Hayes scores with 1:09 left in a Rangers birthday 2-1 win over the Jets

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Purple Hayes: Kevin Hayes celebrates his game-winning power play goal with 1:09 left to highlight a nice Rangers 2-1 win at Winnipeg. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

What would my birthday be without hockey? Well, I didn’t see much of it and for good reason. Turning 40 has its purposes. Celebrating life for 40 years is pretty special. Doing it with family and close friends at a beautiful restaurant in Brooklyn Heights is priceless. No pun intended to my Devil buddies.

I must say this because it’s important to get the message out. Every day spent here is a blessing. For now 40 years, I can count mine. Dinner was unreal, amazing and delicious. I would recommend Henry’s End to anyone if they want great food and are in downtown Brooklyn over by Cadman Plaza. It’s been a while since we went. But the place’s charm hasn’t changed. Make a reservation.

As for the walking wounded, the Rangers didn’t do too badly at Winnipeg. Despite no Rick Nash, no Jimmy Vesey and no Matt Puempel, they gave me a nice present in the form of a well earned 2-1 birthday win over the Jets in one of the league’s loudest buildings. It is no small feat to go into Winnipeg and come out on top. Even though they have been up and down despite one of the game’s bright young stars in Calder front runner Patrik Laine and rising star Mark Scheifele, the Jets can be tough to play on home ice.

Kudos to the Blueshirts for turning in a strong performance. They held the Jets to only 18 shots with capable backup Antti Raanta finishing with 17 saves in a well earned one-goal victory. A nice bounce back win following Tuesday’s disappointment against the Islanders. It came at a good time allowing them to keep pace with the Penguins (5-1 winners over Panthers) and the red hot Flyers, who won their seventh straight in a 6-5 victory over the Oilers. With the division so tight, every game counts even on December 8 two weeks before Christmas.

They won it with special teams. A sore spot in the 4-2 loss in Brooklyn, the Rangers scored twice on the power play and killed all three Winnipeg man-advantages. They even prevented Laine from registering a shot. He only entered with 17 goals right with Sidney Crosby, who of course scored again. Laine missed the net twice including on the final Winnipeg power play which the Rangers killed off with Michael Grabner off for high-sticking. A crucial kill that kept the game tied.

It was the power play that delivered twice. Once in the first period on some great passing between Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan to set up Chris Kreider on the doorstep at 8:02. It was Kreider’s seventh. He’s quietly been playing well by putting up points. Even though the goals aren’t where you’d like it to be, don’t forget he missed six games due to neck spasms. He has 18 points (7-11-18) in 22 contests. A nice pace for a player who continues to drive hard to the net and screen goalies while looking for deflections.

Stepan is up to 19 points. He’s quietly picked it up with Mika Zibanejad out. That is a trend that must continue. He is counted on for production and trusted by Alain Vigneault,¬†who uses him in all situations including power play and penalty kill. Zuccarello also got a helper. Hopefully soon, he’ll find the back of the net. He’s been stuck on seven goals for a while.

The Jets were able to tie the game midway thru the game when Stepan was unable to check a bigger man in Scheifele, who put away a pass from Paul Postma at 9:51 of the second. Dustin Byfuglien drew the other assist. Speaking of the big dangerous defenseman, he hit one of three goalposts for Winnipeg. So, Raanta had help from his best friend. Andrew Copp also rang one off the bar. The Rangers hit one post against Michael Hutchinson.

The odd thing about this game is there weren’t a whole lot of shots. The teams combined for 42 total and even attempts were down. The Rangers outshot Winnipeg 24-18 and out-attempted them 47-36. Even hits were low with the teams combining for 43 (Jets 22 Rangers 21).

As it turned out, the difference was a Kevin Hayes power play goal with 1:09 remaining. With Drew Stafford off for high-sticking, J.T. Miller got the puck to Ryan McDonagh, who made a brilliant pass down low for an open Hayes for a tap in. Just a real good read by a superb defenseman who continues to lead this team. McDonagh’s 14 assists are tied with Stepan for the team lead. A workhorse who logged the most ice-time with 23:50 in 29 shifts, the captain leads all Blueshirt defensemen in points with 15. He’s continued to be a constant which has the Rangers up to 18-9-1 in their first 28 games.

Returning from Austria to be with his family for the burial of his grandmother, Grabner reunited with Hayes and Miller on a cohesive line that didn’t miss a beat. As Hayes pointed out to John Giannone in the post game, they could’ve easily scored more goals.

With it being the first of a back-to-back with a visit to the Blackhawks on Friday, Vigneault didn’t hesitate to use everyone. Oscar Lindberg played a key defensive role late helping protect the one-goal lead with Grabner, Jesper Fast along with old hat tandem Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Both did a phenomenal job limiting the Jets down low. It was like old times. They got plenty of help from Lindberg, Fast and Grabner.

