NEW YORK -- Save for a period of three days, the New York Rangers have sat atop the NHL standings since Jan. 3, a place they occupy heading into Tuesday night's game against the Nashville Predators.
The Rangers have led the Eastern Conference since the calendar flipped to 2012, the latest they've held that spot since the 1995-96 season.
Yet, there isn't an air of confidence around the club as they prepare to face the Predators (7:30 ET, NBCSP) at Madison Square Garden. Instead, there's more of a concern about rectifying their choppy play of late that has seen them drop two of three, including a truly lackluster showing in a 4-1 loss in Montreal on Sunday night.
Is it possible the Rangers, who were a heartbeat away from missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season in 2010-11, are now being held to a higher standard inside and outside their locker room?
"It's not acceptable to have a stretch of bad games. You're not going to play every game perfect. You have to find a way to bounce back, and right away without digging a hole." --Brandon Dubinsky
"I don't think it's about accountability to anyone outside the locker room," said Brandon Dubinsky, who expects to return to the lineup after missing the previous three games with a shoulder injury. "I don't think we care about the standard outside the locker room anyone holds us to. It's about the standard we hold in here for each other. We believe that we're a good team. It's not acceptable to have a stretch of bad games. You're not going to play every game perfect. You have to find a way to bounce back, and right away without digging a hole."
The Rangers are one of a handful of teams that haven't lost three straight games in regulation this season. They opened the season 0-1-2, but haven't lost three consecutive games in any fashion since. They've won 11 of 14, but they haven't been as consistent in their last four games.
Their performance against the Phoenix Coyotes on Jan. 10 was far from poor, but they allowed a late third-period goal that sent the game to overtime. They were down to their final chance in the shootout before Marian Gaborik tied it and Derek Stepan won it in the sixth round.
They followed that two nights later with a 3-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators, another good game but not the kind of complete effort that had become the norm as they rose to the top of the NHL standings.
The Rangers bounced back with a 3-0 clinic against the Maple Leafs on Saturday, but had one of their worst games of the season in that 4-1 loss to the Canadiens, the Rangers' third game in four nights.
Coach John Tortorella said that's to be expected at this time of the season, especially when things were consistently going right for the Rangers during the first half.
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"I wouldn't say we've had 40 great games," Tortorella said. "We've found ways to win games. We played better than (the score indicated) in the Ottawa game and we've found ways to win. It's just the way it goes. We're taking it day by day. Nothing's perfect. We just need to work every game and try to find ways to win."
Don't tell forward Brian Boyle that a lull is only natural at this point of the season when the Rangers have done so much winning.
"We don't expect it all," Boyle said. "We said it after the Ottawa game. We don't expect any of this. No way. We want to win every single game. We expect to. We want to win. If it happens (a bad game), you have to deal with it accordingly. We have to deal with it as a group and figure it out, but you don't expect it."
Boyle said it seems like since the Rangers have emerged as one of the League's top teams, opponents are bringing their best every time they take the ice.
"We've built an identity with the way we play, physical," Boyle said. "Outside the locker room … I guess you could say other teams, we're going to get their best. I assume that. I don't hear what other teams say, but it's part of the game. That's what we expect, they're going to come with their best when we've done what we've done. We expect teams are going to try to match that."
Dubinsky agreed with that sentiment and said getting things turned around right away against a red-hot Nashville team that's won five straight and eight of nine is important to prevent this recent scuffling turning into a bigger problem that lingers longer than it should.
"Throughout the course of an 82-game schedule, you're going to have some bad games," Dubinsky said. "What makes teams great is bouncing back from bad games and putting together a stretch of good games. Unfortunately this has seen two bumps in three games. It's a big test for us tonight. It's a good Nashville team. We have to make sure we get back to the way we play and put together a good stretch of those games.
"You're not going to win every night. It's about how quick you can get the momentum of the season back and get in the win column, because everybody will tell you it's all about confidence when you're winning and it's (lack of) confidence when you're losing. The great teams find a way to avoid those."