Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are two teams heading in opposite directions.
New York has won three straight games, allowing a total of four goals, and Henrik Lundqvist appears to have put his struggles behind him.
The Philadelphia Flyers are coming off a 3-2 overtime win against the New York Islanders on Sunday in Brooklyn, but they've lost 12 of their past 16 (4-9-3). Philadelphia is one point out of the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference; the Rangers own the first wild card and are trying to move up the Metropolitan Division.
The Flyers (23-19-6) visit the Rangers (31-16-1) at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. E.T.; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: Let's start with the great play of Wayne Simmonds, who's been named an All-Star. Claude Giroux and Jake Voracek are still producing offensively. But a guy who's instrumental to their success and doesn't always get the publicity is Brayden Schenn. He plays in all situations and can play multiple positions. I just like his game.
Rookie Ivan Provorov has been incredible on defense. I was the president of the Shayne Gostisbehere fan club but it's been a tough year for him. He was a healthy scratch a few times and is a better player than he's shown this season, but Provorov has be a playmaker. It's a big advantage for their forwards when they have a guy on the back end who can get them the puck.
Video: PHI@NYI: Simmonds goes top shelf off fortunate bounce
Minuses: There's been a lot of inconsistency with them all season long. They go on a 10-game winning streak and follow that with four wins in 16 games (4-9-3). That is too step a drop-off. You can't have a streak like that and play this poorly. I understand there will be some market correction, but even play .500 hockey and it'd be fine.
Now that Michal Neuvirth is healthy and Steve Mason has played so much hockey, I don't think their goaltending should be a challenge for them. They'll have to be great down the stretch and in the second half.
The Flyers also have to cut down on their goals against; they rank 28th in the League, allowing 3.13 per game.
Pluses: Lundqvist has been much better in the past week. He's allowed four goals in his past three starts, including a 1-0 shutout at the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday. He's been more patient, which is something he talks about. Two saves he made on Monday against the Los Angeles Kings, both on Jeff Carter, show how he's improved his technique.
The Rangers have also done a better job defensively, starting with the game at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and then in the Red Wings' game. They allowed 21 shots on goal to Detroit. The Kings dominated possession Monday but even still, the Rangers are blocking shots and contesting shots a little bit more.
Mika Zibanejad (17 points in 23 games) and Pavel Buchnevich (14 points in 16 games) coming back from injuries has been a huge plus for the Rangers. I like the line of Zibanejad centering Buchnevich and Rick Nash. I'm not sure if they'll stay together, but they have looked good. Michael Grabner has 21 goals and all but one has been at even strength. He's the free-agent signing of the year so far, in my opinion.
And props to Alain Vigneault, who recently became the 18th coach to coach 1,100 NHL games. He's done a nice job with a lot of new bodies on this team.
Video: DAL@NYR: Zibanejad scores in return from injury
Minuses: Kevin Hayes will be out 2-3 weeks with a lower-body injury. He has 13 goals and 35 points in 47 games and has done it all for them with five power-play points, five shorthanded points and three game-winning goals.
What's baffling to me is that when the Rangers win, a lot of times they have won big, but too many times they have lost big. I'd expect them to be involved in close games when they lose, and I don't understand big losses it for a team that's this good.
The Rangers also are not an overly physical team. They rely on their speed. It was a surprise to see Kevin Klein have a fight against Brayden McNabb on Monday. New York has seven fighting majors, third fewest in the League.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The speed of the Rangers, especially on the forecheck and in the transition game.
2. The physicality of the Flyers. Can they make life miserable for Lundqvist in front of his net?
3. It looks like Lundqvist's game is back on track. Can he keep it going against the Flyers?