The New York Rangers seem to be on cruise control in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, but the last few weeks have been anything but a smooth ride for the struggling Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago will try to end its longest losing streak in over six years when they visit the hard-charging Rangers in tonight's battle between Original Six teams at Madison Square Garden.
Chicago has lost its last nine games, going 0-8-1 since its a victory on Jan. 20 against Florida. The current slide is the franchise's longest since an 0-8-2 drought from Jan. 4-26 during the 2006-07 campaign, which was the season before talented Blackhawks forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane burst onto the scene.
The extended skid has hurt Chicago's standing in the Western Conference playoff race, as the Blackhawks have fallen into a tie with Los Angeles for the conference's sixth seed. They are also just two points in front of eighth- seeded Phoenix.
Meanwhile, the Rangers enter tonight having won four straight games and have compiled an 8-1-1 record over their last 10 trips to the ice. New York is currently 10 points ahead of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead and is also leading the East by seven points over Boston.
The only team ahead of New York in the NHL standings is Detroit, which has 80 points but has played in three more games than the Rangers.
Tonight's test marks the first of two meetings between the Rangers and Blackhawks, as the clubs will also get together in the Windy City on March 9. New York has taken four of the last five encounters with Chicago and the Blackhawks have lost three in a row and four of five in the Big Apple.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist turned in yet another stellar performance on Tuesday night, as he stopped 42 shots to turn in his league-leading seventh shutout of the season in New York's 3-0 win in Boston.
Lundqvist made 18 of his season-high 42 saves in the third period for the Rangers. The Swedish backstop is a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy thanks to his 27-11-4 record, 1.77 goals-against average and .941 save percentage. Lundqvist has been a finalist for the Vezina three times, but has never won the award given to the league's top goaltender.
"I have been more determined this year," Lundqvist told his team's official web site after Tuesday's win. "The clock is ticking. This is my Year Seven (seventh NHL season) now. I'm excited about this group, how hard they work and how well they play under pressure, and I feed from that."
Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh and Artem Anisimov provided the goals in front of Lundqvist on Tuesday. Callahan has scored goals in four straight games, registering six markers over that span. His 23 goals in 55 games this season matches the career-best total he set in 60 contests last year.
Callahan put his team's hot streak in perspective after Tuesday's win and the Rangers captain doesn't think his team should take anything for granted.
"Teams go on streaks. There are a lot of things that can happen, so [the standings] are not on our mind at all right now," said Callahan. "We just have to keep rolling, and also it's important to keep improving."
New York forward Brandon Dubinsky was hit in the face with a puck late in Tuesday's game and was forced to leave the contest. He is questionable for tonight's test as is fellow forward Ruslan Fedotenko, who has sat out the last three games with an upper-body injury.
The Rangers have won four of their last five home games and are 18-6-2 as the host this season. New York will complete a two-game homestand when it hosts Columbus on Sunday.
Eight of Chicago's nine losses during its current skid have come on the road and the Blackhawks are 0-6-1 so far on a nine-game swing that is set to end Saturday in Columbus. The recent slide has dropped Chicago's road record for the season to 10-15-3.
The Blackhawks last played on Tuesday in Nashville and suffered a 3-2 regulation loss as Ryan Ellis notched the game-winning goal for the Predators with just 5:42 left in the third period.
"This was a tough loss," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. "We've been finding ways to not come out on top, but tonight looked like we did the things we wanted to do. We wanted to just get it to overtime and see what happened, but that hurt."
Chicago has played the last three games without the services of defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador and neither player is expected to return tonight. Hjalmarsson has been dealing with concussion-like symptoms, while Montador is suffering from an unspecified upper-body injury.