The Rangers host Tampa Bay this evening and it marks the return of former Ranger stalwarts Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and J.T. Miller.
This is Tampa’s only visit to The Garden so this will mark the debut in a Lightning uniform for all three. The teams have split the two previous games, both played in Tampa Bay. While in a Blueshirt, Miller scored the OT-winner in early November to give the Rangers at the time, a much-needed 2-1 victory. In early March, the Lighting overwhelmed the Rangers in the first period and coasted to a 5-3 win.
Tampa Bay is in a dogfight with Boston for first place in the Eastern Conference while the Rangers look to continue to play a spirited, competitive game.
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According to Larry Brooks of the New York Post, since the 2010-11 season, there has been no defensive pair in the league that has spent more time together on the ice then the re-united McDonagh-Girardi combo. The John Tortorella years were hard ones on both defensemen when shot-blocking and grinding were the keys to defending. Girardi likely epitomized that style best and the undrafted defender would be acknowledged for his honest, effective play by representing the Rangers at the 2012 All-Star Game.
McDonagh looked poised to take the next step to elite status when he led the Blueshirts to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. Injuries likely played the key role in stalling that progress up the food chain, yet he remains one of the elite defenders in the game today. Both would grow to be key components of a winning culture. When a franchise enjoys extended success as the Rangers did – when McDonagh and Girardi were eating minutes – quality parts are taken for granted. Only in the absence of those parts is the value truly recognized. While it is important to acknowledge that any part is replaceable, it will be a while before the parts known as Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are replaced on the Rangers blueline.
They are to be always remembered as great Rangers.
The Rangers are coming off a tough overtime loss to Washington. Staked to a late 2-1 third-period lead on a goal by Ryan Spooner, the Caps would tie the score even later in regulation to send the game into overtime.
There has been some criticism of the play of young Neal Pionk on the game-tying goal. In all due candor, with a little more NHL-experienced blueline or with the team in the hunt for something beyond respect, Pionk is most likely not on the ice in that situation. Not yet, anyway. That being said, as his career moves on, Pionk will read the situation differently realizing that the danger player was not the opponent behind him but the player who was in that crucial scoring area on top of the crease. Pionk has shown great promise with terrific offensive instincts. Moving forward, throw some acquired knowledge into his repertoire and the Rangers will have an important three-zone player in Neal Pionk.
[Read: Getting to Know Neal Pionk]
1. Force the Pace
Tampa was beaten last night in Boston, 4-2, in an electric match played with playoff intensity. The Rangers need to dictate the pace of this game with quick puck movement and even quicker feet.
Against Washington, the Rangers showed much better d-zone play with minimalized chasing and good patience. As a result, there was less time spent in the defensive zone, which will be equally important against this very good Lightning opponent.
Held off the scoresheet against the Caps after a good run, the Rangers top line will seek to continue to set the pace for the rest of this season with committed three-zone play. Leaders need to be leaders.
[Watch Rangers-Lightning Friday on MSG & MSG GO. Download the app for free.]