Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award

With just seven games remaining, the Rangers are closing in on a division title while chasing home ice. Currently second in the East with 101 points, they trail Montreal by a point with two games at hand. They enter tonight’s match at Winnipeg on a two-game losing streak. Having been badly outplayed this weekend by Boston and Washington, the Blueshirts look to get back in the win column with Henrik Lundqvist making his second start.

While they continue to battle for the conference’s top seed, it’s time to vote on the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. Named after former New York City police officer Steven McDonald, who was shot in the line of duty paralyzing him the prestigious award goes to the Ranger who goes above and beyond the call of duty. Last year’s winner was Mats Zuccarello.

This year, there are three candidates. Here are our choices.

Kiss Cam: Chris Kreider kisses Cam Talbot's helmet following his 28-save performance in the Rangers' 3-1 win that moved them into first.  AP Photo by Alex Brandon/Getty Images

Kiss Cam: Chris Kreider kisses Cam Talbot’s helmet following his 28-save performance in the Rangers’ 3-1 win that moved them into first.
AP Photo by Alex Brandon/Getty Images

A.Cam Talbot-Forced into the spotlight when Lundqvist went down due to a sprained blood vessel, the league’s best backup stepped up going 16-4-3 with a 2.11 goals-against-average, .931 save percentage and two shutouts vaulting them into first place. Overall, Talbot’s 20-9-4 with a 2.21 GAA, .926 save percentage and five shutouts.

Nashty Boy: Rick Nash (center) is congratulated by J.T. Miller (left) and Mats Zuccarello (right) after scoring another goal.  AP Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Nashty Boy: Rick Nash (center) is congratulated by J.T. Miller (left) and Mats Zuccarello (right) after scoring another goal.
AP Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

B.Rick Nash-Since the start, he’s been a constant. For the first four months, Nash was unstoppable putting up 37 goals and 58 points in the team’s first 60 games. A neck injury has limited him to three goals and seven points in 14 games this month. The team leader in goals (40), points (65), plus/minus (27), shorthanded goals (4) and game-winners (8) has been tremendous and should be up for the Selke.

Kevin Klein celebrates an overtime goal.  Getty Images/nydailynews.com

Kevin Klein celebrates an overtime goal.
Getty Images/nydailynews.com

C.Kevin Klein-When Glen Sather traded Michael Del Zotto for Kevin Klein, no one could’ve predicted how well the former Predator defensive defenseman would play. A steady stay at home type with a low key approach, he’s busted out for a career high nine goals and 26 points while pacing all Blueshirts D in plus/minus (24). It’s no coincidence that the back end has struggled since he broke his arm. Undoubtedly, they’ll need a healthy Klein come postseason.

Honorable Mentions: Carl Hagelin (16-16-32 +22), Kevin Hayes (15-24-39 +15), Marc Staal (5-13-18 +17), Derick Brassard (16-39-55 15 PPP), Derek Stepan (13-36-49 in 61 GP, +20)

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Kreider’s two goals and assist help Rangers clinch playoffs in 5-1 win over Senators

Glass Half Full: Tanner Glass celebrates his first goal with Kevin Hayes and Matt Hunwick.  AP Photo by Adrian Wyld of The Canadian Press

Glass Half Full: Tanner Glass celebrates his first goal with Kevin Hayes and Matt Hunwick.
AP Photo by Adrian Wyld of The Canadian Press

As if you didn’t already know, the Rangers are back in the playoffs. For the fifth straight year, it became official last night when they put a halt to the Senators’ seven-game win streak with a convincing 5-1 win at Canadian Tire Centre. The victory was a good response to a 4-2 home disappointment to the Kings, who flexed their muscles by sweeping the three locals including a 3-2 win over the Islanders last night. Now tied with Anaheim for the most points with 101, the Rangers continue to chase a President’s Trophy that would guarantee home ice.