Winnipeg didn’t come close to tying it. When your team which has struggled lately with shots allowed and double digit chances only permits 18 shots and keeps most to the outside, that is a big time positive. For whatever reason, they play better in front of Raanta. We’ll see what happens when Henrik Lundqvist goes back in tomorrow at Chicago.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Antti Raanta, NYR (17 saves)

2nd Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (primary assist on Hayes’ winner, 5 attempts in 29 shifts-23:50 including 16:13 EV, 4:45 SH, 2:52 PP)

1st Star-Kevin Hayes, NYR (game-winning power play goal with 1:09 remaining, 4 shots, 5 attempts in 25 shifts-16:38 including 12:18 EV, 2:24 SH, 1:49 PP)

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A Special Birthday Post

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My brother Justin and me as I get ready to attend my first Rangers game on my 19th birthday.

I’ve had my share of birthdays. The ones that stand out are 17, 21 and 30. To be honest, they’re all filled with great memories. Ones I’ll never forget. Sitting here speaking to my Mom, I’m pretty reflective about my years spent in this place.

I feel pretty lucky. I’ve always had great support from my loving parents, my awesome brother and wonderful friends. Today I turn the big 4-0! Honestly, being 40 is kinda funny. I don’t feel any different. I am still the same happy go lucky nice guy I have always been. I will always be the funny one with the keen sense of humor. A relaxed person who can’t really believe it’s finally come.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”-Ferris Bueller

I think that quote from the cool Matthew Broderick sums it up in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Funny enough, it was on a week ago. Of course, I had to watch it. There are so many great parts. I especially love when he dedicates a song to Cameron, who insists he hasn’t seen anything good yet. Another Broderick classic was on Sundance with Ally Sheedy. It’s ironically Hasan’s favorite. His go to War Games when things get bad for the Devils. DefCon 1 hasn’t been reached quite yet for our teams. So, that’s a big positive.

Even with the Rangers turning into a comical version of the walking wounded for tonight’s game at Winnipeg. What do they have? Like five starting forwards out. Don’t worry. They got the Jets right where they want them. With Hartford reinforcements. So, it’ll be a mix of core guys and AHLers. Fun.

I won’t be around to catch it. We’re about to go out for a special dinner at one of my favorite restaurants in The Heights. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. It’ll definitely bring back memories because we haven’t been there in so long.

I guess that’s when it dawns on you. I really am 40! Time moves fast. It doesn’t stop for anything. Though I must admit my 30’s were pretty cool. I made a lot of new friends. I had a lot of great times. I even saw the Rangers clinch against the Canadiens in Game 6 to make their first Stanley Cup since 1994. I had the video too. It’s on my YouTube channel somewhere. That was pretty special.

I guess what I am trying to say is I feel pretty lucky to have so many people that care about me. Life isn’t so bad. I have noticed that time has slowed down for me. What I mean is if I do something really fun with friends, it feels like time stands still. Savor those moments. They truly will last a lifetime. Sorta the infamous words of Sam Rosen after the Blueshirts won the Cup when I was an excited 17-year old senior in high school at Staten Island Tech. A wonderful school that I still take pride in.

Turning 40 isn’t sad. It’s a time of celebration. Also a time of reflection. I’ve had it pretty good. So, I guess my advice to the younger souls out there is to live. And when you do hit 40 if you’re so fortunate, cherish it forever.

It doesn’t change anything. It just means I’m a little older and wiser. Enjoy tonight’s games!ūüôā

Battle Of New York Chief Administrator/Editor

Derek Brandon Felix

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Rangers injury updates

Rick Nash

Following last night’s game, the Rangers lost two forwards to injuries during a 4-2 defeat to the Islanders in Brooklyn. Both Matt Puempel and Rick Nash left the game and sustained injuries that will keep them out of action for the time being.

Puempel suffered a concussion on a Brock Nelson high-sticking double minor. According to coach Alain Vigneault, he will undergo concussion protocol. What that means is it’s anyone’s guess how many games he could miss. Head injuries are tricky. Considering how he was helped off the ice and wobbly, I would be shocked to see Puempel any time soon.

As for Nash, he left the game when he cut a shift short in the second period. After about 10 seconds, he went to the locker room and didn’t return. Later, Vigneault revealed that he tweaked a groin. After underdoing an MRI, it revealed that he’ll miss a week of action.

Hopefully, that is all because he’s been the Rangers’ hottest player lately. Considering that they’re already without Mika Zibanejad (broken fibula) and Pavel Buchnevich (back), their depth is being severely tested. The injuries have hurt the production of Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. All have seen hit scoring slumps. Meanwhile, feel good story Brandon Pirri has disappeared completely. He enters tomorrow night’s game at Winnipeg with no points in the last 10. It basically coincides with Zibanejad’s injury. He’s out another month.

