I'm going to be at the Air Canada Centre tonight for the Maple Leafs-Rangers matchup, which given the infrequency with which you can get your hands on tickets in this city, I'm hoping will be a good game. I'm not sure what kind of effort Toronto's going to have after winning in Columbus less than 24 hours earlier.
The Rangers, on the other hand, haven't impressed anyone early this season, with recent losses at home to struggling teams like Philadelphia and Nashville. Brendan Shanahan has been excellent, and has seven goals in seven games as a Ranger (including four on the power play), while New York's goaltending tandem just hasn't been able to get it done. (Backup Kevin Weekes allowed seven goals in his only start this season while Henrik Lundqvist is sporting a 3.49 goals-against average and .880 save percentage.)
One of the big holes for this team has been on the blueline, where without Sandis Ozolinsh, there's not a defenceman who can produce from the point. Ozolinsh, who had his left knee surgically reconstructed in the offseason after entering the league's substance-abuse program last spring, will play his first game of the season tonight. How he fares will go a long way to determining if Brian Leetch gets an encore on Broadway.
Michal Rozsival has emerged as the Rangers' top blueliner this season, and his 24:23 of average icetime is more than four minutes better than second place Fedor Tyutin's 20:15. Marek Malik, Aaron Ward, Karel Rachunek, Darius Kasparaitis and Thomas Pock round out the backend, and all have struggled to varying degrees this season. Coach Tom Renney had benched Kasparaitis for the team's first five games of the season, going instead with the young Austrian Pock. Rachunek, who played last season in Russia, is deadlast on the Rangers with a -6 rating and he may be the one sitting with Ozolinsh back in the fold.
One other problem in New York has been a lack of scoring from beyond the top two lines, as they've received just four goals and six points from the bottom six forwards. (which is why I'm surprised Nigel Dawes hasn't received more icetime). That, however, doesn't hurt as much given Renney has been playing Shanahan, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Martin Straka all over 20 minutes a game.
There's a lot of top-end firepower on the Rangers, and with Toronto's go-to defencemen (Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle) struggling in their own end so far this year, it could be a tough night for the Buds.
Prediction: Rangers 4, Maple Leafs 2