PITTSBURGH – Everything about the New York Rangers is better this season than it was a year ago.
They are 25-9-4 for a NHL-best 54 points after 38 games, or eight more points than they had at this stage a season ago, when they were 22-14-2. They are leading the Atlantic Division, and they have one more point than Boston in the Eastern Conference standings.
Their goaltending tandem of Henrik Lundqvist (17-7-4, 1.92 goals-against average) and Martin Biron (8-2, 2.06 goals-against average) is one of the League’s best. They’re getting scoring up and down their lineup; right wing Marian Gaborik already has more goals (23) than the 22 he had last season.
Center Brad Richards has been a great pickup, getting 14 goals and 30 points in 38 games. Derek Stepan, who centers the No. 2 line, has 8 goals and 18 assists and is a plus-12. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto is a plus-25.
But to Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, whose team plays the Rangers on Friday night at Consol Energy Center, the most striking difference in the Rangers from the team that finished eighth in the Eastern Conference a year ago is their upgraded speed.
“I think that’s a significant difference this year with their team from the past. If you’re looking at the Rangers, they’re playing much quicker this year. It was a factor in our first game against them,” Bylsma said, referring to a 4-3 Rangers victory on Nov. 29. “When you scout them, you see the quickness with which they are attacking and generating speed, counter attacking. It puts teams in trouble. In addition to that, they’ve been a tough team to handle on the forecheck in the offensive zone. Now with that speed and counter attack, they’re a factor with their skilled players and others. They’re a handful.”
New York hopes to rely on that speed during the first of its three games at Consol this season. While they’re playing for the second time in as many nights – they beat the Florida Panthers 3-2 in overtime at Madison Square Garden on Thursday – the Penguins are playing for the first time in six days. They’ve been off since losing at New Jersey 3-1 on New Year’s Eve.
The Rangers held at optional skate Friday morning. Their probable lineup:
Artem Anisimov – Derek Stepan – Marian Gaborik
Brandon Dubinsky – Brad Richards – Ryan Callahan
Carl Hagelin – Brian Boyle – Ruslan Fedotenko
John Mitchell – Mike Rupp – Brandon Prust
Ryan McDonagh – Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto – Anton Stralman
Marc Staal – Stu Bickel
Lundqvist is expected to be in goal as he rides a five-game winning streak, and he has allowed only six goals during the streak. Biron would be the backup.