PITTSBURGH — If you predicted before the season that with a win against the Penguins on Tuesday night, the Rangers would be alone atop the NHL standings, raise your hand.
Come on, put those hands down. That’s revisionist history.
There’s a long way to go until spring, but with five days until Christmas, the Blueshirts indeed are one of the top teams in the league at 23-10-1 (47 points), just one behind the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks (22-8-4).
The Penguins, who have played two fewer games, have 45 points, and coach John Tortorella’s rising Columbus Blue Jackets have 44, with five games in hand on the Rangers.
Backed by strong goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta, the Rangers have won six of seven games, but that’s short of the torrid pace of the Penguins (7-0-2) and Blue Jackets (8-0-0).
Lundqvist, who on Monday was named the NHL’s No. 2 star of the week seven days after Raanta captured the same honor, is likely to get the start at PPG Paints Arena, where the Rangers won, 5-2, on Nov. 21. The Penguins, however, came to the Garden two days later and drilled Lundqvist and the Blueshirts, 6-1.
But that was long before Lundqvist’s coach-mandated hiatus, during which Raanta started four games, winning three with two shutouts and allowing a total of three goals. Of the 17 NHL goaltenders who appeared in at least three games last week, Lundqvist ranked first in goals-against average (0.98) and save percentage (.967).
The Penguins will be missing two defensemen, Kris Letang and Trevor Daley, who are leading the blueliners in ice time.
“We have to win as a team,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “That’s what we’ve done basically since the beginning. Whether you want to call it balanced scoring, balanced defending, strong goaltending — we are built on a team basis.”
That may be the only way to continue in what appears will be an intense playoff hunt in the second half, with five high-quality Metropolitan Division teams vying for three guaranteed spots. With a little more than half of the season to play, the Metro is on track to have both wild-card teams in the East.
After Tuesday night, the Rangers won’t play the Penguins again until March 31 in a game that could decide playoff seeding.
Raise your hand if you believe that’ll happen. Just kidding.