Rangers finally back on ice to host Maple Leafs

NEW YORK — The Toronto Maple Leafs will hope to impact the Eastern Conference wild card race for the second time in as many nights Thursday.

But the New York Rangers won’t have to do much to fare better against the Maple Leafs than their fiercest local rivals did Wednesday night.

The Rangers will become the final Eastern Conference team to resume the post-All-Star Break schedule Thursday, when they host the Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden.

The Rangers will be playing for the first time since Jan. 25, when they salvaged the finale of a four-game road trip by edging the host San Jose Sharks 6-5. The Maple Leafs got their second half off to a rollicking start Wednesday, when they blanked the visiting New York Islanders 5-0.

The win by the Maple Leafs helped the Rangers (25-20-5), who remained tied with the Islanders for ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Both New York squads are one point behind the Philadelphia Flyers, who enter Thursday in sole possession of the second wild card.

But to reach the playoffs for the eighth straight season, the Rangers know they’ll have to start stringing together wins, especially after a five-week span in which New York went 6-7-1 while dealing with the herky-jerky schedule created by the Christmas break, the “bye” week and the All-Star Break.

“Obviously, it’s nice to have a break, but it’s been a few lately,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist told reporters following practice Wednesday. “I look forward now to just going out and playing a lot of hockey and just taking on this challenge. It’s a good one for this team to try to answer her in the next few weeks.”

The Maple Leafs (29-18-5) are in far sturdier playoff position than the Rangers. Toronto enters Thursday third in the Atlantic Division, a whopping 15 points ahead of the fourth-place Detroit Red Wings.

Coach Mike Babcock hopes his squad shook off the rust and received a jolt of adrenaline Wednesday, when rookies Travis Dermott and Justin Holl completed the scoring for Toronto by producing their first NHL goals.

Dermott and Holl had their fathers in attendance as the Maple Leafs began their “Fathers’ Trip.” Players will be joined by their dads during the two-game east coast swing to New York and Boston, where Toronto faces the Bruins on Saturday night.

“Obviously, good for those kids,” Babcock said. “You don’t get to score your first NHL goal very often — one time — (so) it’s great if your dad is here and great to see it. I saw between periods a few tears, which was nice to see as well.

“It’s not just an individual accomplishment. It’s a family accomplishment and they all should be proud. It’s a good win for our team tonight and a good way to start our trip.”

Lundqvist is expected to start for the Rangers against Maple Leafs backup Curtis McElhinney, who will play a night after No. 1 netminder Frederik Anderson earned his fourth shutout of the season by stopping all 28 shots he faced against the Islanders.

Lundqvist is 15-10-5 in 31 games against the Maple Leafs while McElhinney is 1-1-1 in four appearances against the Rangers.