The Blue Jackets dropped a disappointing decision to the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night, and their schedule doesn’t get any easier. The New York Rangers ride into town for their second visit of the season as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. Heading into their Thursday night game in Boston, the Rangers have won 13 of their last 15 games, including a sweep of separate trips to California and western Canada. They are the first Eastern team to sweep the Oilers, Flames, Canucks, and California teams in one season since the 1997-98 Montreal Canadiens, ironically also led by current Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault.
The Rangers best winning run since 1973 came to a halt with a 3-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Islanders on Tuesday. Still, they’re establishing themselves as one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, seven points out of first in the conference but with multiple games in hand on everyone in the East.
Much of the Rangers success can be attributed to All-Star and former Blue Jackets captain Rick Nash, who is garnering some Hart Trophy consideration in the first half of the season. Nash is tied for the league lead in goal scoring with 26 goals heading into Thursday night. Henrik Lundqvist, who will not be going to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2008, has found his best hockey of the season over the course of the Rangers winning run. His win against the Sharks on Saturday was his 20th of the season, making him the first goaltender in NHL history to win 20 games in his first 10 seasons. With Cam Talbot slated to go against the Bruins on Thursday, it’s likely the Blue Jackets will face Lundqvist for the first time this season on Friday.
One of the keys for the Rangers recent success has been Vigneault’s ability to find some stability in the lines after shuffling for much of the first two months. That stability might be shaken a bit with first-line center Derek Stepan suffering an upper-body injury against the Islanders on Tuesday. Stepan is unlikely to play tonight in Boston but he did go on the road with the team, making his status for Friday night’s game questionable. Stepan was also injured for the last meeting between these two teams.
The Blue Jackets hosted their divisional rivals for the home opener at Nationwide Arena back on Oct. 11, a 5-2 win for Columbus. Sergei Bobrovsky outdueled Talbot in goal, and the Blue Jackets jumped on the Rangers early with first period goals from Nick Foligno and Artem Anisimov. Anisimov scored on a rocket from the high slot after jumping off the bench and sneaking into the offensive zone for a feed from Scott Hartnell, his first point at home in a Jackets uniform. Foligno’s tally was a bit more difficult, winning a battle off the half-wall, driving to the net, and jamming in a rebound from his knees as he slid into Talbot.
Lee Stempniak pulled the Rangers within a goal with his first of the season in the second period, but that was as close as the Rangers would come thanks to two Cam Atkinson goals and the first of Marko Dano’s NHL career.
Chris Kreider’s rare combination of size (6-foot-3, 226 lbs.) and blazing speed makes him a threat whenever he’s on the ice, but his inconsistency has been frustrating for the Rangers. Kreider hasn’t spent any time in the AHL like he did for the past two seasons, but he has still seen peaks and valleys in his production when his talent level should make him a constant contributor. Between November 9th and Decmber 29th, Kreider had only one goal in 19 games. Luckily for New York, Kreider appears to be finding his game again, recording three goals and five points in the past six games. Kreider’s compete level has spiked in recent weeks, and his numbers have climbed along with them. Kreider is a dangerous player already, and he has another level he can reach.
After realizing last season that Michael Del Zotto wasn’t meshing with Vigneault’s system, the Rangers decided to trade him. That deal brought in defenseman Kevin Klein, likely thinking they were trading offensive potential for defensive stability. As fate would have it, they may have gotten the more lethal end of the trade. Klein is having a career season with eight goals and 15 points, already a career high in goals and six points shy of another career high. Klein also was a legitimate force on the Rangers’ trip through California and has a goal and four points in his last six games. Klein has three game-winning goals this year, two in overtime. Klein is playing with an offensive confidence and assertiveness that we’ve never seen from his game. Needless to say, the Blue Jackets aren’t the only team getting surprising contributions from the back end.
Richards was upset after his team’s loss to the Canadiens, and with good reason. The Jackets surrendered a 2-0 lead in the third period by giving up three power play goals in under four minutes. The frustration stems not only the execution on the kill against the league’s 27th ranked power play, but the fact that the team took three penalties in succession at that late point in the game. The Jackets can’t afford to do that against the Rangers, whose power play is 6-for-15 (40 percent) in the past six games while improving to ninth in the league overall. The focus won’t be on whose special teams are better, but rather on Columbus having the discipline to keep the Rangers’ attack off the ice. With the Jackets’ recent struggles to generate shots, consistent time killing and Lundqvist in the opposing crease is not a recipe for success.