What to Watch For: Pens vs. Rangers
Wednesday, 03.14.2012 / 9:00 AM / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: March 15, 2012 - 7:00 pm | WHERE: Madison Square Garden
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM
The New York Rangers widened the point gap with the Penguins even further on Tuesday with a 4-2 win over Carolina. The Eastern Conference-leading Rangers now have 95 points while the Penguins trail them by six (89), a margin that had slimmed down to two as recently as Sunday with Pittsburgh's nine-game winning streak (that began Feb. 21 vs. the Blueshirts).
The Rangers have now won two straight after dropping a season-high three in a row. Their overtime victory on Sunday against 14th-place NY Islanders wasn’t exactly pretty, but the Rangers looked more like themselves on Tuesday against the Hurricanes.
|Martin Biron will start in goal for the Rangers as Henrik Lundqvist isn't game ready due to the flu. (Getty Images)|
When Richards, the prize of last summer’s free-agent crop, signed a nine-year, $60-million deal with the Rangers to be the team’s No. 1 center, it was assumed he would be linemates with Gaborik – even general manager Glen Sather said so. But though it looked like a perfect fit on paper, at the time the pairing just didn’t click.
But that’s all changed now, as Richards and Gaborik have kindled some chemistry on a line with Hagelin. Both Gaborik and Hagelin, two of the best skating wingers in the league, possess blinding speed that allows them to chase down pucks and make plays. They’re a perfect complement to Richards, an elite playmaker who slows the game down with his tremendous vision. And Rangers head coach John Tortorella doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Richards has elevated his game in the absence of captain Ryan Callahan, who has missed the last two games and five of the last eight with a sore foot. Callahan, who has nine goals in his last 12 games, is listed as day-to-day and reports out of New York say he's hopeful to play Thursday.
Talented young defenseman Michael Del Zotto is also day-to-day with a sore hip. And on Thursday morning, the Rangers announced they would be going with the same lineup vs. Pittsburgh: which means Callahan and Del Zotto are both out. And unfortunately, so is goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist fell ill with the flu on Tuesday afternoon, so the Rangers started Martin Biron on Tuesday and recalled Chad Johnson on an emergency basis from Connecticut of the American Hockey League to back him up. While they returned Johnson to the AHL that same night and both Biron and Lundqvist participated in Thursday's morning skate, Lundqvist confirmed after that he would not be playing vs. Pittsburgh, saying that he did not feel game ready due to the flu and that Biron was playing well.
Lundqvist, who has a pristine 1.88 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage (numbers that rank among the top three in the league in their respective categories), is largely considered to be the favorite for this year’s Vezina Trophy. The elite netminder is the backbone of this Rangers squad, who has allowed the fewest goals in the East (145). But with that being said, Biron is a more than capable backup. He is 12-4-2 on the season and has held opponents to two or fewer goals in 10 of his 18 starts.
RANGERS: BRAD RICHARDS
Richards had two goals for the second straight game in the Rangers’ 4-2 win over Carolina on Tuesday. The center now has five goals and eight points in a four-game point streak. Though Richards’ overall numbers aren’t where they tend to be this late in the year (his career high is 91 points, and he currently has 53), he seems to have hit his stride over the last few games and now centering a line with speedy wingers Carl Hagelin and Marian Gaborik. Head coach John Tortorella attributed the surge to his playmaking center’s tremendous vision, saying “Ritchie’s seeing the ice better. Obviously he’s the key. That’s the biggest strength of his game, seeing the ice, and I think he feels more confident there.” Richards' overall confidence seems to have grown in his first season with the Blueshirts, as evidenced by the patience he displayed on his goals Tuesday, and he’ll certainly be a force for the Rangers come Thursday.