With the team depleted up front, the Rangers recalled forward Nicklas Jensen from Hartford. With Marek Hrivik already up and playing last night along with Oscar Lindberg seeing an increased role with 15 minutes, it looks like the Ranger lines could be very different. Vigneault will have to get very creative with his bottom combos for the third and fourth lines.

At least leading goalscorer Michael Grabner is expected to return. He is gonna meet the team in Winnipeg. He missed last night’s game to be at his grandmother’s funeral back home in Austria. Our deepest condolences to the Grabner family.

It will be up to the leaders who have been around to step up. Derek Stepan is right at the top along with Zuccarello, Miller, Hayes and Chris Kreider. The interesting part is you have some third-year players who are part of the core. That includes Jesper Fast. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond.

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Is it time to start worrying about Lundqvist?

Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist has struggled with consistency this season. If the Rangers are to be successful, they need better play from their rock. AP Photo by Nick Wass/Getty Images

I don’t usually sound off the alarms this early. Following Tuesday night’s 4-2 loss at the Islanders, the Rangers remained tied in points (35) with the Penguins. Pittsburgh moved into first due to playing one less game. The Rangers have played 27 compared with 26 by the Pens. They’re still in good shape with their 17 ROW (regulation/overtime wins) leading the East.

Lately, they’ve been alternating wins and losses. They’re 4-4-0 in their last eight. If you go back to a 4-2 loss at Columbus on Nov. 18 followed by a 3-2 shootout loss at Florida Nov. 20, the Rangers are a mediocre 4-4-2 over 10. A far cry from the team that started by winning 13 of their first 17 (13-4-0). At 17-9-1, they have done well with their 35 points tied with the Pens for second most in the conference trailing only the Canadiens (37), who also have been inconsistent following a hot start.

While it’s true the Rangers have lost key players with forwards Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich both remaining out, they have enough depth to win games. Averaging 3.59 goals-per-game which ranks first in the NHL, they remain one of the league’s explosive offenses. In a year where general manager Jeff Gorton added Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri, Buchnevich, Zibanejad and key rookie Jimmy Vesey, things have gone right with defenseman Nick Holden fitting in.

With improvements from Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider,¬†J.T. Miller and rookie defenseman Brady Skjei, there’s a lot to like. Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal have come back stronger and healthier. So, it’s not all negative. As much as the Dan Girardi detractors want to kill him, he’s also been more consistent for the most part. Outside of a couple of games where he struggled, Girardi hasn’t been the number one issue on the back end. It’s been Kevin Klein, who has continued to be up and down. Following a good performance in a win after sitting out a game for Adam Clendening, he had a tough night along with Skjei in the two-goal loss in Brooklyn.

While the defense remains a sticky point for Garden Faithful, it’s been the inconsistent play of franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist¬†that is most troubling. After getting off to a slow start, he picked it up and was playing much better. For a while at least, things seemed fine. However, he’s unraveled lately. In allowing four goals on 32 shots last night, at least two were his responsibility.

The Isles’ first and third goals were each a case of Lundqvist not being in the right position. On Scott Mayfield’s goal, he wasn’t square to the shooter and allowed a sharp angle shot to beat him short side. We’ll excuse him for Jason Chimera’s goal which really was the direct result of Ranger mistakes following an empty four-minute power play. However, Andrew Ladd’s tally which came 1:22 after Vesey’s goal in the second period was a bad one to allow. It was a play where he overplayed to the right and fell making it a gimme for Ladd, who entered with only two goals in 24 games.

It was the kind of momentum killing goal we’re not used to seeing from Lundqvist. While the team did its best to fight back with Staal scoring on a beautiful passing play from Miller and Kreider, it wasn’t enough. John Tavares would add a power play goal with under nine minutes left in the third to seal it. One in which Lundqvist had no chance on.

The problem as I see it is he’s giving up more and more questionable goals. A lot of it has to do with positioning. There have been too many instances where an off kilter Lundqvist has taken himself out of position by falling to the ice. In a 4-2 win over the Hurricanes, he was better in stopping 26 of 28 shots. However, he did allow a stoppable shot to Victor Rask from the point which tied it. Kreider tallied twice in the third to win it.

In a disappointing 4-3 loss at Buffalo, Lundqvist gave up a hideous goal to Johan Larsson from the red line. In his defense, the puck went off his skate and took an odd bounce. With the Rangers clinging to a one-goal lead with under eight minutes left in regulation, he was beaten by Sabres’ phenom Jack Eichel high glove side on a power play. In truth, it was a deadly shot by a future star. However, Eichel’s game-winner that came 1:43 later was another one he would’ve liked to have back.

On it, a variety of things went wrong. Evander Kane blew past Girardi creating a odd-man rush. With teammates scrambling to get back, Lundqvist fell down and had Eichel’s centering feed for a vacated Kane go off Mats Zuccarello and in. Had he not over committed, the goal doesn’t happen.

