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Predators’ Prey? (Updated)

Posted By Dan Rakusan On Feb 9 2010 @ 2:30 pm In New York Rangers | No Comments

After an inspiring performance against the rival New Jersey Devils, the Rangers have had some time off to gather themselves for the next game, which will be Wednesday against the Nashville Predators at MSG.  The question is, which Rangers' team will show up for this important game?  Will it be the team that forechecks relentlessly and skates hard for a full 60 minutes?  Or, will it be the listless squad that doesn't pay attention to the details and loses all the little battles within the game?

Currently sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers need to start collecting points on a regular basis, lest they risk falling further in the standings and out of the playoff picture altogether.  Atlanta is nipping at their heels, one point behind with two games in hand, and only two points behind sit the Panthers with one game in hand.  Truly, the Rangers are in a precarious position at present.

So, what challenges does Nashville present the Rangers?

Despite faltering somewhat over their past 10 games (3-6-1), Nashville sits in 8th position in the Western Conference and will be looking to keep ahead of the Detroit Redwings, who sit two points back.  They are an opponent that is tough to put a finger on, as neither their goals for (159) nor goals against (160) give you much to be particularly impressed with.  But, somehow they are 9 games over .500, which means (at least from casual observation) that they play stingy defence when they win, or conversely give up a lot of goals when they lose.  It's likely a combination of both to some extent, but make no mistake about it, Nashville isn't a pushover team.

They have a solid goaltending tandem in Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne, which is a good start for any team.  Both are capable of shutting the door, so it doesn't really matter who the Preds start.  New York will be in tough to score, especially with a lineup that consists of Gaborik and not much else.  At least Ryan Callahan has been scoring of late, and that might be key, as gritty goals and traffic in front of the net will be their best chance to generate some offence.

On defence, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter present the biggest problem, as one or both will likely be assigned to cover the Gaborik line, thus making secondary scoring even more important for the Rags.

Up front, quasi-rookie Patric Hornqvist will be a guy to keep a close eye on.  In his first really impactful NHL season (after playing in 28 games last year), Hornqvist has 23 goals (leads team) and 13 assists while keeping a solid +13 rating (leads team).  But the scoring is spread out, with 9 players having 10 goals or more.  Guys like Martin Erat, JP Dumont, Steve Sullivan and Jason Arnott are all capable of having a big game, especially if the Rangers come out flat.  Defensive assignments will be interesting to say the least, as there is no single player to really key on…

The Rangers will look for another solid performance from Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped 41 of the 42 shots he faced in the 3-1 win over the Devils.  His success was due in large part to a meeting he had with goalie coach Benoit Allaire, who prompted Hank to stand taller in goal, and play a little further out from the goal-line.  The advice seemed to pay off, as Lundqvist made save after save, even with his oft-victimized and highly criticized glove hand.  We'll need much of the same against Nashville on Wednesday.

With the Gaborik line sure to draw the attention of Nashville's best defence tandem, the Rangers' acquisition of Olli Jokinen becomes even more important, as he'll be looked to for offensive support.  He's a shooter, there's no doubt about it, and with Callahan playing on his wing, it gives the team a legitimate second-line scoring threat.

Discipline will also be a key factor in the game.  Brandon Prust and Sean Avery had better be on their best behaviour in order to minimize giving up powerplays to the Preds.  Should they get into penalty trouble early on, it will almost certainly result in the Rangers adapting to Nashville's pace, rather than setting the up-tempo gameflow that has made them successful.  This is important on two levels.  First, the harder the Rangers play, the more you can see their confidence level rise.  Secondly, and taking a page out of the Washington Capitals' book, teams get tired out playing the high tempo style, and that leads to third period goals against them.  With the amount of youth on the Rangers, and their offseason focus on conditioning, this could become a strong suit for them, provided they stick to the plan.

In all, I think I like the Rangers' chances.  I'll predict a final score of 4-2 for the Blueshirts.

UPDATED 4:55pm – Marian Gaborik has suffered a cut to his thigh after vaulting over Lundqvist in practice.  Severity of the injury is still unknown, but doesn't appear to be anything major…

Until next time,
Na Zdravi!

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