New York Rangers
Friday, 7:30 p.m. at PNC Arena
The New York Rangers have managed to hang around in the most competitive division in the NHL. They just had a four-game winning streak snapped on Sunday by the Bruins, but at 64 points, the Rangers have surpassed the expectations set by many. The staying power of the Rangers has been led by their biggest offseason acquisition, Artemi Panarin. Panarin has provided a 78-point jolt through just 57 games. Both his 29 goals and 49 assists lead the team, and has vaulted the Rangers to the edge of being a top-10 offense.
Mika Zibanejad has also put together a solid campaign as well, despite missing a dozen games due to injury. His 52 points in 45 games have him on the beset pace of his career. One other solid contributor to date has been rookie Adam Fox. The 31 points for the defenseman the Canes traded to the Rangers has helped improve what was the biggest issue for the Rangers last season, the blueline.
The biggest problem for the Canes as they set out to defeat the Rangers is the presence of one man: Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist has ceded some of his playing time to Alexandar Georgiev. In what has basically been a timeshare, Georgiev has actually slightly outperformed the veteran with a .912 save percentage. But if you have any understanding of the incredible work that Lundqvist has put together in his career and this season against the Canes, it becomes evident that Lundqvist will be between the pipes for the Rangers. Whether the Canes can finally solve that riddle will surely be the biggest story on Friday night.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Saturday, 7:00 p.m. at Scotiabank Arena
The best offensive team in the NHL has positioned themselves to make a playoff run in the Atlantic Division as they currently sit in a tie for the third position. After the firing of Mike Babcock, Sheldon Keefe has led the Leafs to a 21-10-4 run since taking over. Despite being near the bottom of the league defensively (28th), the Leafs have been able to mostly overpower their defensive deficiencies to this point.
Auston Matthews has 42 goals and will likely be a 50+ goal-scorer. Mitch Marner has 60 points despite missing time and having played fewer than 50 games. John Tavares (51 points) is on a nearly point-per-game pace as well, while William Nylander (51 points) is on pace for what will surely be his best NHL season to date.
The defensive woes for the Leafs have largely been based on their daring offensive nature and a blueline that is at times unable to handle the extra burden placed on it by the high-octane forwards that are less engaged offensively. Frederik Andersen is less than he has been in other years, but his .908 save percentage is very good when you take a look at the shots he has faced on a nightly basis. When you also consider his role as a workhorse in net - 44 starts - it is possible to say that a netminder on a team 28th in goals against has actually had a reasonably good season.
While the Leafs clearly can qualify for the postseason with their current formula in place, it is hard to believe they will be able to scratch the 50+ year itch for Toronto fans and win a Stanley Cup unless they are able to significantly tighten their defensive work up. They have a goalie capable of delivering the play necessary, and now they need all aspects of their lineup to do their part to keep the puck out of their own net.
The Canes will need to take advantage of what should be ample offensive opportunities against the Leafs, while managing to keep the best offensive team in the league under wraps for 60 minutes. It’s a tall task for sure, but a task that someone in the Eastern Conference will surely be up to this Spring.