The stage is set for an interesting contest Saturday when the New York Rangers visit the Pittsburgh Penguins for the teams' first meeting of the season.
The Rangers posted a 4-1 win over Washington on Thursday, while the Penguins dropped a 6-1 decision to New Jersey. Those results allowed New York to leapfrog Pittsburgh into second place in the Metropolitan Division.
The Rangers come screaming into the game 5-0-1 in their past six games, with just nine non-shootout goals allowed during that stretch. The Penguins come slinking into the game on a three-game skid, matching their longest losing streak in regulation.
"We try to say every game is a big game, but when we haven't seen that many teams in our division, these are big games," Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad said. "They're huge."
The game against Washington was one of 17 remaining within the Metropolitan Division through the end of the season for New York after playing just nine before that.
The Rangers face that schedule with a division title within reach, but they aren't necessarily thinking quite that big yet.
"For me, speaking personally, I just want to get in (the playoffs)," New York defenseman Adam Fox said. "You always hear that's the most important thing. Once you're in, there's a lot of good teams in the league, and anything can really happen. You see teams beat teams that finished higher than them in the regular season.
"Obviously, you want to be able to play playoff games on home ice and have that advantage. At the same time, getting there is the most important thing."
Realistically, it would take quite a collapse for the Rangers or the Penguins to miss the playoffs, given that there is a well-defined gap between the top four teams in the Metropolitan Division and the rest.
That won't stop New York or Pittsburgh from being concerned, though, and the Penguins are at a point where concern is a big theme.
"To a certain extent, the last few games, we beat ourselves in a lot of ways -- a lot of different ways," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I don't think it's from a lack of effort. In certain areas, there are lapses in the game where we just (haven't been) diligent."
During its three-game losing streak, Pittsburgh has been outscored 14-5. No. 1 goaltender Tristan Jarry, arguably the team's most valuable player this season, was pulled for the first time in the game against New Jersey, although his five goals against were also the product of the way his teammates played. At the same time, Pittsburgh got thwarted by a goaltender, Nico Daws, playing his fifth NHL game.
"There's definitely frustration," Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson said. "Our job is to win hockey games, and when you're not doing it, it's really frustrating. Everyone cares so much. I think there would be an issue if there wasn't any frustration."
Pittsburgh also has a division-heavy schedule remaining, with 15 Metropolitan matchups left.
"It starts with just winning battles and competing. Everything kind of seems to follow when you have those details," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "But it doesn't happen overnight. You've got to string some good periods together, and we haven't a good job of that."
--Field Level Media