Photo: AP

This date has been looming large on the horizon ever since this road trip began. New York Rangers franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goaltender in the league since the new year, would likely be the most impenetrable netminder the Blackhawks faced on this road trip. And as the games — ok, let’s call them what they are… the losses — drew us nearer to today, Lundqvist kept getting better. In his last 8 games he has 7 wins, including 2 against Philadelphia and capped with a shutout of Boston on Tuesday. In that stretch of 8 games he has 3 shutouts and has let in a total of only 9 goals.

The way this was looking, the Blackhawks may as well have been shooting at a net protected by a force field.

But then, through some quirk of fate or coincidence, the darkness lifted, the clouds parted, and for the first time since before the All-Star break, the Hockey Gods smiled on the Chicago Blackhawks…

Henrik Lundqvist will be on the bench tonight; Martin Biron starts for the Rangers.

But before we go letting out a huge sigh of relief, Biron is 10-2-1 on the year, hasn’t lost in his last 4 starts, and during that stretch has a GAA within a hair’s breath of 2.00 and a save percentage above .920. So the bad news is, he’s no sieve; and the worse news is he has the New York Rangers in front of him.

The Rangers lead the Eastern Conference at the moment, a mere point behind league-leading Detroit (*spitting noise*); they are second in goals-against average on the season, and they are top-10 in goals-for average — though they rank below the Blackhawks in that category. Their offense is somewhat clustered around the three guys at the top of the stats sheet: Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan, and Marian Gaborik.

But what’s particularly noteworthy of the Rangers, and what’s gotten them to where they are in the standings, is their work ethic. As Head Coach John Tortorella said during an interview featured on HBO’s 24/7: Flyers/Rangers, they are a “lunch-pail team.” Work hard every night, put in 60 minutes off 100% effort, and the wins will come. That team philosophy has finally taken hold of the Rangers since Christmas, and the results are evident: 14 wins in 19 contests, beginning with the victory over the Flyers at the NHL Winter Classic.

Whether King Henrik is in goal or not, the Rangers are coming to play tonight. This is likely to be one of the toughest games the Blackhawks will play all year.

As the Rangers have enjoyed watching their hard work turn into success, the Blackhawks have been lugging suitcases all over the western 2/3 of the continent getting their ass handed to them on a nightly basis. The losing streak stands at 9 games, and during that time all manner of hell has broken loose among the Blackhawks faithful.

The impending trade deadline hasn’t made things any easier, as ‘Hawks fans see February 29th as the day the guillotine drops on the season should the team’s woes continue. To a certain degree they’re right, but the nature of the possible solutions being tossed around in the Blogosphere and on the Twitterscape has gone from strange, to outlandish, to bizarre, to downright psychotic. The latest set of suggestions — trading key offensive assets for reasons defying comprehension — are merely the mark of two audiences: hockey neophytes, unable to distinguish between a forecheck and a bounced check; and genuine fans, not far removed from the days of Dollar Bill Wirtz, who want to see the team re-assert its commitment to winning — even if it means drastic and unorthodox measures.

It’s the hue and cry of the ignorant and the frustrated. This team won a Stanley Cup not 2 years hence, and was considered a favorite to go all the way not 2 months ago. Fans are upset, and they have a right to be. Especially with the response we have seen from Head Coach Joel Quenneville and General Manager Stan Bowman.

StanBow says you can forget any major trades for impact players, forget acquiring a proven #1 goaltender, and forget firing Coach Q. QStache, for his part, has done very little but continue the nightly routine of juggling wingers and tinkering with defensive pairings, as if all possible permutations had not been tried several times already. Both men have said, in their own roundabout way, that this is a player problem, and the players will have to work their way through it.

Translation: we’re out of ideas. It’s faint wonder fans are frustrated.

So. What will we see tonight when the puck drops at Madison Square Garden? Same lineup as against Nashville, though Corey Crawford will be between the pipes. The adjustments to the ‘Hawks penalty kill strategy bore fruit last game, so we will likely see that continue; the adjustments to the power play did not, so it’s anybody’s guess there. The Rangers are a physical team, and will likely try to gain the upper hand early by throwing the body; the Blackhawks need to stay disciplined, stick to their game, and stay out of the box. With Biron in goal, the ‘Hawks would do well to throw pucks at the goal and crash the net.

Now watch: we’ll find out Torts was just screwing with us all day and he’ll start Hank anyhow…

Administrative nonsense: Defensemen Steve Montador and Niklas Hjalmarsson are both out with injuries; the Rangers are without winger Ruslan Fedotenko and defemseman Michael Sauer. As mentioned above, Martin Biron starts in net for New York, Corey Crawford gets the call for Chicago.

It’s a 6:00pm puck drop tonight on Broadway. The game is being shown live coast-to-coast in the U.S. on the NHL Network, though Chicagoland viewers will see the game on Comcast SportsNet; WGN AM-720 has the game on broadcast radio; XM subscribers should tune in on channel 92; and Sirius Premiere customers can hear the game on channel 207 — though both of those satellite radio providers think we’re playing the Islanders.

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