The Rangers are in Columbus tonight to face the Blue Jackets for the third of four meetings of the regular season.
Each team has managed a win on home ice and the Blueshirts look to break that trend with a victory at Nationwide Arena. Both teams have played 19 games and Columbus holds the third spot in the uber-competitive Metro Division with 23 points, while the Rangers sit a point below the Mason-Dixon wild-card playoff line with 20 points.
In Chicago on Wednesday, a sudden storm surge lasting all of one minute and forty-five seconds of playing time, late in the second period to early in the third, turned a 1-0 Rangers lead into a 3-1 Rangers deficit.
The hits would keep on coming and the Rangers found themselves on the losing end of a 6-3 count.
Bouncing pucks, lost defensive zone coverage, and failure to protect Henrik Lundqvist and his crease would see the Rangers lose for the first time in their last seven games. This loss reaffirmed that their play in the defensive zone will ultimately determine the outcome of a vast majority of Ranger games.
At the quarter pole, the recent string of better play has lifted the Rangers back into the competitive race that is the Eastern Conference. I can only paraphrase Lundqvist’s recent sentiments that, while this streak has allowed the team to breathe a little bit easier, the work is by no stretch of the imagination over. They are, as we speak, not a playoff team. At this point, Tampa Bay looks to be the cream of the crop. Beyond that, excluding perhaps Buffalo and maybe Florida, there are 13 teams that may have various issues but all have legitimate playoff aspirations.
The Blueshirts, one of the 13, need to stay involved.
3 KEYS TO RANGERS-BLUE JACKETS
1. In Front of Hank
The lack of coverage around and on top of Henrik cost the Rangers dearly in the last outing against the Blackhawks. Better positioning, and paying attention to where the danger lies, needs to be better given that Columbus likes to generate chances in those contested areas of the ice.
Smith’s return to the lineup should provide a little more grit especially in the Rangers end of the ice. The veteran, a healthy scratch for the past six games who will be paired with Mark Staal, must be patient and not try to reinvent his game every time he touches the puck.
The Blue Jackets have struggled to score of late, but have managed to win their last two outings in overtime due to spectacular play for netminder Sergei Bobrovsky. Henrik will be called upon to match his opponent and certainly has the pedigree to do such. Should be a great matchup.