Chris Kreider had a big night scoring twice and assisting on another. It was his first multi-point night since a two-goal performance in a Feb. 26 win over Arizona. The second-year forward has four points (3-1-4) in the last three games. Along with Derek Stepan (2 assists), they’re heating up at the right time. Rick Nash didn’t score for the eighth straight game but did register his second assist in the last three setting up a pretty Dan Boyle goal off the rush.

Among the highlights, Kevin Hayes set up Tanner Glass’ first goal of the season. Glass came out of the penalty box in the third and Hayes made a perfect outlet allowing Glass to walk in and beat Andrew Hammond to chase him. That in itself was a big story. Already dubbed the “Hamburglar” for a 14-0-1 start to his NHL career, the 27-year old undrafted sensation had never lost in regulation. His run has been amazing leading the Sens past the Bruins into the second wildcard which they still lead due to one less game played. They’re currently tied with 85 points. Boston lost in overtime to Anaheim.

”You’ve got to help out your goaltender, especially with Hammer since he’s stood on his head for us for so many games in a row,” Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot said. ”We certainly didn’t do him any favors and it showed and we got pumped on the scoreboard.”

Kreider got the scoring started thanks to a brilliant pass from Stepan. Using the side boards, Stepan banked a pass that allowed a rushing Kreider to walk in and beat Hammond for his 19th at 12:38. But before they got comfortable, Curtis Lazar tied it 19 seconds later from Erik Condra.

”I thought it was pretty sloppy for the first 10 minutes or so and then I think both teams did a good job executing the second half of that first period,” Kreider said after recording his first 20-goal season while adding his 40th point.

The Rangers replied back twice within a 4:20 span to take a 3-1 lead to the locker room. First, Kreider passed for an on rushing Nash, who pulled up and found trailer Boyle for his ninth at 14:40. With exactly a minute left, Kreider was the beneficiary of a bad rebound Hammond allowed on a Stepan shot. Off a Sens’ turnover in the neutral zone, Mats Zuccarello fed Stepan, who surprised Hammond. He couldn’t control the rebound which took a funny bounce right to Kreider, who stuffed home number 20.

The Sens never recovered. The Rangers added two more goals in the second. A nice Keith Yandle outlet for Hayes allowed him to make a diagonal feed across for a wide open Zuccarello, who buried his 14th into an open side increasing to 4-1 at 1:42.

Even with a rare loss of discipline that included a Nash’s second consecutive minor followed by a Glass slash leading to an Ottawa 34-second five-on-three, they failed to cash in. In fact, they only had four shots in the period despite three consecutive power plays. In what likely was his final start as the number one goalie, Cam Talbot made 23 saves to win his 20th game. Amazingly, the Rangers now boast two netminders with at least 20 wins. Henrik Lundqvist, who backed up could finally return tomorrow against Boston. He has 25 wins. The Rangers play on Saturday and Sunday. He’ll get one of the games.

The final highlight was Glass’ goal. The much maligned fourth liner has been playing better the last couple of weeks. I noted to my brother that he was coming close to scoring. Finally, the hard work paid off. After coming out of the penalty box, Hayes found him for a breakaway and he was able to beat Hammond with a quick snapshot leading to a smile along with congrats from happy teammates. It was a nice moment for a good team guy.

”We played pretty well away from the puck and we were able to take it home and get two points to clinch a playoff spot,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. ”Probably caught their goalie on an off night and we were able to capitalize early.”

Curiously, Hammond admitted that he’s been playing with an injury following the loss. It’ll be interesting to see what that means for Ottawa’s playoff chances. Chris Driedger replaced him making his NHL debut.

For the Rangers, it’s different. With nine games left, it now becomes about getting Lundqvist ready. There aren’t many off days. So, Vigneault should have no problem getting the franchise goalie enough action. How soon will Lundqvist get sharp? Sometimes, it takes a while. We’ve seen in the past that it takes him time. It’s a storyline worth following.

Notes: Dan Girardi didn’t play the third after blocking a shot. He still logged 21:21 taking an incredible 28 shifts. Danny G is the true definition of a warrior. For all the flak he gets from unappreciative fans, the guy has more heart than anyone. … Rangers visit Boston for a 1 PM matinee tomorrow before returning to MSG Sunday to host the Capitals.

