The Blue Jackets have wins in two of their last three on this road trip, and tonight, they make their first trip to Madison Square Garden this season to take on the New York Rangers. The Rangers have points in seven straight games and 10 of the last 11, and they now sit second in the Metropolitan Division.
The Rangers have been without franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist for the past nine games, but they continue to win hockey games. That’s in part thanks to the play of backup goaltender Cam Talbot, who has performed well in the first extended duty of his career. Talbot started eight straight games for the Rangers (5-1-2), but the Rangers have still experienced some goaltending adventures and loose defensive play in that stretch, six times surrendering three goals or more.
Fortunately for the Rangers, they’ve been out-gunning that impressive scoring pace, netting 37 goals over the last nine games and scoring at least five goals in four straight road wins, including a third period comeback against the first-place Islanders. Rick Nash continues to drive the offense as he battles Alex Ovechkin for the Rocket Richard Trophy. Nash has four goals in his last five games, giving him 37 for the season.
With Martin St. Louis recently emerging from his scoring slump (two goals in three games after a 15-game drought), his line with Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan gives the Rangers two legitimate scoring units.
The Rangers topped the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Jan. 19, a 2-1 decision backstopped by Henrik Lundqvist’s 35 saves. Lundqvist had to be at his best after Scott Hartnell’s third period goal sparked a furious flurry from the Blue Jackets in which they out-shot New York 12-2, but Columbus wasn’t able to get one more past the Rangers goaltender.
The Rangers opened the scoring in the second period when one of Sergei Bobrovsky’s 24 saves worked against him. Bobrovsky kicked a rebound to the slot that hit off the shin guard of Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, caromed back through a mess of legs and through those of Bobrovsky to give the Rangers the lead. Four minutes later, Chris Kreider doubled the lead on the breakaway, snagging an alley-oop pass from Derek Stepan and racing in on Bobrovsky to slide the backhander through.
Mats Zuccarello had a fairly quiet start to the season after last year’s roaring second half skating with Barassard and Benoit Pouliot. With Pouliot’s departure and Alain Vigneault’s line-shuffling, there were adjustments to be made once again. Zuccarello seems right at home of late with Brassard and Nash, and he has five goals and 11 points in his past 11 games, a stretch that also included a seven-game points streak. Zuccarello’s pending unrestricted free agency this summer had some contemplating his future with the Blueshirts. While that still is unresolved, Alain Vigneault has gone to bat for his winger saying that he wants Zuccarello re-signed. It’s not surprising since Zuccarello is playing his best hockey of the season at the right time.
When you’re going punch-for-punch in the scoring race with Alex Ovechkin, chances are you’re having a pretty good scoring run. Rick Nash certainly has been, and he’s on pace to shatter his career-high in goals (40) set with Columbus during the 2008-09 season. Nash has nine goals and 15 points in his last 11 games and has been a catalyst for the Rangers’ recent offensive eruption. It would be fair to argue that Nash has been hot for the entire season, not once going more than three games without at least one goal. Nash is using his size and strength and playing with more confidence than at any other time in his New York tenure, and he’s making those around him better.
Track Meet Retreat
It’s a common mantra that teams don’t want to let the game "turn into a track meet.” The Rangers have spoken of late about tightening up defensively in front of Talbot, as they should, but this Rangers team is at its most lethal when it is forcing a 200-foot speed game. They'd be more than happy to see this game take a turn for the run-and-gun. Because of that, the Blue Jackets forecheck and physical play on the offensive side of the red line becomes as important as ever. If the Rangers are able to breakout easily and are able to stretch the neutral zone, it’s going to be a long night for the Jackets. If they can keep pressure on the Rangers defense, they can create opportunities against a Blueshirts team that is without Lundqvist and has been inconsistent defensively.