One assessment that can be made is that the 34-year old franchise leader in wins (386) and shutouts (60) is under stress. For a second consecutive year, the Rangers are allowing more shots (29.8) than they’re getting (28.6). However, they’re fast paced skating transition game emphasized by coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t emphasize team defense. It’s mostly about offense. With the team successful leading the league in differential (28) at 97 goals for and 69 goals allowed, it’s easy to conclude the style is working.

But in such a system, you also need good skating D and the forwards on the same page. Something that didn’t happen in the second half of last season. No goalie faced more shots than Lundqvist. He succumbed to the pressure in a five-game first round loss to the Penguins. A lopsided series that saw him pulled in the final two games allowing 10 goals on 41 shots. In Game One, an injury forced him out in favor of Antti Raanta.

If there is a difference between last year’s roster and this one, it’s the Rangers’ improved depth with all four lines capable of contributing. With more injuries threatening the team including Rick Nash leaving yesterday’s game with a groin issue and Matt Puempel suffering a concussion, that depth is being tested. After a promising start, Pirri has been invisible. He is without a point or goal in the last 10. A trend that’s coincided with Zibanejad going down.

Though he played better in the last two netting two assists against Carolina and attempting 10 shots last night, Zuccarello is without a goal in 10 too. The Rangers have been getting strong performances from Nash. Stepan has also picked it up following a slow start. Kreider has pitched in playing a better overall game. Hayes has too killing penalties. But he’s slowed down with just one goal over the last seven. Miller is also without one in seven.

The most surprising player has been Grabner. His 13 goals lead the team. He missed last night’s game due to returning home to Austria for his grandmother’s funeral. He netted number 13 in a two-goal win over the Hurricanes.

With production for some players slowing down, the losses of Zibanejad and Buchnevich are being felt. The power play has still clicked at 21.0 percent ranking ninth. But it hasn’t been nearly as effective. Take away that big right shot of Zibanejad from the off wing and it becomes predictable. When Vigneault inserted Clendening at Buffalo, that gave them a right-handed point man. He contributed an assist on a power play goal. However, he took a questionable holding minor that allowed Eichel to tie it up.

With Stepan being primarily a trigger on the left half wall, he isn’t thinking shot like Zibanejad. That makes defending the power play easier for opponents because they don’t have to worry about that lethal one-timer which can create problems. With Buchnevich skilled on the other side, it gave them more options and led to better spacing which can be attributed to Zibanejad.

The thing about the Blueshirts is they aren’t always going to score three-or-more goals. In games that are closer, they need Lundqvist to come through. He’s done it consistently for 12 years. With a career .920 save percentage and a 2.29 goals-against-average entering Tuesday, he’s been the backbone.

Since debuting in ’05-06, Lundqvist has only failed to lead the Rangers to the playoffs once. Without his splendid goaltending, they don’t sniff the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 or two Final Four appearances in 2012 and 2015. A future Hall of Famer, Ranger fans should appreciate what he’s accomplished. Don’t take it for granted.

With him turning 35 next March 2, he’s getting older. That means he can’t do it alone. Gone are the days where Lundqvist could stone opponents with regularity. He once was money on breakaways and shootouts. Not no longer. There are more leaks. Shots that didn’t have a chance are beating him. His 5-on-5 even strength save percentage is still a respectable .919. That is way down from the .934 he produced in ’15-16. For his career, it’s .929.

For those critics who say he’s lost a step on the penalty kill, his save percentage on it was never great to begin with. At .885 entering last night, it’s up from a career worst .840 posted last season. Since ’07-08, his penalty kill save percentage is .879.

The thing that’s most concerning is his positioning. He hasn’t looked right. Confidence seems to be lacking for the former Vezina winner. The question is why is he so off balance. He’s been flopping around a lot more than usual. This is something that must be fixed. If it isn’t, his GAA of 2.55 and .912 save percentage could become more the norm. An ungodly thing to say about an All-Star goalie we’re used to seeing more consistency from.

So, is it just a slump? He’s had them in the past and been able to overcome it. Who can forget when Vigneault in his first season played Cam Talbot three straight games? He was able to figure it out and took that team as far as it possibly could go. Lundqvist is responsible for the team rallying from 3-1 deficits against the Pens and Caps in consecutive postseasons. Both coming in the second round.

There’s so much to praise him over. So, this isn’t about blasting him. It’s about what the eyes are seeing. There’s still plenty of season left. If the Rangers are going to be successful, it’ll still be on the broad shoulders of Lundqvist. Vigneault must continue to give Raanta starts so his starter gets enough rest and remains fresh. With Raanta 5-1 in seven starts with a 2.20 GAA and .931 save percentage, there’s no reason not to.

Lundqvist is still this team’s best shot. The offensive improvement is significant. So is the health of a blue line which hasn’t had any big injuries. Can Lundqvist rebound? They’re counting on it.

