(SportsNetwork.com) - The Ottawa Senators have charged into the playoff race thanks to a goaltender who hadn't even started an NHL game until mid-February.
The New York Rangers are in the mix for the best record in the league thanks to their backup netminder.
The two surging clubs square off on Thursday night when the red-hot Senators go for an eighth victory in a row and the Rangers try to rebound from a rare loss.
Ottawa had not been in a playoff position since Nov. 21 before they beat the San Jose Sharks 5-2 on Monday. That moved the Senators a point ahead of the Boston Bruins for the second wild card position in the Eastern Conference with 10 games to play. They have a game in hand over the Bruins, who host the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday.
Goaltender Andrew Hammond has been the key piece of the surge, going 14-0-1 over his first 15 NHL starts. That run began on Feb. 18 when the Senators were without both Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner due to injury.
Hammond made 29 saves to beat the Sharks and is one shy of Patrick Lalime's NHL point streak to begin a career. Lalime went 14-0-2 for the Pittsburgh Penguins over his first 16 starts in 1996-97.
Hammond has never faced the Rangers.
Mika Zibanejad had a pair of goals in Monday's win over the Sharks as the Senators scored four third-period goals to rally in front. Mike Hoffman added a goal and two assists, while Bobby Ryan notched three helpers.
"We're finally starting to go up a little bit but we have to keep it going," said Ryan. "There's still several games to go so we have to keep playing hard if we want to make the playoffs."
Ottawa is 17-2-2 over its past 21 games and its current seven-game win streak is the longest for the franchise since a club-record 11-game run from Jan. 14- Feb. 4, 2010.
Forward Milan Michalek did not play on Monday due to an upper-body injury and his status for tonight's game against the Rangers is unknown.
The Rangers have been just as hot as the Senators, winning 20 times over 24 games since losing No. 1 goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to a vascular injury. Cam Talbot has stepped in and done an excellent job, helping the Rangers to the top of the Metropolitan Division with 99 points. That has the Blueshirts six points ahead of the second-place New York Islanders with two games in hand. The Isles host the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday.
The Rangers also trail the Montreal Canadiens by only one point for the most in the NHL.
Talbot is 19-8-4 this season with a 2.19 goals against average, .927 save percentage and five shutouts this season. He is expected to start tonight and beat the Sens the only time he faced them, halting 29 of the 30 shots fired his way.
Talbot's run as the main goaltender is nearing an end, however. Lundqvist practiced on Wednesday and is expected to back up Talbot tonight with an eye on returning this weekend. New York visits Boston on Saturday, then hosts the Washington Capitals the following day.
"There's no doubt that Cam has done extremely well for us," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault told his team's website after practice on Wednesday. "But if you look at the body of work that Hank has done for this team over the years, there's no doubt that he's the No. 1 guy. Moving forward he will be the No. 1 guy; but we still have a lot of hockey to be played in a short amount of time, so I will use both goaltenders."
Talbot posted 31 saves in Tuesday's 4-2 loss to the Kings, just the Rangers' second in nine games. Mats Zuccarello scored 51 seconds into the contest and Kevin Hayes also scored.
New York had a string of 10 straight games of allowing two goals or fewer snapped.
"Our execution wasn't what it needed to be against such a strong opponent, and we paid the price for it," Vigneault said.
The Rangers won the first of three meetings this season with the Senators 3-2 in overtime at home on Jan. 20 and have taken three of the past four encounters overall. That span includes back-to-back wins at Ottawa.