Tonight is a litmus test for the Rangers who visit the defending champion Penguins at 7 PM. They’ll again be without Rick Nash. The star forward suffered another groin injury at the end of a shift in overtime the other night. What that means is Brandon Pirri gets another chance. We’ll see if he can make the most of it after being scratched for Matt Puempel the last two games.
Antti Raanta gets the call in net with Alain Vigneault opting to rest Henrik Lundqvist. The reasoning was that they just came off playing three games over four days. Of course, Lundqvist was flawless allowing only three goals in three wins including the last two in shootouts. The mental break worked. He’ll get a couple of more days off before the Rangers host the Wild on Friday.
As for Raanta, he had success in the first meeting of a home-and-home series making 29 saves in a Rangers’ 5-2 win at PPG Paints Arena on Nov. 21. The Pens came back to blitz Lundqvist and the Blueshirts in the MSG rematch 6-1 on Nov. 23 chasing him from the net for Raanta. That night, it didn’t matter who played.
Sidney Crosby turned it into a highlight reel scoring twice and setting up another as the Pens reeled off six unanswered goals following a Nash first period tally. The Pens captain hasn’t slowed down leading the league with 21 goals. His 34 points are third overall in league scoring despite playing 26 games. He’s in a four-way tie with the red hot Artemi Panarin, teammate Evgeni Malkin and Jakub Voracek. Connor McDavid leads the NHL with 40 followed by Vladimir Tarasenko (38).
With Malkin and Phil Kessel (10-21-31) also going, that makes the Pens very formidable. They’re lethal. However, they have been held to only two goals in consecutive overtime defeats to the Kings and at the Maple Leafs. Crosby didn’t score in either contest, making it three straight he hasn’t tallied in. He’s due.
The Pens’ two losses have coincided with an injury to top defenseman Kris Letang. The most indispensable player on the team, he was placed on IR with a “lower body” injury. He’s expected to miss two weeks. Take him out of the lineup and Pittsburgh loses its top minutes logger who can play any situation and lead the transition. He can shift from defense to offense as quick as any defenseman. Injuries have prevented him from winning a Norris. It looks like that’ll be the case again while Erik Karlsson has upped his game in Ottawa even leading the league in blocked shots. He and Brent Burns are again running away from the pack.
Matt Murray will get the start for the Pens. The rookie netminder has assumed the number one goalie duties from vet Marc-Andre Fleury. The most overlooked first-year player (technically even though he played last year and led them to a Cup) is 12-2-1 in 16 games with a 1.84 goals-against-average, .938 save percentage and two shutouts. He’s also owned the Rangers winning all four career starts including 3-0 during last Spring’s first round series which the Pens took 4-1. He’s allowed one goal or fewer in three of those starts.
The two teams are separated by two points in the standings. The Rangers lead the Metropolitan Division with 47 points in 34 games. The Pens have 45 in 32. So, they have two games at hand. Keep an eye on the Blue Jackets, who won for a ninth straight time helping John Tortorella become the first American coach to win 500 games. They are third with 44 points in just 29 games. The Flyers have 42 in 34 and Caps boast 41 in 30.
After tonight, the Penguins and Rangers don’t see each other again until March 31, 2017 at MSG. They’ll then meet for the fifth and final time on the last day of the season on April 9 also at The Garden. Who knows. It could be for the division and home ice advantage.
The Pens were preparing for Lundqvist. Conor Sheary was expecting him to start.
Instead, it’ll be Raanta who was brilliant in four consecutive starts before a well rested Lundqvist returned to form. Ranger goalies have a 0.84 GAA over the last seven games. That will get severely tested later.