The New York Rangers hope to inch closer to locking up the Atlantic Division title this evening as they play host to the Montreal Canadiens.
With five games left to play, the Rangers own a five-point edge over the Pittsburgh Penguins for not only the lead in the division, but for the first seed in the Eastern Conference. New York is also a point back of St. Louis for the most in the NHL.
The Rangers extended their lead over the Penguins after rallying for a 4-2 win over the Jets on Wednesday. Pittsburgh failed to make up the two points when it suffered a loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday.
New York got goals from Brian Boyle and Derek Stepan in the third period versus Winnipeg, while Michael Del Zotto and Ryan Callahan also lit the lamp. Marian Gaborik had a pair of assists to give him five points in three games, while Henrik Lundqvist made 22 saves to lift the Rangers to their fifth victory in six games.
"It was tough to get anything going and then they got a two-goal lead on us," Callahan said. "I think our penalty-kill goal kind of lifted the team up and gave us momentum, and we began to take the game over."
A victory for New York tonight would give the club 50 on the season, matching the 1991-92 club for the second-most in franchise history.
While the Rangers have long since clinched a playoff spot, the Canadiens are set to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007. This disappointing season already featured a coaching change, with Randy Cunneyworth taking over on an interim basis for Jacques Martin, and another ax fell on Thursday with the firing of general manager Pierre Gauthier.
Gauthier had taken over as GM in February 2010 after Bob Gainey stepped down. He had been with the Canadiens since 2003, first as director of pro scouting and then as assistant general manager.
"It goes without saying that we're all very disappointed in our performance this season," said Canadiens owner Geoff Molson at a Thursday press briefing. "Everyone in this organization, including our players, expected better. Our fans care deeply about our team and want nothing more than a winning team, one that follows in the tradition of our storied past. This season did not deliver on those expectations. Our fans can trust that ownership will accept nothing less than a winning culture in this organization."
The move came two days after the Canadiens suffered a 3-2 shootout defeat to the Panthers. Erik Cole and Louis Leblanc scored goals in regulation, but the Habs came up empty in the shootout.
Carey Price made 34 saves through overtime, but did yield the game-tying goal with 7:12 left in the third period.
"I just lost it. I was kinda soft on it and I should have stopped it," admitted Price of the costly letdown. "I thought our guys played very well regardless. A lot of guys are still working for jobs and contracts next year."
Montreal has lost six of its past eight games overall, but aims for a third straight win over New York this evening. The Rangers won the first meeting 5-3 in New York back on Nov. 5, but the Habs outscored the Blueshirts 8-1 in a pair of encounters in Montreal.
The Canadiens have won seven of their last nine versus the Rangers overall, but have lost eight of their past 11 trips to New York.