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Halak outplays Lundqvist in Islanders’ 4-2 win over Rangers

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Jaroslav Halak was the game’s first star stoning the Rangers with 36 saves in an Islanders’ 4-2 win at Barclays Center for the Isles’ fourth win in five. For the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist continues to struggle. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYIslanders.

Jaroslav Halak stood tall in the second installment of the Battle of New York. He was the number one star making 36 saves to highlight an Islanders’ 4-2 home win over the Rangers before a 15,795 at Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn.

As usual, Halak was at his best in backstopping the Islanders to their fourth win in the last five. (4-0-1). They have been playing better of late. That continued thanks to Halak, who defeated counterpart Henrik Lundqvist for the 11th time in the last 12 head-to-head meetings. One goalie was poised throughout while the other was shaky despite making some big stops to give his team a chance.

”It’s always important to win games,” the Isles’ winning netminder said. ”Beating the division rivals, it’s always huge for us, it’s always a four-point game. Coming out with two points against the Rangers is always a fun game to play.”

Halak was more consistent. He was particularly good in a busy first period. He bailed out his team who were shorthanded three times. That included a huge kill of a questionable high-sticking double minor on Brock Nelson. Nelson got his stick up on Matt Puempel, who was going for a big hit. Instead, he wound up injured on the play and stayed down on the ice for a few minutes before being helped off. He didn’t return.

As for the call, the refs gave Nelson an extra two due to the injury. His stick didn’t draw blood. I’ve never seen that called before. It was obviously a mistake. However, the Islanders can thank Halak for killing off both ends of the four minute penalty. He was at his best turning aside Mats Zuccarello and other Blueshirts, who couldn’t get the puck past him. Halak stopped all 16 shots with more than half on the Ranger power play. He took everything away down low.

While Halak took care of his end, Lundqvist gave up a couple of bad goals. Especially the first which came off the stick of emergency call up Scott Mayfield. He played in place of Johnny Boychuk, who missed the game due to flu like symptoms. Mayfield’s goal came from a bad angle. Taking a Anders Lee back pass along the boards, he fired a slap shot that beat an unscreened Lundqvist to the glove side for his first at 7:03. Cal Clutterbuck, who did some good board work, also was credited with an assist following the period.

Despite pressuring the Islander penalty kill for long stretches and forcing Halak into some tough saves, the Rangers were unable to tie the contest. With time winding down on the four-minute man-advantage, a crucial mistake led directly to the Isles’ second goal. Kevin Hayes threw a back pass to a vacated point trapping three other teammates. That left Brady Skjei¬†back to cover two players. He switched to Nelson¬†but was too late with Nelson’s centering pass deflecting off ¬†and Jason Chimera for a two-goal Islander lead with 2:36 remaining in the first.

The second was up and down. The Rangers got the start they wanted with rookie Jimmy Vesey getting them on the board in the first minute. Rick Nash fired a tough shot on Halak, who let out a rebound that Vesey pounced on for his ninth at 57 seconds. Nash would not last much longer exiting after tweaking his groin. Figure him to be out for Thursday’s game at Winnipeg. That’s a bad break for the Rangers because he’s been playing some of his best hockey.

Momentum can change in an instant. You can have it and then lose it in the blink of an eye. That’s what happened to the Blueshirts. Following Vesey’s goal, a brutal Islander turnover inside their own blue line allowed J.T. Miller to get a mini-break on Halak. But with him seeming to have Halak beaten, he just missed wide. Not long after, a neutral zone turnover and some more Lundqvist folly allowed Andrew Ladd to score his third into an open net to restore a two-goal lead at 2:18.

The play can best be described as ugly. From a Ranger perspective, they did a lot wrong. Hartford emergency call up Marek Hrivik turned the puck over to Shane Prince. Hrivik was up due to Michael Grabner flying home to Austria for his grandmother’s funeral. For the most part, he played well. But the turnover became a nightmare with Lundqvist falling down and taking himself out of position. That allowed Prince to easily set up Ladd for a lay-up. It was another case of a confused Lundqvist doing too much. His confidence looks shot. He’s been caught off balance a lot.

With Nash leaving the contest and Puempel already gone, that left coach Alain Vigneault with 10 forwards. Forced to juggle his lines, he came up with a winning one by moving Miller back up to the top unit with Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan. The Team USA line combined to set up Marc Staal on what was some textbook passing with Staal sniping his third past Halak to cut it to 3-2 with 11:06 remaining. Staal has been playing some of his best hockey in ages. He’s doing a lot right and is back to jumping in offensively.

Though they were down two skaters, the Rangers had plenty of opportunities to tie the game. The difference was Halak, who denied them time and again. He was tough to beat and continued his mastery over Lundqvist. In their last 12 meetings, Halak is 11-1 with a 1.56 goals-against-average and .954 save percentage. Over that same stretch, Lundqvist fell to 1-10-1 with a 3.42 GAA and .890 save percentage.

