The new NHL season has brought more unexpected and unwanted gifts to the New York Rangers organization than to any other team as of press time.
The Rangers (1-2-1) are winless in three straight games and are riddled with injuries throughout the roster. New York is without three key offensive talents in Chris Drury (finger), Vaclav Prospal (knee), and most importantly, Marian Gaborik (shoulder).
While many pundits were quick to claim that the Rangers were dead to rights without Gaborik, his absence hasn't been the source of their woes in the early going. In fact, New York is averaging 3.5 goals per game thus far, and Gaborik hasn't scored a single one.
Instead, New York has relied on big performances from rookie Derek Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky, Sean Avery, and Alexander Frolov to carry the workload. Though Stepan hasn't scored since his opening game hat trick, the Rangers are proving to critics that they do indeed have great depth up the middle.
Dubinsky has come out playing a more focused and intense brand of hockey, and Avery has already been at the center of two NHL scrums this year that stirred up controversy. Frolov, meanwhile, a recent acquisition at a low price, is showing that there was nothing wrong with his game in Los Angeles, save for reduced ice time.
Where New York has struggled most is on defense, still attempting to find the right balance while surrendering 16 goals this season, good for four per game. New York's defensive lapses are the result of certain players under-performing and the ineptitude of their penalty kill.
Without Drury in the lineup as a top defensive forward, New York has posted a dismal 68.4 percent on the penalty kill, good for 29th in the NHL. The season is still young and with much improvement from two-way players like Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto, the Rangers could become a shutdown team.
That said, they haven't given up less than three goals in any game this season. So despite only playing four times in the last 12 days, goalie Henrik Lundqvist will rest tonight as the Rangers start backup netminder Martin Biron for the first time this season.
Biron could have started for New York in their Columbus Day matinee against the Islanders, given that he knows the team well, having played for them a year ago. Instead, the Rangers have elected to debut Biron against a surprising Toronto Maple Leafs organization that put four goals past Lundqvist last week.
Toronto peppered King Henrik with 38 shots before the Rangers stole a point on two Brian Boyle goals late in the game. When New York lost in OT on a power play goal by Phil Kessel, it wasn't exactly surprising. But this game was more important for what happened elsewhere on the score sheet.
This was the game that saw the Rangers lose Drury and Gaborik for extended periods while New York, clearly off its game, instigated one too many penalties. It'll be very interesting to see if Toronto retaliates to New York for the slash Sean Avery put on Mike Komisarek a week ago. One player you can expect to be active is captain Dion Phaneuf, who has a personal score to settle with Avery.
With a record of 4-0-1, the Maple Leafs are riding high atop the Eastern Conference thanks to strong early returns from Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur. Goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere has also been impressive, posting a 3-0 record with a 1.96 goals against average thus far. He is expected to get the nod tonight as well.
The Rangers have something big to prove tonight against the upstart Leafs. For New York to be successful, they will need to stop falling asleep for brief periods like they did in their loss to Colorado on Monday.
The Rangers have to tighten up defensively, too.
This team is still experimenting with life without Wade Redden, a process that has fans and players losing patience. Michael Sauer is expected to suit up tonight in place of either Matt Gilroy or Steve Eminger on the blueline. If Gilroy is benched, it will continue a longstanding back and forth struggle for the Hobey Baker winner. Fans would prefer to see Eminger in the press box tonight given his laughable play in the early going.
Whatever the case, New York has to get serious about the season starting tonight. The Rangers, who typically start the year playing more games than other NHL franchises, are in only their fifth contest in 13 days.
After tonight, New York will play six games in eight days, an even more arduous task considering the pace at which things are decided.
Following tonight's contest, the Rangers visit Boston before returning home for a three-game stand against the Devils, Thrashers, and Hurricanes. They'll finish October back in this position, playing Toronto for the third time in less than a month.