The New York Rangers continue to show they belong among the Eastern Conference elite. Over the next week, they'll test themselves against the West.
The Rangers face a second straight division leader when they host the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night in Brad Richards' first game against his former team since joining New York.
The Rangers (17-6-4) have gone 7-1-1 in their last nine to move within a point of conference-leading Philadelphia. After back-to-back losses, they closed the week with strong performances in a 4-1 victory over Buffalo on Saturday and a 6-1 win over Southeast Division-leading Florida on Sunday.
Derek Stepan had two goals and an assist against the Panthers, Marian Gaborik had a goal and an assist and Henrik Lundqvist had 20 saves, improving to 10-2-1 with a 1.91 goals-against average since Nov. 1.
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves," defenseman Michael Del Zotto said. "It's pretty early in the season and anything can happen, but with what we've done so far it shows the team we have. We want to keep moving forward."
Balanced scoring has been key during the last nine games. Seven players have scored at least three goals during that stretch, including Gaborik (six) and Artem Anisimov and Richards (five apiece).
Richards provided similar production during three-plus seasons in Dallas, totaling 70 goals and 157 assists from 2008-2011. He joined the Rangers in July on a nine-year, $60 million contract.
Richards recorded four goals and an assist in seven games against the Stars during his first six-plus NHL seasons with Tampa Bay. Defenseman Jeff Woywitka, who played for Dallas the last two seasons and was claimed off waivers by the Rangers in October, will also face his former team for the first time since departing.
The Rangers believe the play in front of their own net is helping lead to goals on the other end. They've killed off 14 straight penalties and converted five of their last 18 chances with the man advantage.
"I think our defense is a big part of our offense," Stepan said. "I think the big thing is we have the puck more and we're able to make plays."
The Rangers are 4-1-2 against teams from the Western Conference this season and they'll get a chance to build on that mark this week. A stretch of three straight against West teams starts with Pacific Division-leading Dallas (16-11-1), which is expected to start rookie goaltender Richard Bachman for a second time.
The Stars snapped a two-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over Los Angeles on Saturday, with Bachman making 26 saves in his first career start.
He stopped all 11 shots he faced in his season debut Thursday at San Jose, when he replaced a struggling Andrew Raycroft in a 5-2 loss.
"I think he deserves another start, most likely against the Rangers," coach Glen Gulutzan told the team's official website. "We'll give him that opportunity and see if he can run with it. We have confidence in him. He played 60 games for me last year (with Texas of the AHL), so we have no problem putting him in. I think his play has earned it."
Raycroft started the previous four games and gave up 10 goals in the last two. Dallas is missing Kari Lehtonen, who is sidelined by a groin strain.
The Stars begin a stretch of three games in four nights in the New York area. After facing the Islanders on Thursday, the Stars' road trip concludes Friday against New Jersey.
Dallas has dropped its last two against New York, the most recent a 3-2 shootout loss Jan. 7.