It is redundant, of course, to say games at this time of year are big when it comes to the standings. That's the case for any team with anything on the line with less than four weeks to go in the regular season.
But in the case of the New York Rangers, this is a week that may tell the tale of their topsy-turvy season. They have head-to-head matchups against the two teams they're chasing for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, tonight at home against Montreal and Sunday in Boston on national TV.
Sandwiched between those two clashes is a visit from St. Louis on Thursday. Following that game with the Blues, the Rangers play eight of their final 11 games on the road to close out the regular season.
"It's pretty big," Rangers captain Chris Drury told ESPN.com on Monday. "Especially coming into Sunday's game [a 3-1 win over Philadelphia] knowing we had three at home, it was set up pretty good for us this week with no back-to-back games and no travel. These are things good teams take advantage of. We did a good job Sunday, but certainly there's some more coming at us here. ...
"Knowing what's down the road in terms of road games, that makes this week's homestand crucial."
The Rangers are five points behind the Habs with a game in hand and one point behind the Bruins with Boston holding the game in hand on New York.
First things first: the red-hot Canadiens. Montreal followed up an impressive 3-1-0 road trip after the Olympic break with three straight wins at home, including Saturday's 3-2 victory over the visiting Bruins. Drury has kept an eye on the Habs.
"I'm just impressed with how they did on that road trip and battling back in that one game when they were down 3-0 in Anaheim," Drury said. "We go to bed thinking it's 3-1 for the Ducks. You wake up and [Montreal] won 4-3 in a shootout. To come away with what they did on that trip, you couldn't help but notice. So it'll be a tough test for us."
What the Rangers need tonight against Montreal is Sean Avery to show up again after his two-goal, under-your-skin performance that helped the Rangers beat the rival Flyers on Sunday.
"The biggest thing is, even if he didn't score [Sunday], he was playing straight ahead, getting pucks deep, finishing checks, just playing like we know he can," Drury said. "But certainly the two goals were a big boost for us."
The Canadiens and Rangers have a lot in common this season. They've driven their fans nuts at times with inconsistent play. They've both been written off many times. But they're both still alive, and both markets can overwhelm players during tough times.
"You have to reset, regroup every day," said the veteran Drury. "Whether it's after a tough loss where people are writing us off, or if it's after a big win like Sunday where people are saying, 'Well, maybe, they're playing good right now.' Either way, you have to regroup and leave the last game in the past."
Will the Rangers make the playoffs? By week's end, we may have a pretty good idea.