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Rangers quack Ducks 7-2

Facing one of the league’s best teams, the Rangers quacked the Ducks literally snapping out of it with a season high seven goals in a 7-2 win at MSG. It moved them up to 99 points tying Anaheim and Montreal for the league lead. By virtue of more regulation and overtime wins (42) and three more games remaining, they vaulted to the top for the President’s Trophy.

Entering the match, they had struggled offensively. In a back-to-back, they showed up ready from the start. Chris Kreider got it started by getting to a rebound in front and stuffing home his career best 18th goal at 1:24. The play was set up from Derek Stepan, who broke out in a big way scoring twice and assisting on another to erase a 12-game pointless drought. Ryan McDonagh took the shot which Stepan deflected. The puck took a weird bounce and Kreider beat Frederik Andersen.

Early on, Corey Perry did his best to keep the Ducks in it scoring twice in a high scoring first period where the teams combined for five goals. Off a strong cycle, Perry answered Kreider 1:26 later when he skated to open ice and used J.T. Miller as a screen surprising Cam Talbot for his 30th. Patrick Maroon and Sami Vatanen assisted.

A Maroon boarding minor resulted in a miracle of sorts. A power play goal was scored by the home team. This actually happened when Keith Yandle made a soft pass for a Stepan one-timer that eluded Andersen with Kreider screening in front. It was their first PPG in their last 19. Yandle had a breakout game recording three assists. He only had a goal since coming over from Arizona. A great outlet sent Kevin Hayes in. The rookie wisely skated and fired a turnaround shot that Carl Hagelin got a piece of to chase Andersen. He allowed three goals on seven shots before John Gibson came in.

Less than a minute later, Perry made another all world play when in open ice he maneuvered around McDonagh to the inside and beat Talbot with a nice snapshot cutting it to 3-2 with 8:48 left. The period was very chippy. The Ducks made a point to finish every check. During a shift, Dan Boyle took a tough hit. When he came to the bench, he sought out Perry and the two exchanged punches going to their respective penalty boxes for matching roughs. Ryan Kesler also got involved when he tripped Dan Girardi. The second penalty he drew.

After the teams combined for five goals and 28 shots with the Ducks getting 17 on Talbot, the Rangers took control in the second. Playing smarter defensively while continuing to use their team speed, they scored the only two goals of the middle stanza. Off a rush started by Yandle, Mats Zuccarello made a nice cross-ice feed for Miller, who went top shelf on Gibson for his second goal in two days. So far, he’s looked good playing with Zuccarello and Derick Brassard. Miller is up to nine goals.

Leading 4-2, the Rangers got a big goal with 3:59 left in the second. Taking full advantage of a Francois Beauchemin turnover, Stepan patiently waited for an Anaheim defenseman to move before firing through Gibson’s wickets for his second of the night.

In the third, they put it out of reach. Jesper Fast continued his improvement by scoring for a second consecutive game from Hayes to make it 6-2. A couple of minutes later, more great passing from Zuccarello resulted in Brassard scoring his first in seven.

Talbot did the rest turning aside all 15 Anaheim shots in the third including a stone job on Perry denying his bid for a hat trick. He leads the NHL with three. Overall, Talbot finished with 36 saves. That makes it nine straight games he’s allowed two goals or fewer.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-J.T. Miller, NYR (goal-9th, assist, +2 in 12:40)

2nd Star-Keith Yandle, NYR (3 assists, 4 SOG, +3 in 20:41)

1st Star-Derek Stepan, NYR (2 goals-12, 13, assist, 5 SOG in 7 attempts, +1 in 16:43)

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Offense at premium for Rangers as Ducks visit

Rick Nash can't get one to go by Anton Khudobin. The Rangers need more from their best players down the stretch. AP Photo by Karl B. DeBlaker/Getty Images

Rick Nash can’t get one to go by Anton Khudobin. The Rangers need more from their best players down the stretch.
AP Photo by Karl B. DeBlaker/Getty Images

Even when they don’t play near their best, the Rangers continue to win hockey games. Take last night’s too close for comfort 3-2 shootout win over the Hurricanes in Raleigh. They played one good period scoring both goals in the second with kids J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast tallying.¬†The Canes tied it in the third on a Ryan Murphy power play goal outshooting the Rangers 17-6.