Credit Halak for being better than Lundqvist. A trend that’s continued since he joined the Islanders in ’14-15. He steps up in these big match-ups. Why Lundqvist doesn’t is a mystery. He did win the first meeting in the season opener at MSG on Oct. 13 making 25 saves in a 5-3 win. But that’s it.

”You gotta score those timely goals and we didn’t do it tonight,” Vigneault said. ”We had the looks. I thought we battled hard. We tried to come back but their goalie without a doubt was the best player on the ice tonight and we didn’t finish on our opportunities.”

When the Rangers weren’t getting shots on Halak, his teammates were sacrificing for the cause by blocking 27 shots including a game high seven from Calvin de Haan and six from Travis Hamonic, who robbed Stepan in the first. In contrast, the Rangers as a team blocked six total shots. They outshot the Islanders 38-32 and out-attempted them 77-44. It wasn’t enough to win.

If there was another major difference, it came on special teams. The Rangers were blanked in six power play chances. The Islanders converted on 1-for-2 with both coming in the third period. After easily killing off a Miller hooking minor with Vigneault using different players including Hrivik, Oscar Lindberg and even Zuccarello, Brandon Pirri was sent to the box for a questionable hooking minor. Prior to it, Lundqvist flat out robbed Nelson point blank. He made some great saves including a nice glove stop on Clutterbuck but never seemed comfortable.

On the ensuing Islander power play, they did a great job setting up captain John Tavares, who scored only his seventh to make it 4-2 with 8:48 left in regulation. With the Ranger penalty kill leaving enough room across the box, Nick Leddy fed Josh Bailey, who made a great cross ice feed for a wide open Tavares at the right circle. He stepped in and let go of a laser which beat Lundqvist glove side inside the near goalpost. A terrific shot by a great player who should not have seven goals at this stage. Shame on Garth Snow for allowing Tavares’ linemate Kyle Okposo go. Utterly ridiculous that Tavares has seven goals thru 25 games.

His seventh goal was enough to put the Rangers away. Though they threatened, they never could get back in it. The refs also let a lot go on both sides. Vesey took a vicious slash that went undetected. He stayed in the game. They were too busy calling hooks and giving Nelson an extra two for no reason. This is the substandard officiating you get. The same that ignores a Canuck shoving Travis Zajac from behind into the boards bloodying his nose and then hands Vancouver a two-man advantage in a game the Devils won.

Even after Vigneault rightly pulled Lundqvist for an extra attacker, his team wasn’t aware that there was a delayed call on Thomas Hickey for cross checking Kreider in front. Had they realized it, maybe they would’ve given up the puck sooner. Instead, they were too busy passing and back passing costing valuable time. The pass fest continued with Hamonic off for a slash which handed the Rangers a 6-on-3 with 32 seconds left. They didn’t need one. But two. Instead, all they did was handle the puck like a grenade until the buzzer sounded. Just brutal.

The more determined team won with the better goalie. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t been paying attention. Something isn’t right with Lundqvist. I’m losing faith. I’m not alone here. It’s getting harder and harder to defend him. He’s been the Rangers’ franchise goalie for over a decade. But his numbers are down. Maybe it’s time for Antti Raanta to play a couple in a row and let Lundqvist work out his issues with goalie coach Benoit Allaire.

He now is down to a 2.55 GAA and pedestrian .912 save percentage. You can’t blame the defense for all of that. Simply put, he hasn’t been good enough. Inconsistency is showing. At 34 and in his 12th season, you have to wonder what’s wrong. He’s been through slumps before. We’ll see if he can figure it out. If not, the Rangers have no chance. Other teams in the division are closing fast. There is no longer much margin for error.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Jimmy Vesey, Rangers (goal-9th of season, 4 shots, 6 attempts, -1 in 23 shifts-16:40)

2nd Star-John Tavares, Islanders (power play goal-7th of season, 4 shots, 4 takeaways, 11-and-7 on face-offs in 23 shifts-18:45)

1st Star-Jaroslav Halak, Islanders (36 saves including 16/16 in 1st and all 11 in 3rd to improve to 11-1 with a 1.56 GAA and .954 save percentage in last 12 meetings against Lundqvist)

Notes: Puempel took only five shifts logging 2:52 of ice-time before leaving due to sustaining a concussion on Nelson’s high-stick. Assuming he’s out Thursday, Josh Jooris should be back in. … Nash (assist) finished minus-two in 14 shifts (8:13) with five shots before exiting. … The pairing of Skjei (-3) and Kevin Klein (-2) had a nightmarish game. Klein only played 12:59 all at even strength while Skjei received 14:51 including 2:55 of power play. … Ryan McDonagh led all skaters with 28:03 of ice-time in 27 shifts including 6:27 on the PP. By comparison, Isles coach Jack Capuano gave four of his six D over 20 minutes with Hamonic pacing them with 23:21 including 4:28 shorthanded. Leddy (21:39), De Haan (20:04) and Dennis Seidenberg (20:19) also went over 20. … The game was the Isles’ second sellout of the season. … By going 4-0-1 in their last five, the Islanders are back to NHL .500 with a 10-10-5 record. They’re tied with Carolina in points (25) and trail a wildcard pack led by the Flyers (33), Caps (31) and Devils (30). … Islanders finish a three-game home stand by hosting the Blues Thursday.

