The New York Rangers describe themselves as a desperate hockey team, a favourite saying around the NHL as the playoffs approach, and thanks to a win by their cross-town rivals Tuesday night, the phrase applies.
Going into Wednesday night's finale of their home-and-home series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Rangers find themselves two points behind the New York Islanders thanks to the Isles' win over the Philadelphia Flyers. With nine games left in their regular season, the Rangers sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points, with the Winnipeg Jets and New Jersey Devils breathing down their necks.
The Leafs, on the other hand, are a comfortable fifth at 48 points with an outside shot at catching the fourth-place Boston Bruins, who have 54 points. Here are five things the Leafs need to do at Madison Square Garden to sweep the mini-series (they won 4-3 on Monday in Toronto).
1. Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle has to work hard to keep defenceman Dion Phaneuf matched up against towering Rangers forward Rick Nash. When Rangers coach John Tortorella started double-shifting Nash on Monday to get him away from Phaneuf, he scored twice to tie the game.
2. Leaf goaltender James Reimer was outstanding against the Rangers on Monday. To ensure a repeat performance, the Leafs defence has to keep the Ranger shooters to the outside and clear every loose puck, no easy feat against big forwards like Nash and Ryane Clowe.
3. Leaf centre Nazem Kadri has to step up and be more dangerous in the Ranger zone. He has been their best forward this season but was overshadowed on Monday by the Leafs' top line of Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk. Since Tortorella has the home-ice advantage of last player change to get the player matchups he wants (and Tortorella is a master at this), the Leafs are going to need a more balanced attack.
4. All of the Leaf forwards need to keep using their speed to put pressure on the Ranger defence. By their own admission, the Rangers had trouble containing the Bozak line on Monday. They spent too much time chasing them, which often left goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to fend for himself.
5. The Leafs have to win the special-teams battle again. Going into Monday's game, the Ranger power play was hot, riding a five-for-11 stretch after last week's NHL trade deadline that landed Clowe and Derick Brassard. But the Leafs blanked them on two opportunities and scored a power-play goal on one of their two chances.
The only lineup change for the Leafs will see forward Ryan Hamilton come in for youngster Joe Colborne, whose lack of aggression is not to Carlyle's liking.