Without Cam Talbot, they don’t win. Coming off a rare loss in regulation, Talbot was strong making 28 saves including 16 in a lopsided third that saw the Canes dominate puck possession. After giving up a bad goal to Elias Lindholm, he was terrific once again. The league’s best backup has been carrying his team lately. He’s allowed two goals or less in eight straight starts entering tonight’s stern test against the Ducks.

When they were winning early on after Talbot took over for injured starter Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers were outscoring opponents. It was Talbot who was struggling giving up tough goals and fighting the puck. However, it’s been a role reversal with the second-year netminder keeping his team in games and winning. His clutch play has allowed them to contend for a division title along with the President’s Trophy. Entering tonight’s match that doesn’t start until 7:30 PM, they have 97 points with 13 games left. They trail Anaheim and Montreal by two for the league lead with three games in hand.

Offensively, the Rangers have cooled off considerably. Since scoring four in a March 2 4-1 home win over Nashville, they’ve been limited to 13 goals over the past eight. They’ve only scored three once in a 3-1 win over Washington and have been held to two goals or fewer in seven of eight. As the games have tightened, scoring has dried up.

So, what’s happened? For starters, leading scorer Rick Nash hasn’t been the same since missing a Feb. 24 game against Calgary with “neck spasms.” The effort is unquestioned. The finish isn’t there. Once the league leader in goals, he has only two in the last 11 since returning. Only one was on a goalie with the other an empty netter. He’s getting chances but just not converting. Since scoring his team best 39th along with a helper in a 2-1 win over the Islanders, the Big Easy is without a point in five with 18 shots. He’s still very active on the forecheck and continuing to fire away. Eventually, one will go in.

While getting Nash untracked is huge, the same can be echoed for Derek Stepan. After being so productive with 43 points in his first 44 games, the team’s best center is in a brutal 12-game stretch without a point. Hard to believe because he’s still noticeable during shifts making smart defensive plays while being a shorthanded threat with Nash on the penalty kill. With Stepan, the only area you worry about is faceoffs. Last night, he lost 14 of 20 mostly against Jordan Staal, who was matched against him. Like Nash, he also has come close lately registering six shots in a 1-0 shutout loss to Chicago and almost scoring on a stuff try Saturday.

When Alain Vigneault changed up the lines with Martin St. Louis out, he was hoping reuniting Nash with Stepan and Chris Kreider would spark them. They were good for most shifts yesterday but didn’t find twine. At times, Kreider can dominate during shifts with his rare combo of size, speed and skill. Without a goal in eight and with two assists, he must stay active. They did have him as a net presence against Carolina goalie Anton Khudobin on a power play with Keith Yandle getting a good shot on net. Kreider also made a good play on the forecheck to set up Stepan for his chance behind the net.¬†Without a doubt, the reunited trio need a goal. They’re due. Maybe they snap out of it later.

Mats Zuccarello always brings a strong work ethic. The pint sized Norwegian has a huge heart and never takes a shift off. He hasn’t been finishing. Without a goal since Feb. 20 versus Buffalo, he has seven assists over the last 11 contests. So, he’s still contributing. But since Vigneault broke up the top line of Nash, Derick Brassard and Zuccarello, he’s gone cold. His assist on Miller’s goal was his first point in five. It came off a Brassard faceoff win. Brassard also recorded his first point in five with a helper. The team leader in assists with 39 and a career high 53 points, he has five points over the last 10. However, he also has only one goal since Feb. 4. An overtime winner that beat the Hawks in Chicago.