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Kreider’s pair in big third sparks Rangers to 4-2 win over Canes

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Chris Kreider celebrates a goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 4-2 comeback win over the Hurricanes at MSG on Saturday. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.¬†

For almost two periods, the Rangers were putrid in every aspect. Unable to deal with their opponent’s speed and sustained forecheck, they should’ve been blown out of the building. In a game they once trailed in shots 23-4, they found their way back with a big third period to pull out a 4-2 win over the Hurricanes at MSG on Kids Day.

Let’s be honest. When your team gets so few shots or chances and can’t get out of its own zone, you have to wonder what the heck is going on. These strange occurrences are becoming more and more common. Similar to last year, the defense is struggling to get pucks out. At times, it’s scary.

Somehow, they summoned up the energy to find a way to win again following a loss. I think they’re now 7-0-1 after a defeat. After getting outshot 25-11 thru two periods yet remained tied thanks to some superb goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist (26 saves), they remembered to play the third. The Rangers outplayed the Canes for a change by outscoring them 3-1 and outshooting them 12-3.to hike their league-leading point total to 35. That’s tied with the Blackhawks for the most.

In improving to 17-8-1 in their first 26 games, they did it with smoke and mirrors. I didn’t see much of the first. I missed Derek Stepan’s goal. He had his best game of the season finishing with a goal and two assists. That included an un-Stepan like eight shot attempts. He easily could’ve had more goals missing a wide open chance with a gaping net from an angle. He’s been heating up at the right time. Especially with Mika Zibanejad out.

Stepan got the only goal of the first period despite Carolina holding a significant edge in shots, 15-3. Kevin Klein got the primary assist. In his return to the lineup after sitting out at Buffalo with Adam Clendening subbing for him, he had a better game. More involved in all aspects, Klein finished plus-two with four hits and five blocked shots in 21 shifts logging 16:47 of ice-time. He was better along with rookie Brady Skjei, who used his superb skating to set up a big Michael Grabner goal in the third.

Even though the shots were closer during the second with the Canes holding a 10-8 edge, the Rangers still didn’t play well. They turned pucks over and took penalties to make life difficult on Lundqvist. Carolina was better territorially attacking with vigor and firing shots from everywhere. Despite that, they could only muster one goal on their first 25 shots by Lundqvist.

It was again former Ranger Viktor Stalberg who tallied. Having scored both Carolina goals earlier in the week in a 3-2 loss, this time the hard working Swede was rewarded for his hustle. Hounding Ryan McDonagh, a strong backcheck forced him into a neutral zone turnover. The Canes came the other way with Derek Ryan and Brock McGinn working the puck to an open Stalberg, whose wrist shot from the right circle beat Lundqvist top shelf to even the score at 8:34. Dan Girardi went down which might’ve hurt Lundqvist’s sight.

McDonagh also took a lazy tripping minor penalty later in the period. But his teammates bailed him out with a big penalty kill to keep the game even. Kevin Hayes went off for a slashing minor. Twenty seconds later, ex-teammate Lee Stempniak¬†also was nabbed for a slash. During a shift, Stempniak speared Girardi. How it wasn’t a spear was mystifying. Spearing also should be more than a minor penalty. It’s a deliberate attempt to injure.

The third was much better for the guys in blue. They took the play to Carolina by getting the first eight shots on Carolina starter Michael Leighton. Yes. You read that correctly. The same Leighton who once backstopped the Flyers to within an overtime of Game 7 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. He’s best remembered for giving up Patrick Kane’s odd OT winner from a bad angle that no one realized was in except for Kane.

It had been a while since Leighton started an NHL game. He got into his last one with the Flyers in ’12-13. Leighton made a relief appearance for the Blackhawks last year allowing one goal on 18 shots. In Saturday’s matinee, he hardly had to do much until the final stanza. In it, he gave up three goals on 12 shots. None are what I’d consider bad. The Rangers finally attacked by using their quick transition to get to Leighton.

The first such play saw Skjei take the puck from Jesper Fast and fly down the left wing to create a two-on-one where he passed for Grabner, who converted a breakaway for his team-leading 13th at 5:54. But the Rangers’ second lead lasted just 32 seconds. Victor Rask was able to sneak one past Lundqvist low and short side from Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin¬†for his ninth. Considering it was from distance, it’s definitely one Lundqvist should’ve had.

