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Crucial Stretch for Rangers Begins Tuesday Night in Pittsburgh

Plus Zibanejad Update; Pavelec's Schedule

by Matt Calamia @MattCalamia / NYRangers.com

The Rangers begin a stretch of three straight games against Metropolitan Division teams currently ahead of them in the standings. And while Christmas is still three weeks away, the importance of these games at this stage of the season is evident in a division that is expected to be a dog race through the season's conclusion in April.

"Our division is insane," Marc Staal said of the Metro, which has its top seven teams separated by eight points entering play Monday night. "It's going to be like that all year long, so divisional games are that much more important to get points and keep trying to climb in the standings. Every few games you're in and you're out, and I think with our division, it's going to stay like that. So we've got to take advantage of some opportunities against those teams."

New York opens a modest two-game road trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh that's followed by a back-to-back set Friday in Washington before a home game Saturday night against the Devils.

But the Rangers aren't looking beyond the task at hand Tuesday night against a Penguins team that's 6-3-1 in its last 10 games, including four straight victories from goaltender Tristan Jarry in the absence of the injured No. 1 netminder Matt Murray.

Sidney Crosby, meanwhile, has points in nine of his last 10 games, including goals five straight.

"We've played that team a lot over the years," Henrik Lundqvist said of Pittsburgh. "Their core group is obviously extremely good. They have a bunch of forwards that play a big part of their success. 

"We have to be on top of it, no question about it," he said. "They're a great team even though they've been a little up and down this year. I feel like this last stretch here they've been picking up their game. You really have to respect their speed and their skill."

Is there any benefit to seeing players like Crosby, Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin on a more regular basis? Do their opponents pick up pieces of their games over the years?

"Other than the fact that we know how good they are and that if we're not on top of our game in all facets - both defensively and offensively - they can make us look real bad?" said coach Alain Vigneault. "We're going to have to be ready and we're going to have to be ready to execute and compete real hard."

With players of that caliber, Vigneault said all teams just hope to limit their opportunities in the offensive zone. More often than not, teams know they'll get their chances, but if they're successful, the chances won't be high-quality.

"There's no doubt - and I've said this many times when we've played against them - you can't stop Crosby or Malkin, Kessel; they're going to get some looks," he said. "You just hope that the looks they're getting are from a decent situation and a decent place. You work real hard and you hope you earn your looks, too, offensively."

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Vigneault said injured forward Mika Zibanejad was at the MSG Training Center on Monday and was riding the stationary bike as he continues to go through concussion protocol. There remains no timetable for his return to the lineup.

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The Rangers' schedule picks up in December, with 13 games in 29 days, including a pair of back-to-backs starting this weekend that begins a stretch of six games in nine nights.

Vigneault said backup goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is "definitely going to play" during that nine-day stretch, though when and where was unsure. Vigneault added he'd like Pavelec to get "at least two" starts. Pavelec has started three games this year and is 1-4-0 in six games overall. 

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