The Rangers don't need any outside help in order to win first place in the Eastern Conference, but that doesn't mean it isn't nice to get a little.
Tuesday night saw the Rangers clinging to a one-point lead over the Penguins with back-to-back road games in Minnesota and Winnipeg staring them in the face. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would be squaring off with the Islanders twice in three days with the first game coming on their home ice.
Such a situation smelled ripe for the Rangers to be looking up in the standings at someone for the first time this season, but smells can be deceiving. Not only did the Rangers win 3-2 in Minnesota to assure themselves another day at the top of the food chain, they also got help from a team that would sooner through kerosene on a fire at Madison Square Garden than offer a helping hand.
The Islanders, on the verge of being officially eliminated from the playoff chase, overcame an injury to starting goalie Evgeni Nabokov and 54 Penguins shots to come up with their first win in Pittsburgh in nearly four years. The 5-3 win moved the Rangers' lead back to three points, an important bit of breathing room at this point in the season.
Remembering that the Rangers hold the tiebreaker over the Penguins makes that three-point lead essentially a four-point bulge with six games left to play. That means six points in the final six games will force the Penguins to get 10 points, a tall task even for a team that's been playing as well as the Penguins have played this month.
Can the Rangers get those six points? It isn't guaranteed, but it should help that the team is getting back to conference play after their visit to the Wild.
There's something about interconference games in today's NHL, even ones featuring good teams, that leaves them lacking anything close to urgency on the ice. You'd think that wouldn't be a problem for the Rangers given their situation, but Tuesday night's game had about as much passion as an interaction at the DMV.
As a result, there were a handful of strong individual performances -- Marian Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky, Brian Boyle -- amid a sea of generally uninspired play from the Rangers on Tuesday night. Most alarming was the penalty kill, normally a big strength, which looked far too comfortable taking the easy route instead of working to create the blocked shots and takeaways that have been this team's bread and butter.
If they lacked the energy on Tuesday, it's worth wondering if they are going to be able to find it one night later against a Jets team that gets as much support at home as any in hockey. If not, the Rangers could well find themselves on the wrong side of the final score.
Thanks to Tuesday night, they can do that without doing severe damage to themselves. They might want to go ahead and win anyway, however.
The chances of the Islanders making the Rangers smile twice in a week aren't really something you want to bank on.