Can a hockey game in early January be classified as a big game?

It is if you are the New York Rangers and you are facing the Tampa Bay Lightning and you are coming off a three game Western Canada swing that saw the Blueshirts post only one point. The Blueshirts need to shake off the clichéd, yet inevitable, curse of the first game back from a road trip.

It is if you are facing the prospect of playing that game, and more, without two of your veteran leaders: Martin Straka and Brendan Shanahan. Straka is expected to miss at least two games due to a concussion he suffered in the overtime loss at Edmonton. Shanahan is listed as day-to-day after suffering a knee “contusion: in a collision with the Oilers Dustin Penner. That is a pretty steep price to pay for one point.

It is if you are hitting a favorable stretch of your schedule where you play seven of your next nine games at Madison Square Garden. The first of these games comes against a Lightning team that has given up an NHL worst 144 goals against that is expected to start rookie netminder Karri Ramo. The Rangers, who are continuing their morphing into “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”, must find their offense, and in a hurry. Hollywood’s central casting has provided the perfect villains for the Rangers revival.

It is if you are hockey team that is still looking for its first power play goal of the New Year as the Blueshirts inconsistent power play maintains its (in)consistency.

It is if you are looking to establish some type of stamp on a team that is only 5-8-3 in their last 16 games. If the Rangers are going to kick start the second half of their season, there is no better time, no better place and no better team to do it against than the Tampa Bay Lightning – a team that has only won three road games all year and have not won since December 20 (0-5-2).

It is if you are Nigel Dawes and Greg Moore – two players who see significant ice time if Straka and Shanahan are unable to go tonight. Tonight’s game is the best chance for these two youngsters to make a name for themselves and show the Rangers organization that they deserve to stay and play in the NHL. Even if Shanahan does play, both youngsters might see action if Sean Avery is unable to go. According to Larry Brooks in today’s “NY Post”, the feisty LW is suffering from a sore hand he got in the, yup you guessed it, Edmonton game.

The game is important for Henrik Lundqvist as news of his father’s health problems surfaced this week. The King needs to show his personal problems are behind and that he backs to his Vezina Trophy form.

UPDATE: According to Sam Weinman of the “Journal News”, the Rangers task at hand in this big game has turned even more difficult. Sean Avery has a “contusion” on his right hand (the one that was not operated on) and has been placed on the Injured Reserve List as of Saturday night. The injury occurred in the Rangers win over Montreal prior to their trip to Western Canada and Avery, ever the earrior, played through it. He will be out at least a week but possibly longer if the swelling is slow to subside.

It seems that Brendan Shanahan might miss tonight’s game. Weinman reported that Shanny skated prior to the Rangers practice and he will give the old college try in warmups. As a precaution, the Rangers have recalled Pierre Parenteau from Hartford.

Just when you thought things could not get worse, it also seems that Greg Moore will not play tonight. No, he did not hop back on the shuttle to Hartford. Instead, Moore missed practice today with the flu and is questionable for tonight. Depending on how the walking wounded do between now and the opening face off, it is possible disgruntled defenseman Marek Malik will have to be in the lineup with Jason Strudwick moving up front to play forward.

Weinman offered some possible line combinations depending on how the lineup shakes out. Moore has been playing with Parenteau and Nigel Dawes in Hartford so it is possible that line could be reunited in the Garden if Moore plays. Weinman writes that if Moore does play, coach Tom Renney might put all of his eggs in one basket and move Chris Drury up with Scott Gomez and Jaromir Jagr. If that is the case, that would leave Marcel Hossa, Brandon Dubinsky and Petr Prucha as the third line backed up by the HBO Line of Ryan Hollweg, Blair Betts and Colton Orr – not exactly the steallar type of lineup a team wants on the ice in a big game.

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