The New York Rangers were sitting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference two weeks ago, but a rough stretch has trimmed their lead to the slimmest of margins.
The slump started with a loss to the New Jersey Devils, and the Rangers will try avenge that defeat while avoiding their sixth loss in eight games Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
New York (44-20-7) owned an eight-point lead in the East on March 5, but that advantage has been cut to one point over Pittsburgh and three over Philadelphia. The top seed in the conference will almost certainly come out of the Atlantic Division, with Northeast-leading Boston having 10 fewer points than the Rangers and Southeast-leading Florida 12 off the pace.
New York is coming off a 3-1 loss to Colorado on Saturday, its second straight defeat and fifth in seven games. Another loss would give the Rangers two three-game losing streaks in March after having just one skid of that length in the first five months.
"We can't get discouraged,'' coach John Tortorella said.
The Rangers got forward Ryan Callahan, defenseman Michael Del Zotto and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist back in the lineup Saturday and outshot the Avalanche 42-20, but only Mats Zuccarello scored. It was the first goal in three games by someone other than linemates Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin, who had netted the past seven.
Generating offense hasn't been easy lately for New York, which has totaled eight goals in its last five defeats.
"We need to score on our chances, and that's been a problem for a little bit now," Hagelin said. "It's tough to win when you score only one goal."
New York's offensive woes stem in part from a struggling power play. The Rangers failed on all five opportunities with the extra skater against the Avalanche and are 3 for 23 in their last seven games.
New York could again have trouble with the man advantage against New Jersey (41-26-5). The Devils allowed Pittsburgh to score a power-play goal in a 5-2 loss Saturday after killing off all 28 penalties in their previous 10 games.
New Jersey, eight points back of the Rangers, has lost two of three after winning four in a row. That streak started with a 4-1 victory over New York on March 6, a game in which the Devils dominated the Rangers physically.
Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias each had a goal and an assist, while Martin Brodeur stopped 25 shots to help the Devils improve to 3-2-0 in the season series.
Brodeur has been between the pipes for all five meetings and has recorded a 1.59 goals-against average with a shutout.
Lundqvist has been a bright spot for New York in his four starts in the series, going 2-2-0 with a 1.26 GAA and a shutout.
Although Brodeur has been strong against the Rangers, he and the defense had some trouble slowing down Pittsburgh on Saturday, as he faced a season-high 44 shots and stopped 39.
New Jersey wasn't nearly as prolific offensively, managing 14 shots on goal - one more than their season low.
"Out of the 60 minutes, maybe we played good for 18 minutes,'' Elias said. "The last 10-15 games here you got to get in your mind to keep playing no matter what's happening and get the same mindset for 60 minutes.
"I know we're going to bounce back."
- New Jersey Devils
- New York