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If the New York Rangers are as good as they want us to believe -- or maybe even are as good as they want believe -- then tonight's matchup against Montreal needs to be an easy contest; regardless of Annti Raanta's presence between the pipes.
Montreal, the team that laughed in the face of fancy stats and predictably lost, has been in a tailspin since the Rangers entered their own slump in November. They're wildly out of the playoff despite one of the best starts in franchise history.
Yes, the Rangers are playing in the Montreal house of horrors. Yes, the Canadiens are always a difficult obstacle for the Broadway Blueshirts. And, yes, the Rangers have been dreadful on the road this year.
This is different, though. As New York continues to desperately try to staple its name among the elite in the NHL, games like this need to be, well, easy. The Rangers need to control the play, keep the puck, play good defense and generate offense. The power play, for all its warts, is humming around 30% the past few weeks, and the penalty kill hasn't been the biggest problem in the world, either. Those things can change in a flash, of course, but the Rangers don't have too much time to right the ship if they want to walk into the playoffs on a high note. Or, perhaps, secure home ice advantage in the first round.
Games like these simply have to be an easy two points for contending teams. The Rangers have their problems on the back -- something Montreal and anyone, really, will test time and again -- but with Carey Price out and a team with little to play for the Rangers shouldn't have an issue running the show.
And they sort of have to. The Rangers played a good game against Boston -- one of the rare games the shot differential really didn't properly highlight the play -- and won, right after they played a good game to beat Florida. Those moments have been far and few between of late (when they dominate possession and win games) but tonight's a prime opportunity to beat up on a lesser team to start swinging the momentum in their favor.
The Rangers have been granted some extra padding to their playoff standing thanks to a 7-4 Lightning win over the Islanders Friday night. With that result, the Rangers hold a five-point lead over the Islanders for the first wild card spot, but now the Rangers have only played one more game than their division rivals. A win tonight would increase the lead to seven points, and put a little more space between the Rangers and the Penguins for what could become a fight for home ice advantage rather than a fight for who slips to the wild card.
None of that happens without a victory tonight, though. And if the Rangers are as good as they want to think they are, then that shouldn't be much of a problem at all.