PENGUINS: SIDNEY CROSBY
Crosby is back. He’ll make his return on Thursday in New York against the Rangers after being out of the lineup since Dec. 6 with concussion-like symptoms and a neck injury, missing the last 40 games. Crosby skated on a line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy during Tuesday’s practice, and head coach Dan Bylsma said that’s where the superstar center will start Thursday’s game in order to best manage his playing time. Crosby will also play the point on the power play for the first time in his NHL career in order to utilize the 24-year-old’s vision, which Bylsma called “unparalleled on our team.” It’s been a long time since Crosby last played, but he’s an incredibly special player that will want to do everything he can to contribute. So while it may be unrealistic to expect a return quite like the one he made on Nov. 21, 2011 vs. NY Islanders – where he scored two goals and four points after missing 61 games with a concussion – it’s reasonable to expect a solid all-around game from the captain.
The Penguins enter Thursday's game on a season-high nine-game winning streak – which, coincidentally, began on Feb. 21 with a 2-0 shutout victory over the Rangers. Only Boston, who had a 10-game winning streak from Nov. 1-23, have won more consecutive games this season. During the streak the Penguins are outscoring their foes 33-13 in regulation.
For just the 11th time since the beginning of the 2010-11 season, the Penguins will have their top-three centers – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal – together in the same lineup. In the 10 games they have played together the previous two years, the Penguins have gone 6-3-1 and outscored foes 35-23 for an average of 3.5 goals per game and a 2.28 goals-against average (23GA/606MIN).
Since the three debuted together in the same game on Oct. 18, 2006, the Penguins have gone 164-88-28 (.636 pct.) with all three in the lineup. With at least one of them missing, they are 113-65-20 (.621 pct.). All three players have collected at least one point in the same game 70 times in the 280 contests they’ve played together. Pittsburgh is nearly unbeatable – 61-3-6 (.914 pct.) – when that happens. The Penguins are 6-1 in the seven games when all three have scored in the same game.
In 49 games since the beginning of the 2010-11 season, Sidney Crosby has 34 goals, 44 assists and 78 points. Crosby is averaging 0.69 goals per game and 1.59 points per game in those 78 games, up significantly from his career averages of 0.49 and 1.36 prior to ’10-11. Crosby enters tonight with an active 12-game point streak against the Rangers dating back to Jan. 28, 2009. He has 10 goals, 14 assists, 24 points and a 2.0 point-per-game average in those 12 contests.
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury enters Thursday's game having won eight straight decisions dating back to Feb. 18. However, because he made a relief appearance in between, officially he only has a seven-game winning streak. That’s his second-longest winning streak of the season behind the nine-game run he had from Jan. 13-Feb. 4. Fleury is 18-2-1 in his last 21 starts dating back to Jan. 13 at Florida and his 37 wins rank second in the NHL behind Nashville's Pekka Rinne (39).
Since Dec. 23, Fleury has gone 9-3-1 in his last 13 road starts. In those games he has posted a 1.99 goals-against average (25GA/755MIN) and has stopped 317-of-342 shots for a .927 save percentage.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby will return to the lineup Thursday in New York against the Rangers. Crosby, who began full contact practice a week ago, has been out of the lineup since Dec. 6 with concussion-like symptoms and a neck injury, missing the last 40 games. Click here for all of the details on Crosby's return.
Defenseman Kris Letang is also in vs. the Rangers, which he announced following Thursday's morning skate and which was confirmed by head coach Dan Bylsma.
Letang has missed the last five games with symptoms from a hit he took on Feb. 29 at Dallas. He returned to practice with his teammates on Tuesday for the first time since sustaining his injury.
Defenseman Paul Martin also returned to practice with the team. While Martin still doesn't feel 100 percent from the illness that sidelined him for the weekend's games (Friday vs. Florida; Sunday vs. Boston), he said he will be ready to play Thursday.
Goalie Brent Johnson has not practiced since March 7 with an undisclosed injury.
C Sidney Crosby, concussion-like symptoms/neck (40)
G Brent Johnson, undisclosed (10)
D Kris Letang, symptoms (5)
D Paul Martin, illness (2)
F Ryan Callahan, bruised foot (2)
D Michael Del Zotto, hip (3)
G Henrik Lundqvist, ill (1)
D Michael Sauer, concussion (45)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo