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KEY STRETCH AHEAD FOR BLUESHIRTS

By Tony Grater

If the Rangers thought they’ve had a tough first 3 months of the season, they ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Rangers close out their three game home stand tonight, with a 7 pm tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers, at the Garden. The Boys in Blue had their 4 game winning streak snapped on Saturday night, as they fell to the Islanders, 3-2 in overtime. Still, they have gained 9 out of a possible 10 points, are playing their best hockey since the beginning of the season, and now head into the month of January, with a make or break stretch that is basically the season.

This pivotal stretch will see the Rangers play 18 games within a 33-day stretch, 14 of those against Eastern Conference opponents, 9 of those contests at home. Some of these opponents include the Bruins and the Canadiens, whom they play twice, as well games against the Senators and the Thrashers. All teams the Rangers trail in the playoff race, but all that are within striking distance of. Oh, and did I mention they also play the Penguins and the Devils, 2 of the top 4 teams in the Conference, during that stretch?

Then, of course are the teams the Rangers are ahead of in the standings. Such as the Lightning, the Flyers, whom the face twice, and the Hurricanes, whom the face three times. These are teams the Rangers should logically have the upper hand against, right? Not necessarily. The Lightning embarrassed the Rangers back in late November, 5-1 in Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes are not as bad as they’ve played, and a game against the Flyers, is never a walk in the park. However, my thinking is, if they’re ahead of these teams, they should be able to beat these teams.

Again, this is a make or break stretch.

The Rangers got bad news the other day, as it was announced that center Vinny Prospal underwent arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear, and could miss up to three weeks. Prospal is the Rangers second leading scorer on a team that already relies way too much on superstar winger Marion Gaborik for its offense. Not the kind of news they wanted heading into a tough month.

There is reason for optimism for the Blueshirts, as Brandon Dubinsky has played strong since his return from a broken hand that kept him out for over a month. Chris Drury is playing his best hockey of the season, scoring goals in 3 of his last 5 games. Ryan Callahan has showed signs of snapping out of his funk. The penalty kill continues to be excellent, and the power play is much better then it was last year. Add in Sean Avery slowly becoming his old self again, which is an annoying, effective pest, and Gaborik being, well, Gaborik, and they may actually be able to weather the storm until Prospal gets back.

But the biggest reason for optimism, the thing that might save the Rangers season, is the play of Henrik Lundqvist, who has been outstanding of late. Since back-to-back 4 goal meltdowns against the Lightning and the Penguins, Lundqvist has given up 2 goals or less in 9 of his last 11 games, facing 30 or more shots in 8 of those games, and making heart stopping saves, that earned him the nickname, The King. However, due to the lack of scoring from his teammates, he has lost 6 of those games.

My point to all this? Its gut check time for the Rangers, a little earlier then they wanted it to be, but that’s their own fault. After a busy January, they have 6 games in February, before the whole NHL takes a break for the Olympics. But 3 of those games are against the Devils, Penguins and Capitals. So, if the Rangers are going to make any noise, they need to beat the teams they should beat, because games against these 3 aforementioned teams are not going to be easy. They’re playing good right now, so they need to keep winning games, and they need to do that starting tonight. January is always a tough month for them, and with the rough start they’ve had so far, another one will cripple them before the Olympic Break even gets here.

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