mediocre hockey of late. As of the writing of this article the Rangers have three games in hand on the Islanders and are four points behind them. You think that Monday's game might be pretty intense and important? Yep, me too.
This road trip presents a big opportunity for the Rangers to make up some ground in the Metropolitan Division, even without Henrik Lundqvist in net. The Rangers haven't exactly been great on the road, they have a record of 13-9-1 which is on par with the Penguins' and Capitals' road records, but they are going up against teams that they either can or must beat in the next four games. The Rangers have been accused by hockey writers and fans of "playing down to their opponent" this season. It is hard to find fault in that harsh criticism. There are games where it simply feels like the requisite effort and concentration isn't there for the Rangers and the team seems too pigheaded or helpless to adapt and not end up beating themselves with turnovers and costly errors. It's time for that to change as the deadline approaches and as each game starts to feel a little bit more like playoff hockey.
This road trip not only provides an opportunity to pick up some crucial points to move up in the Metropolitan Division and continue to fight tooth and nail with the Islanders, Penguins, and Capitals for the top of the heap, it also will give us a close look at some of the players that have been rumored to be trading targets of the Rangers. Santorelli, Vermette, and Hanzal are guys that could end up in Rangers' blue in under a month's time. It will be valuable for the Rangers to get a sense of what these guys provide for their teams and what they could do for the Rangers.
The next four games will be big for the Rangers, and it all starts tonight against Phil Kessel and the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Blueshirts need to find a way to beat the teams they are supposed to beat and there are plenty of those teams coming up on the horizon. It's time to start scratching out question marks in regards to whether or not the team can rely on certain players that are in their lineup and if they find that they can't, they need to find some answers either in-house or on the rosters of other teams.
Let's go Rangers.