With or without Ryan Callahan—and without Mats Zuccarello for three weeks—the New York Rangers need to match their pre-Olympic break competition level for the remainder of the 2013-14 season if they want to be in position to make a strong playoff push.
At first glance, it may look like a favorable schedule for the Rangers.
Thirteen of their final 23 games are against teams currently on the outside looking in of the playoff picture; however, that includes two against Ottawa (one point out), one against Columbus (one point out), three against Carolina (three points out), one against New Jersey (three points out), one against Vancouver (one point out) and one against Phoenix (tied for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference).
The other four games? One is in Winnipeg a day after a game in Minnesota, and two of them are during a four-game trip to the West, against Calgary and Edmonton, respectively. Then, possibly their only real break, will come against Buffalo on April 10 at Madison Square Garden.
Of all of these games where crucial points are on the line, here are the five most anticipated, important matchups the Rangers face returning from Sochi.
John Tortorella's return to New York during regular-season play was hardly what he was hoping for.
Chris Kreider, a player who never materialized as an everyday player for Torts, scored a hat trick in a 5-2 victory for the Blueshirts.
The Canucks rattled off seven straight wins after that embarrassing performance. Unfortunately for them, prior to the Olympic break, they rattled off seven straight regulation losses.
The pressure is just as high, if not highe,r for success in Vancouver as it is in New York, and Tortorella has to be hoping that the joke will be on the Rangers this April Fool's Day.
With just six games remaining for each team, and all of the familiarity—and somewhat negative feelings associated with that familiarity—this is as much of a must-watch as you'll see between two teams from opposite coasts.
There won't be any excuses for Martin Brodeur against the Rangers this time—assuming he plays.
The Blueshirts got the best of Marty and the Devils at Yankee Stadium in late January, but New Jersey is leading the season series, 2-1, including a 4-0 shutout in October at the Prudential Center. Cory Schneider, not Brodeur, got the start for the Devils.
It will likely be a time of desperation for the Devils. Their team's makeup could be drastically different should they opt to be sellers at the deadline. Marek Zidlicky, Jaromir Jagr, Mark Fayne, Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier are all unrestricted free agents at the end of the year and could be dealt before the March 5 trade deadline.
One thing will hold true regardless of who's dressed for this game. Whether the Devils are trying to claw their way into playoff position or play the role of spoiler, the games that have been one-sided between these two clubs tend to be a rarity, especially with heightened stakes.
Expect a one-goal game with lots of post-whistle extracurriculars.
The return from the Olympic break is not a friendly one for the Rangers.
Their first game back is at home against the Chicago Blackhawks, who are neck-and-neck with the St. Louis Blues for first in the Central Division and three points behind the Anaheim Ducks for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, not to mention the President's Trophy.
Then, the Rangers head to Philadelphia on Saturday, March 1, to take on the Flyers, who, like the Rangers, had a strong performance before the Olympic break, winning four straight games.
The very next day, the Boston Bruins come to New York.
Virtually every game between the Rangers and Bruins in the past seven seasons has seemingly ended in a one-goal deficit. So far this season, Boston is 2-0, with a 2-1 win at MSG and a 3-2 win in Boston.
There have only been five matchups that didn't finish as one-goal games between these teams in that time frame, and that's with one game that featured an empty-net goal to push the deficit to two. There were also two games where there were no goals scored by either team, and the 1-0 nod went to the team that won the shootout.
For a team that's been performing the way the Rangers have, this will prove to be an excellent test. The second game of a back-to-back, they'll need to play a full 60 minutes and answer the Bruins' physical play.
The more of a cushion the Rangers give themselves between teams below them in the standings, the less pressure there will be when they face teams that are below them down the stretch. And, a confidence boost with a win over a team like the Bruins, who have won seven of their last eight against the Rangers if you include last year's playoff series, could propel the Rangers to another nice win streak.
In recent history, the Rangers have done well against the Canadiens when they're scheduled to play them in the final few games of the season.
The 2008-2009 season may have been defined by John Tortorella's puzzling decision to put the Rangers' season rental Olli Jokinen's hands against the rival Philadelphia Flyers, but had the Blueshirts lost to the Canadiens two games prior, Jokinen's shootout miss wouldn't have mattered much at all. A 3-1 win at home kept hope alive heading into a two-game home-and-home against the Flyers.
2006-2007 may conjure up better regular-season memories. In the last home game of the season, veterans Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Brendan Shanahan helped clinch a playoff berth with a 3-1 win.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the Rangers will be hoping for more of the same. The season series is 1-1, with each team recording a shutout.
Odds are, this game is going to have some sort of meaning in the playoff race. Both teams have a good cushion at the moment, but a lot could change by April 12. Whether fighting for playoff berth(s) or seeding, the implications of this matchup are huge.
The Rangers' second game back on March 1 could easily be just as important and entertaining as the matchup in New York on March 26, but things will be getting down to the wire, so this one should hold a little more weight.
The Atlantic Division is a close race if you look past the first-place Penguins. Just one point separates the Rangers and Flyers in the standings, and they're sure to be jockeying for playoff position down to the very last game of the season.
Four of the Rangers' 22 fighting majors this season have come against Philly. The bad blood is sure to be there for both games, especially toward the end of March.
As far as scoring goes, look for Chris Kreider to step up. In two games against the Flyers, he has one goal and two assists. Brad Richards has stepped up in each matchup, too, registering an assist and a team-high eight shots in their 4-1 win on Jan. 12, as well as their only goal and four shots in a 2-1 Rangers loss on Oct. 24.
Regardless of what happens March 1, with a win on March 26, the Rangers would win the season series and do themselves a huge favor in the standings. And if things remain as they are now, this could be a preview of an intense first-round matchup.