W2W4: Rangers vs. Panthers

January, 5, 2012
1/05/12
1:51
PM ET
At a glance: 7-3-0 over their last ten games, the Rangers enter Thursday’s contest in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference standings. The 24-9-4 Blueshirts, who boast an impressive 11-3-2 home record, host the Southeast Division-leading Panthers. Florida has struggled of late but remains within five points of the top spot in the East.

Last time around: Brad Richards and rookie Carl Hagelin each tallied a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ 4-1 win over the Panthers last Friday. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist turned away 27 shots in the team’s Winter Classic tuneup to take a 2-1 season series edge. The two teams meet for the fourth and final time this season.

Biron in net: Martin Biron will make his tenth start of the season against the Panthers. The 34-year-old backup goaltender has been stellarbehind starter Henrik Lundqvist, posting a 7-2-0 record with .923 save percentage, 2.08 goals against average and one shutout. Biron was saddled with his first loss in five starts in the team’s 4-1 defeat against Washington last Wednesday.

Staal still working: With his long-awaited season debut during Monday’s Winter Classic, defenseman Marc Staal will play in his second game following a ten-month layoff while recovering from post-concussion symptoms. Tortorella eased in Staal with 12:41 spread out over 20 shifts on the team’s third defensive pair with Stu Bickel. Look for Staal to steadily increase his ice time each game as he aims to return to form.

Waiting his turn: Wojtek Wolski is finally healthy after undergoing sports hernia surgery November. The 25-year-old winger has played only six games this season and likely won’t return to the lineup against Florida. Rangers coach John Tortorella said the inconsistent forward will have to “wait his turn” to make his way back into the lineup.

Ban for Barch: The Panthers will be without forward Krys Barch, who was suspended by the league for one game for using inappropriate language in the Panthers' 3-2 win over Montreal Saturday.

Bottom line: In a battle between two of the top three teams in the East, the Rangers look to collect their third straight win before heading to Pittsburgh Friday for the second game of a back-to-back set. Meanwhile, Florida looks to gain some ground in the standings in hostile territory at Madison Square Garden.
Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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