Rangers Quarter Mark Observations

Some thoughts as the Rangers near the one-quarter mark of their season:

1. Henrik Lundqvist will get his eighth consecutive start in goal against Columbus Friday two nights after his and the team’s six-game winning streak ended in Chicago.

One thing coach Alain Vigneault didn’t do before this season was place a limit on the number of starts for his 35-year-old goaltender. We all know that Lundqvist wants to play pretty much every game and that when he gets on a roll, he wants to keep playing … even if he realizes and understands that he needs to keep some fuel in the tank for the postseason.

But one of the benefits of the NHL’s decision to not go to the Olympics this winter is that the regular season schedule eases up. Remember, last season the schedule was condensed due to the World Cup of Hockey.

So this season, the Rangers will play only 11 sets of back-to-back games (compared to 16 last season). Lundqvist likes the challenge of playing both games in back-to-backs. Having done it 79 times in his career, he has an impressive 51-21-7 record, a 2.02 goals-against average, a .930 save percentage and nine shutouts in the second games.

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The misnamed “bye week” (thank you, NFL, for that) remains in the NHL’s regular season, giving all teams a breather – the Rangers will have two breaks, of five and six days between games in January.

2. Defenseman Brendan Smith will return to the lineup after being scratched for six games in a row. His difficult start got him a turn on the sidelines, but then it became complicated by the Rangers’ six-game winning streak without him.

Vigneault rarely changes lineups after victories, and he has said he felt Steven Kampfer played well enough to deserve to remain in the lineup during the streak, so Smith continued to sit, the longest inactive streak of his career.

But the bottom line is this: The Rangers need Smith to be the player he has always been, and the player he was late last season after being acquired from Detroit, and especially in the playoffs. The bottom line is they signed him for four years and $17.4 million for a reason. And the Rangers are a better team with Smith, playing the way he needs to play, not only in the lineup but in a top-four role.

3. Something’s amiss when San Jose’s Timo Meier is fined $2,403.67 for viciously and intentionally butt-ending Michael Del Zotto in the mouth, when Buffalo’s Marco Scandella is fined $5,000 for a baseball-swing slash to the legs of Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist … and when the Rangers’ Kevin Hayes is fined $5,000 for squirting water at an opponent in Tampa Bay.

4. As always in Rangers-land, but especially in a “rebuild-on-the-fly” season, in the words of GM Jeff Gorton, speculation runs wild about whether the Rangers will/should be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. Certainly, Gorton has a plan and certainly given the rebuild, to whatever degree, he will explore all options.

Given the parity in the Eastern Conference, and especially in the Metropolitan Division, though, it would be patently absurd to assume any team will be out of the race or that any team will be comfortably in the playoffs by the February 26 trade deadline. Thus, there won’t be any obvious “buy or sell” teams.

As they approach the end of the first quarter of the 82-game season, before Friday’s games, seven points separated first place (Devils, Pittsburgh) from eighth place (Carolina) in the Metro, and it would be a tad surprising, to say the least, if New Jersey continued its 114-point pace.

The Rangers, despite their 1-5-2/3-7-2 start, are five points out of first and three points out of third place (the automatic playoff berth, before wild cards).

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