Obviously, the production is good for a player Glen Sather rewarded $25 million over five years for. He’s on track for his first 60-point season. It’s not like Brassard is incapable of scoring. He is very unselfish preferring to pass instead of shoot. On the power play which continues to puzzle now 0 for its last 16, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Brassard looked to shoot. The power play has been woefully bad only connecting once since Yandle came over. It was Dan Girardi of all people back on Mar. 4.

Understandably, when the man-advantage is a disadvantage it allows opponents to be more aggressive disrespecting it. A strategy Carolina employed with success. They went for it shorthanded. The Rangers have been timid and also outworked up a man. At some point, that must change. As evidenced during last year’s Stanley Cup Final, the lack of a power play doomed them. They blew several chances against LA including a pair in sudden death of Game 5 that I’ve tried to erase from my memory.

With the race heating up, the Rangers’ best players need to be their best. Even without St. Louis, there’s enough talent offensively. Lately, it’s been the play of rookie Kevin Hayes who neatly set up Fast’s fourth. The fourth line led by Dominic Moore has also played well including Tanner Glass, who’s been in position to score. They were effective with James Sheppard Saturday.

Having strong support lines is important for the playoffs. Vigneault continues to roll four lines showing confidence. Though I’d prefer not to see the fourth line out in the final minute of a tie game. But that also was indicative of how ineffective the top two lines were.

For as much attention as has been on the key forwards lately, not enough has been said about Ryan McDonagh. Sure. His defense has finally come back to the level he excels at neutralizing opposing scorers. Even with Vigneault throwing a wrinkle shifting McDonagh to the right and bumping up Matt Hunwick, the 27th team captain is looking more confident. His offense has all but disappeared with just two points (both assists) over the last 15. In an emotional 6-5 come from behind win on Feb. 16 over the Islanders, McDonagh provided the spark tallying twice. But in a season that saw him miss time with a separated shoulder, he’s only done it in spurts. He is the leader. They’ll need better production in the second season.

With Vigneault opting to team Yandle with Dan Boyle while reuniting Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, he’s experimenting without Kevin Klein. Klein, who broke his left arm won’t return until the playoffs. Hopefully, he’ll be ready for the first round. Yandle and Boyle were very shaky against Carolina. Yandle had some scary turnovers. It’s definitely a risky tandem. But Vigneault can always change it up if needed.

As they enter the home stretch, the Rangers want to raise their level. Especially with tougher competition this week. You have the Ducks tonight and the desperate Kings who need every point to even qualify for the tournament. They trail Calgary by two and have three less regulation overtime wins (ROW). The Rangers also see a red hot Ottawa team only a point behind Boston for the last wildcard. Then visit Boston. It’s interesting how they can impact both conference races with stops at Winnipeg and Minnesota.

What’s most imperative is that they get back to playing Ranger hockey. We saw what they’re capable of in the second period. It has to be there more often. Especially with Lundqvist due back soon.

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Richards successful MSG return helps Hawks shutout Rangers

Brad Richards is checked by ex-teammate Carl Hagelin. Richards had a successful return scoring the only goal in the Hawks' 1-0 shutout over the Rangers. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Brad Richards is checked by ex-teammate Carl Hagelin. Richards had a successful return scoring the only goal in the Hawks’ 1-0 shutout over the Rangers.
AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Brad Richards made a successful return to MSG. His goal broke a scoreless tie with 12:41 left in the third period to give the Blackhawks a 1-0 shutout win over the Rangers. For a player who spent three years here helping lead them to a Stanley Cup Final appearance last year, it was an emotional night.

”Tonight was a little special,” Richards said after getting a nice video tribute during a stoppage in the first period. ”It’s a bonus to get one in this building against them, but not in a bad way. I have nothing bad to say about the organization or New York. Everyone knows how much I love playing here.

”It was pretty cool to score against them and win the game.”

Richards had a strong game getting the only goal and finishing with six shots. He came close a couple of other times. It was fitting that he got the winner. For a veteran who’s gone through a 23-game goal drought, you could tell how much scoring that goal meant to him. Even better, it was a brilliant play by Richards, who slipped out in front and beat Cam Talbot top shelf.

