What To Watch For: Pens vs. Rangers
Thursday, 01.5.2012 / 10:32 PM ET / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
PENGUINS (21-13-4) vs. RANGERS (25-9-4)
WHEN: Jan. 6, 2012 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: CONSOL Energy Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins 24/7 Radio, 105.9 FM
Now that the 2012 NHL Winter Classic and all of the fanfare surrounding the league’s signature event has come to an end, life is back to normal for the New York Rangers – who topped Philadelphia 3-2 in the outdoor spectacle.
And with their 3-2 overtime win over Florida on Thursday, the red-hot Rangers have continued to roll as they’ve now won eight of their last nine games. They currently rank first in the Eastern Conference with 54 points and are the only team left in the league with regulation losses in single digits (9).
|Henrik Lundqvist (Getty Images)|
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has certainly been doing his part to contribute to the team’s success. The smooth, athletic netminder has gone 5-0 with a 1.20 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage in his last five starts and ranks fourth overall in the league in both those categories. Capable backup Martin Biron got the nod on Thursday against Florida, so Lundqvist will get the start on Friday in Pittsburgh.
Lundqvist has quite the stingy defense in front of him, as the Rangers have one of the grittiest blue lines in the league that’s averaging just 2.05 goals-against per game – good for second in the NHL. And the Rangers’ back end received a big boost this week with the return of top-two defenseman Marc Staal, who made his season debut in the Winter Classic after missing the first 36 games with post-concussion syndrome.
The brother of Penguins center Jordan led the Rangers in average ice time each of the last two seasons, but Tortorella is opting to slowly ease Marc back into his usual role by limiting him to just over 12 minutes each of the last two games. He’s able to do that thanks to workhorses Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh, who all stepped up in a big way in Staal’s absence.
Up top, the Rangers’ success has stemmed from their ability to spread out their offense and get contributions from all four lines. The perfect example of that is Mike Rupp’s Classic night, as the former Penguin scored twice to lead the Rangers out of a two-goal deficit to win the game 3-2. However, one player who’s made himself stand out with the way he’s been playing has been speedy winger Marian Gaborik. The Slovakian sniper scored the overtime winner on Thursday against the Panthers to up his season total to 23 goals, a number that ranks second (tied) in the NHL. In In addition, captain Ryan Callahan enters Friday’s game riding a six-game point streak while Brad Richards has four points (2G-2A) in his last three games.
RANGERS – RYAN CALLAHAN: The Blueshirts captain extended his point streak to six games with a goal in the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime win against Florida on Thursday. He’s totaled seven points (2G-5A) over that span and has been consistent for a long stretch of time, as he’s tallied 19 points (6G-13A) in the last 20 games. And not only can the 26-year-old produce offense, but he likes to throw the body around as well. The heart-and-soul winger ranks fourth in the NHL with 135 hits and tied a career-high with 11 checks in the Winter Classic vs. Philly – while assisting on the game-winning goal. Callahan’s a force all over the ice, and will certainly be a handful come Friday.
PENGUINS – EVGENI MALKIN: After winning four straight, the Penguins have lost their last two contests and are looking to turn it around coming out of a five-day break – starting with a big inter-division game against the Rangers. The Penguins will need a big showing from their top line of Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal – and an especially dominant effort from the Russian center against a tough Rangers squad. On Sunday, Malkin was named the NHL’s ‘First Star’ for December as he tallied 20 points (6G-14A) in 13 games during the month. He’ll need to bring that elite level of play to CONSOL Energy Center on Friday vs. a team he’s scored 25 points (13G-12A) against in 31 career contests.
The Rangers' .711 winning percentage (25-9-4) is the team's best start through 38 games since their 1993-94 Stanley Cup championship season (26-9-3, .724 win percentage) and is tied for the fourth best start in franchise history.
To elaborate a bit further on the Rangers’ tough, gritty style of play I alluded to earlier: the Blueshirts rank third in the league with 1,060 hits through 38 games, and they like to throw the body around a little more when they’re away from Madison Square Garden as they lead the NHL with 565 road hits. Ryan Callahan ranks fourth in the league with 135 total hits while Brandon Dubinsky is 19th with 107 checks.
The Rangers are also not afraid of putting themselves in the paths of pucks, as New York has 612 blocked shots on the season – good for sixth in the league. Dan Girardi leads the way with 96 of those.
With a win against the Rangers, head coach Dan Bylsma moves into sole possession of second place on the franchise's all-time wins list with 136, passing his predecessor Michel Therrien (135) and trailing Ed Johnston (232). Bylsma has established himself as one of the top head coaches in the NHL since taking over Feb. 15, 2009. He enters the game with a career mark of 135-67-23. In his first 110 home games, Bylsma has compiled a record of 71-30-9.
The Penguins will play back-to-back home games Friday and Saturday against a pair of division rivals, the NY Rangers and New Jersey Devils. This marks the 10th time since 2007-08 that the Penguins will play home games on consecutive days. The Penguins have gone 13-2-3 in the nine previous back-to-backs during that stretch, including five sweeps.
Friday marks the back end of the sixth of 14 back-to-back sets this season for the Rangers. New York has posted a record of 5-0-1 in the first game of the set and are 4-0-1 in the second game. Since 2009-10, New York is 25-8-3 in the second game of back-to-back sets, with a 13-3-1 mark at MSG and 12- 5-2 on the road over the span.
Forward Richard Park and defenseman Paul Martin were both activated from injured reserve on Thursday afternoon and are eligible to play on Friday vs. the Rangers. Park has missed the last 11 games with a fractured foot suffered Dec. 3 vs. Carolina, while Martin has sat out the last six contests with a lower-body injury sustained Dec. 16 vs. Ottawa.
Forward Arron Asham did not practice with the team Thursday and is day-to-day with a lower body injury sustained Dec. 31 vs. New Jersey. However, forward Pascal Dupuis, who suffered an upper body injury that same game, did skate with the team and is day-to-day at this point in time for (Friday). The team will see how he is (Friday) morning and go from there.
D Robert Bortuzzo, concussion-like symptoms
C Sidney Crosby, undisclosed
F Dustin Jeffrey, knee
D Kris Letang, broken nose and concussion
D Paul Martin, lower body
F Richard Park, fractured foot
D Steve Eminger, shoulder
D Michael Sauer, concussion
LW Wojtek Wolski, groin
Author: Michelle Crechiolo