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Hot teams collide as Rangers visit Lightning

by Matthew Mankiewich /

RANGERS (22-14-2) at LIGHTNING (22-11-5)

TV -- MSG (HD); SUN (HD)

Last 10
-- New York 6-3-1, Tampa Bay 7-1-2

Season series -- It's the third of four games, with the first two both going Tampa Bay's way, the latest a 4-3 11-round shootout win at Madison Square Garden last Thursday. The two wins stopped a three-game Ranger winning streak over the Lightning and guarantee at least a split for the first time since 2007-08, the Rangers having taken three of four in the ensuing two seasons.

Big story -- He hasn't done it with HBO camera crews following his every move, but Steven Stamkos has kept pace with Sidney Crosby in the goal column. A four-game goal streak puts him at 31 goals at the end of 2010, one behind Crosby and a mere nine points behind him for the league lead. The Rangers bounced back from Thursday's loss by manhandling both local rivals, routing the Islanders 7-2 on Monday and be-Deviling New Jersey 3-1 on Wednesday.

Team Scope

-- If December seemed to be a good month for the Rangers, it was. The Blueshirts posted an 8-3-1 record and made their presence felt in the Eastern Conference race, due primarily to contributions up and down the roster.

But sometimes it's the coach, too. Early in the Devils game, John Tortorella picked up on why New Jersey was hemming them in for most of the first period.

"[The Devils] obviously scouted us pretty thoroughly, because they were taking away our passes up the strong-side wall, which is the way we like to come out, and were keeping us pinned in that way," forward Brandon Dubinsky told the New York Post. "They were cutting off our lanes, we were forcing it even when there was nothing there, so we were forced back and pinned.

"Torts told us to adjust to that, to simplify our game, be patient and not to force it. They still came hard at us, but we simplified things a bit and were able to refocus and make some changes."

Lightning -- Like the Rangers, the Lightning know that winning consistently entails getting everyone in on the action, sometimes earlier than planned.

Cedrick Desjardins wasn't supposed to be thrust into a starter's role right after being called up, but there he was making his NHL debut against the organization that drafted and traded him, the Montreal Canadiens. But a minor knee sprain to Mike Smith meant he got the nod ahead of schedule, spelling an overworked Dan Ellis.

"It's kind of Hollywood to play them my first game," Desjardins said. "They gave me my chance at 20 years old and I'll always be respectful for that. It's a day I won't forget."

It was almost Amateur Night at the Apollo as the first shot he faced went into the net just 58 seconds into the game. But he bounced back to the next 27 shots and seal a 4-1 win, a four-point performance by Stamkos helping out a little. The win put them ahead of the Capitals for first place in the Southeast Division, tied for points but with a game in hand. The Caps, of course, have that big outdoor party going on Saturday night.

Who's hot -- It's not just Stamkos piling up the points. Martin St. Louis, the NHL's third-leading scorer, has nine points over a four-game point streak, and has 5 goals and 8 assists over his last seven. … Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped a season-high 43 shots in New Jersey and had a 7-2-1 December. Dubinsky has 12 points in his last 12 games and leads the Rangers with 16 goals and 32 points. Rookie Derek Stepan has 6 points during a five-game streak.

Injury report -- Rangers forward Erik Christensen is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a knee injury suffered Wednesday. Derek Boogaard (shoulder) remains out indefinitely while Ryan Callahan (broken hand) is still several weeks away. … For the Bolts, goalie Mike Smith's left knee MCL sprain will likely keep him out until mid-January. Forward Steve Downie (high ankle sprain) has resumed practicing with a red no-contact jersey and may be ready soon.

Stat pack -- The Montreal game was Stamkos' third four-point night this season; he now has 10 goals in his last 10 games. Tampa Bay's 8-3-2 mark this past month is the best December the franchise has ever had, and only the second winning one. They went 7-5-1 in 1995-96. … Defenseman Pavel Kubina's goal in the Montreal game was his first since Oct. 14 and 67th with the Lightning, moving him past Dan Boyle as the franchise's leading goal scorer among defensemen.

Puck drop -- "It's all about finding a way to win these types of games. Hank gave us a chance with his play and then we got better as the game went on. We're not going to be perfect every night. There are going to be nights like this. They controlled it on us early on, but our goalie gave us a chance." -- Tortorella on Lundqvist's contribution Wednesday

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