On a night Scott Darling got the start with Corey Crawford resting after beating the Islanders the day before, the Hawks played a tight checking game. They limited the Rangers’ chances and shutdown the power play. Of course, anyone who’s seen it knows it’s not too hard to stop it. Outside of one close call where Keith Yandle set up Stepan, it again failed miserably. Oddly, the goal light came on but Stepan’s drive didn’t go in. The Rangers also had a goal disallowed due to a whistle blowing.

It just wasn’t their night. They hadn’t lost in regulation since Feb. 28. All good things must come to an end. Playing without Martin St. Louis, the offense wasn’t good enough. To be blunt, it’s been headed downhill for a while. Including tonight, they’ve scored three goals once in the last six. The home shutout was the first since a 1-0 loss to Montreal on 1/29.

Where has the offense gone? Well, Derek Stepan once again was blanked despite a strong game. He had a team-high six shots. Rick Nash came close on a mini-break only to be robbed by Darling, who did the splits on a forehand try. The only time you noticed Chris Kreider, it was for some awful giveaways that led to Hawks’ chances that Talbot bailed him out on. The newly formed Kevin Hayes, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello unit were ineffective. The third line of Carl Hagelin, James Sheppard and J.T. Miller had a couple of strong shifts but only combined for three shots. The fourth line of Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast were solid for the most part but on for Richards’ goal.

There really wasn’t much. No line stood out. On the Hawks’ side, Patrick Sharp was flying getting five shots including a breakaway that Talbot denied him on late to keep it a one-goal contest. Brandon Saad also was all over the ice with five shots including a wrap around attempt that was defended well by Fast allowing Talbot to make the save. Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews showed glimpses but neither were factors. And Richards played well and got a just reward.

Both teams played tight defensively. It was like a playoff game. Similar to the last time they played- a game Brassard won in overtime- they competed in all three zones. Most scoring chances were earned. The Original Six rivals combined for 56 shots on goal with another 56 attempted. When the total number of missed shots and blocked shots matches the actual shot total, it tells you how competitive it was. These are the kind of games they’ll be playing a month from now. Get used to it.

The days of wide open hockey which Alain Vigneault has his team playing are coming to a close. These are the games they’ll have to win. The Rangers have proven they have the ability to win low scoring highly contested games. It would be nice for them to figure it out on the power play. When Yandle is so hesitant to shoot and the other shooters are too passive, it is a concern. Of course, Yandle is a passer and makes good passes for open shots. The problem is there’s no finish.

Prior to Richards’ goal, Boyle had a shot go off the far post. The puck carom allowed the Hawks to transition quickly. Eventually, Richards came out with the puck off a good forecheck from pinching defenseman Duncan Keith and patiently outwaited Talbot for his 11th. From there, the Hawks protected the lead well allowing Darling to see all 25 shots for his first NHL shutout.

”This was special for me against them in this famous arena,” the 26-year-old Darling said. ”An Original Six matchup on national TV. You can’t ask for more. It was a great night.”

”I felt really good again,” Talbot said after finishing with 30 saves. ”I felt like I was seeing the puck well and controlling the puck. It’s tough when a guy like Richie gets that much time in the slot. You almost have to try to wait him out, but it was a tough situation and he made a nice play.”

”The difference was we go down get a chance, hit the crossbar, then they come down and score,” Stepan added. ”That’s kind of the way hockey is.”

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Cam Talbot, NYR (30 saves on 31 shots)

2nd Star-Scott Darling, CHI (25 saves for 1st NHL shutout)

1st Star-Brad Richards, CHI (game-winner-11th, 6 SOG, 6-for-8 on draws, +1 in 13:29)

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A King’s Irish Luck: Lundqvist cleared to return to practice

Henrik Lundqvist and teammates salute the crowd following their 2-1 Game 4 win over the Kings.  AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Lucky King: Henrik Lundqvist should be back in soon after getting medically cleared to return to practice on St. Patrick’s Day.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

On St. Paddy’s Day, the Rangers got the luck of the Irish with starting goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The all-time franchise leader in wins (334) and shutouts (55) is finally medically cleared to return to practice.

