The Rangers battle Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday night at the Garden. Not that the previous two wins haven't been nice, but it's games against the league's elite, like Pittsburgh, that separate the true contenders from the merely "good" teams that scrape into the bottom half of the playoff bracket. Another win against the Pens could send a signal that the Rangers are ready to become the former rather than the latter. Here are three factors to watch for when the action starts.
Who Is That Masked Man?
Both of the potential goalies tonight have had up-and-down moments of late. The Pens’ Marc-Andre Fleury got off to an atrocious starts this season, allowing an uncharacteristic 23 goals in his first seven starts. But since getting yanked Nov. 6 against Phoenix, The Flower has blossomed into his old save-and-a-beauty self, allowing more than two goals just twice in his past eight starts.
Henrik Lundqvist battled his own stretch of bad starts recently, a span that began after his sensational performance in the Rangers’ 3-2 OT win over the Pens Nov. 15. The King surrendered three goals in 32 minutes before getting pulled in Colorado and then yielded five goals to Tampa Bay in his next start. His past two performances have been back to his usual stellar standard -- a shutout over Florida and a shootout win against Nashville Saturday. Monday’s game would be Lundqvist’s third in four days however, so it may be that Martin Biron earns the start, particularly given his hot play of late (three goals allowed in two wins over Minnesota and Calgary).
Rangers rookie Derek Stepan saw his point streak snapped at six games against Nashville, but he’s been heating up and seems like he may be turning a corner after struggling since his opening-night hat trick. He has three goals and six assists in the past eight games, playing to a plus-2 rating over that stretch. One area to keep a close eye on for Stepan is the faceoff circle. He’s been simply dreadful at the dot (37.6 percent), which isn’t uncommon for rookie centers, but it is a reason that head coach John Tortorella may not always want to roll the rook with the top line. Your best offensive players don’t do you much good is they’re skating backwards.
Formerly injured D Michal Rozsival skated a little over 22 minutes in his return to the lineup against Nashville, producing one shot on goal with an even +/- rating. The Rangers’ D has been okay without him, thanks largely to the improved play of Steve Eminger, who looks like a new man this season. Rozsival’s return will likely help spell Matt Gilroy, who played just over five minutes against Nashville and skated just one shift in the third period.