But with the way the Rangers are playing of late, just about any opponent represents a significant challenge.
Rangers coach John Tortorella said Saturday morning his team was running out of time to figure things out this season and meet the heavy expectations placed on a group that was expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. Instead, the Rangers are clinging to the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers remained in eighth by virtue of the New York Islanders' 2-0 loss against the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the day, but the 10th-place Carolina Hurricanes won 3-1 against the Winnipeg Jets to pull within a point of the Rangers and Islanders.
And that is the message Tortorella wants his team to understand: In spite of winning once in their past five games, and scoring three goals in the four losses, the Rangers remain in a playoff spot.
"Nobody's happy about it, everybody's frustrated, but we're still in the thick of things," Tortorella said. "When they wake up tomorrow they've got to realize we're still in the thick of things. Things change pretty quickly if we just get some sort of success as we keep on going."
The precariousness of their position appears clear to the Rangers players, and they face a huge stretch that could make or break their season. Of the Rangers' next seven games, four are taken up by home-and-home matchups with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs. The other three games are against the Jets, Hurricanes and Islanders -- all teams they are fighting for a playoff spot.
"It's definitely something we're thinking about," Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. "Now's the time you start looking at the standings and realizing where you're at. I don't know if it's a fear, but there definitely needs to be that urgency. Everybody in here realizes it, we just have to go out there and do it on the ice."
In the other dressing room, things could not be much better for a Canadiens team that doesn't appear to care that they are still considered by many to not be legitimate contenders despite having seven regulation losses in 34 games, the lowest total in the Eastern Conference and tied for second-lowest in the NHL.
"They are a tough team to contain, but when we're sticking to our game plan and playing the way we want to play we frustrate teams," said Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, who matched a season high with three assists. "I think we did a good job of moving the puck out of our zone. They got some good chances early but we rebounded and continued to move the puck out of our zone as a five-man unit. I think that was the difference."
Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher added goals for the Canadiens (22-7-5), who increased their lead in the Northeast Division to three points over the Boston Bruins, who lost 3-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers earlier Saturday.
The Rangers (16-15-3) dropped their eighth straight game at Bell Centre dating to a 4-3 shootout win March 17, 2009, and they were again stymied by a Canadiens team that allowed them to score one goal in three meetings this season.
Martin Biron, despite allowing three goals on 26 shots, was perhaps the Rangers' best player. The Canadiens did not pepper him with shots, but the quality was far greater than the quantity.
Price made a number of fine stops, but the bulk of them were on shots from the perimeter as he improved his save percentage against New York to .987 in three games and earned his third shutout of the season, with two coming at the expense of the Rangers.
"Probably the best game I've ever seen him play since being on this team, that's for sure," said Canadiens forward Brandon Prust, who returned to the lineup after missing eight games with a separated shoulder. "He made some huge stops. You know we did a good job in front in clearing rebounds and blocking shots, but we can't take that much credit for some of the stops that he made."
Subban's second three-point night of the season gave him a goal and four assists in his past two games, and 27 points in 28 games overall, pulling him to within one of League-leaders Kris Letang of the Penguins and Ryan Suter of the Minnesota Wild in defenseman scoring.
With 14 games remaining, Subban is 11 points shy of his career-best total of 38 in 77 games in his rookie season in 2010-11.
"He's playing good hockey," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "He's confident, I like his attitude, he wants to learn. We're asking him to be responsible with and without the puck, and it's an area of his game where he's improved. He's playing inspired hockey."
For a Rangers team that spoke prior to the game of how it needed to bounce back following a disappointing 3-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday, things could not have started much worse.
The team botched its first line change, leaving Ryder with an entire sheet of ice ahead of him to skate to the net. His initial shot didn't hit the target, but as the Rangers were still scrambling to get back in position, Ryder managed to get to the puck while surrounded by three defenders and beat Biron five-hole at the 47-second mark.
It was Ryder's fifth goal in his past five games, and he has seven goals and seven assists in the 14 games since he was acquired from the Dallas Stars on Feb. 26 in a trade for Erik Cole.
The Rangers had a 10-3 lead in shots on goal through the first half of the first period, and got their fair share of quality chances. J.T. Miller was robbed by Price on an excellent chance from the slot off a setup by Callahan at 11:58, and Marian Gaborik was turned aside on a breakaway at 16:28.
"In the first period we stayed with it after a fluky goal to start the game," Tortorella said. "If we score on a couple of our chances – [Gaborik] had a breakaway – it may change the complexion [of the game]. If you score that goal it changes the complexion, but we're just not getting that done."
Instead, it was the Canadiens who went to the first intermission with a 2-0 lead when Plekanec came down on a 2-on-1 with Subban and put a slap shot past Biron inside the far post at 18:11.
Montreal got the bulk of the chances early in the second, but it was a rather obvious goaltender interference penalty on Rick Nash that ultimately cost New York when a rebound off a Subban point shot was put home by Gallagher for the rookie's 11th of the season to make it 3-0.
"In the second we had some chances to make it 2-1," Rangers center Brad Richards said, "then they get the third one and it's a bigger hill to climb."
The Rangers, who had scored three goals or more in 60 minutes twice in their previous nine games, appeared somewhat resigned to the fact they wouldn't do it in 20 minutes of the third.
Ultimately they didn't score one, extending their streak without a goal to 127:47.
"We had a lot of good chances, some big saves, posts," Richards said. "It's just the way we are right now. It happens to many teams, but it's tough. I can't lie to you, I can't fake it. It's really tough."
|P.K. Subban Interference against Derek Stepan|
|Kris Newbury Boarding against Francis Bouillon|
|Rick Nash Interference on goalkeeper against Carey Price|