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Rangers host Penguins in key division game

New York leads Pittsburgh, winners of seven of eight, by four points in Metropolitan Division

by Arpon Basu @arponbasu / Managing Editor

PENGUINS (41-25-8) at RANGERS (43-24-8)

TV: 7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports

MONTREAL -- The New York Rangers want home-ice advantage in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they have a golden opportunity Sunday to greatly increase their chances of achieving that goal.

But they will need to beat one of the hottest teams in the NHL to do it.

The Rangers host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports) with a chance to open up a six-point gap on the Penguins for second place in the Metropolitan Division with a win in regulation time. New York's four-point advantage can drop to two points with a regulation loss Sunday.

"We want that No. 2 seed in our division," Rangers center Derick Brassard said after a 5-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. "[The Penguins] are playing some really good hockey; they're probably one of the best teams in the League right now. It's just going to be fun to play in front of our fans, it's going to be a great atmosphere out there."

The Penguins are coming off a 7-2 home win against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday, their seventh win in their past eight games. 

The Rangers and Penguins did not play this season until Feb. 10, when the Rangers won 3-0 in Pittsburgh. The Penguins have won the past two games between the teams, 4-1 at home on March 3 and 5-3 in New York on March 13.

"I think we've played all our games against Pittsburgh this month, so we know them fairly well," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We know their skill level, their speed, their defensive transition from defense to offense. So it should be a real fun game to be a part of."

The Penguins' recent stretch of success is not a surprise to Brassard, who said the real source of it is not only star players like Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury, but a supporting cast that has given them better balance.

"They have a different team from two years ago," Brassard said. "They still have their exceptional players like Crosby and Letang and [Evgeni] Malkin, even if he's hurt. But they've added players on their third and fourth lines who aren't big, but they can skate and it fits well with their group."

The Rangers have been tinkering with their forward combinations lately in an attempt to effectively incorporate center Eric Staal in the group. Staal, acquired in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 28, has one goal and two assists in 13 games with the Rangers.

Vigneault said he was encouraged with the combinations he put together against the Canadiens, with Staal centering a line with Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast, Brassard playing between Chris Kreider and Rick Nash, and Derek Stepan between J.T. Miller and Mats Zuccarello.  

"I liked a lot of the things from the four lines," Vigneault said. "But there was a lot of specialty teams, especially in the third [period], so I think probably [Sunday] is going to be a better test to see how those lines shape up."

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