Since suffering a sprained blood vessel, he’s missed the last 20 games. Despite that, the brilliant play of substitute Cam Talbot has led the club to a 15-2-3 record vaulting them into first place and the East’s top seed. They are two points up on Montreal and Tampa Bay. Talbot has gotten 18 starts going 13-2-3 with a 2.20 goals-against-average and .927 save percentage. Twenty-year old MacKenzie Skapski won both his starts against Buffalo allowing one goal while pitching his first NHL shutout.

Thanks to the security blanket, Glen Sather never panicked when Lundqvist went down. Even when Talbot struggled during a stretch that saw him allow some questionable goals, the organization stuck with him. With the help of goalie coach Benoit Allaire, he adjusted and has been remarkable allowing six goals over the last six starts. He was again selected as one of the NHL’s 3 Stars. The second time that’s happened.

With good news on Lundqvist, it means Talbot will soon go back to being the backup. Without him, none of this is possible. He stoned the Panthers in one of the team’s worst games. Assuming they bring him back this weekend, Lundqvist will assume the mantle as the coaching staff tries to get him game sharp for the playoffs. With 14 games left including tomorrow’s Rivalry Night match against Chicago, figure Hank to get most of the starts when he returns.

The schedule is spread out with the Rangers’ next game Saturday at Carolina. However, it picks up with a back-to-back against Anaheim and the Kings visiting MSG March 24 for three games in four days. Due in large part to having more days off than anyone else, the Blueshirts don’t have more than a day between the remaining 12. So, it’ll be busy which probably means Talbot should get a few starts keeping Lundqvist fresh.

Despite missing all that time, Lundqvist needs five wins to reach 30 for the ninth time in his career. The only season he didn’t win at least 30 was the shortened season of ’12-13 when he won 24 in 43 games.

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St. Louis injury forces Vigneault to adjust

So much for the optimism Alain Vigneault had. As it turned out, Martin St. Louis’ right knee injury is a bit more serious than he let on. The Rangers’ third leading scorer is expected to miss 10 to 14 days.

Despite being streaky, St. Louis ranks second in goals (20) and third in points (47). Playing on the second line with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider, he’s a valuable top six forward who also plays on the abyss known as the power play. His injury has forced Vigneault to adjust his lines and power play units.

With the offense cooling considerably despite Cam Talbot’s goaltending allowing them to win, Vigneault has reunited Rick Nash with Stepan and Kreider. Since missing a game against Calgary with neck spasms, Nash has slumped. He has two goals and two assists over the last nine games and no points in the last three. The team’s leading scorer has 39 goals and 62 points in 67 games. They need him to snap out of it.

Stepan is without a point in 10 straight entering tomorrow night’s home game against Chicago. It makes sense to put Nash back with Stepan and Kreider. Maybe that’ll get Stepan going. It’s not like he’s played poorly. He still is noticeable making the right defensive plays and doing a great job with Nash as the top penalty killing forwards. They’re a dangerous combo that’s combined for five shorthanded goals.

While that combo is back together, Vigneault has moved Kevin Hayes up to the Derick Brassard line with Mats Zuccarello. Hayes can play the left side instead of center. James Sheppard will center the third line with J.T. Miller and Carl Hagelin while the fourth line of Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast remains intact.

The powerless play gets a different look. Vigneault has opted for four forwards on the top unit. Keith Yandle and Brassard man the points with Nash, Stepan and Kreider up front. The second unit is more conventional with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Boyle on the points with Zuccarello, Miller and Hayes up front. At least they’re trying a different look. Until they become more aggressive instead of passive, it won’t matter. They pass the puck too much and never shoot enough. They also consistently get outworked.

Here is how the new lines look on paper:

Kreider-Stepan-Nash

Hayes-Brassard-Zuccarello

Hagelin-Sheppard-Miller

Glass-Moore-Fast

McDonagh-Girardi

Staal-Boyle

Yandle-Hunwick

Talbot

Skapski

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