With the game hanging in the balance, a great shift from Stepan resulted in Chris Kreider burying home a rebound for his fifth to put the Rangers ahead 3-2 with 7:35 remaining. He and Stepan had it going on most of the contest. They had a dominant shift during the second where they pinned the Canes in for a long stretch. But only were able to get one shot on Leighton. That was the sequence where Stepan was set up but missed. Carolina iced the puck but was able to escape trouble.

Stepan and Kreider have always had good chemistry since teaming up to capture gold at the 2010 Under 20 World Junior Championship. Alain Vigneault stuck Mats Zuccarello with them. He was more effective in this one assisting on two goals. Why Vigneault decided to try Fast with Stepan and Kreider remains a mystery. Zuccarello needs to play with a big power forward like Kreider, who can free up space with his physicality. They were on for three goals for at even strength.

With the Rangers nursing a one-goal lead, Kreider put it out of reach by converting a breakaway with a lightning like wrist shot that went off the post and then banked off Leighton and in for a 4-2 lead with 2:49 to go. Stepan started the play and then Zuccarello head manned Kreider who broke in on Leighton and ripped one by him for his second of the game and sixth overall. When he shoots the puck like that, he is scary. Maybe this is the game that gets him going.

Even though it was far from a complete performance, the Blueshirts played one good period to come out on top. That was enough to rebound from a disappointing one-goal loss at Buffalo. They’re two up and two down over the last four and have been win one, lose one recently. It would be nice to see them put together another good stretch.

They finally see the Islanders on Tuesday at Barclays Center. The Isles have won three in a row including consecutive wins over the Pens and Caps. Whenever the Rangers and Islanders get together, throw the records out the window. Following the Isles, the Rangers visit Winnipeg to see Patrik Laine, who is now tied with Sidney Crosby for the league lead with 16 goals. That’s on my birthday too. I might catch some of it out with my family at a nice restaurant in Brooklyn.

I also want to single out Marc Staal. His defensive play has been much better this season. He was really good on Saturday. He’s really bounced back in a big way following a tough ’15-16. He and Nick Holden have formed a solid second pair that can be counted on to move the puck effectively and get out of their zone. Both have contributed offensively with Staal scoring number two the other night. Holden has three goals and has gotten better. Staal was plus-one with two shots in 27 shifts (22:04).

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-J.T. Miller, NYR (no points but 4 blocks including 2 without a stick and a clear that left him hobbled on a change, Even in 17 shifts-11:43 including 9:49 EV, 1:13 SH, 41 seconds PP)

2nd Star-Chris Kreider, NYR (2 goals-5th, 6th, 5 shot attempts, 4 hits, +2 in 22 shifts-18:32)

1st Star-Derek Stepan, NYR (goal-5th, 2 assists, 9 shot attempts, 2 takeaways, +2 in 24 shifts-20:45)

Notes: Oscar Lindberg was a healthy scratch. Josh Jooris returned and centered the fourth line going minus-one with two hits and winning three of four draws. … Matt Puempel received 12 shifts (9:33) all at five-on-five. … Key Stat: Giveaways Canes 17 Rangers 15 … Rangers blocked 21 shots led by Klein’s five with Girardi and Miller each having four. The Canes blocked 15 paced by Pesce’s four. … Carolina controlled faceoffs 26-22 led by Jay McClement (7-and-3) with Rask also 9-and-6. Stepan was 8-and-9 for the Blueshirts. Eight different Rangers took draws. … Power Plays Canes 0-3 Rangers 0-2.

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Devils recap: Crisis averted (for now)

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Several hours ago I was sharpening the knives for the rip job I knew I was going to post after the Devils were behind 4-1 in Nashville for what would have been their twelfth loss in fifteen road games this year, including another o-fer trip after OT losses at Pittsburgh and Chicago sandwiched a no-show in Winnipeg. ¬†It didn’t help my mood I was already agitated with a headache I’ve had all day. ¬†Actually I hadn’t even watched much of the first two periods mercifully trying to sleep off the headache and almost forgot the Devils had a real early matinee game. ¬†When I finally did turn it on, I turned it on to Ken Daneyko of all people ripping the team and saying the compete level wasn’t there in the second period. ¬†I knew if Kenny was ripping them it must have been bad. ¬†Sure enough I saw it was 4-1 and already chalked up another loss, which would have been disasterous with the Devils already spiraling out of the playoff race.

Yes I said would have…because suddenly the Devils roared to life in the third period with two quick goals that got them back in the game, and got my interest back in watching the game. ¬†Even though the Devils managed just four shots in the third period and were dominated territorially in the last 45 minutes of the game they still managed to tie the game with an Adam Henrique goal and send it to OT. ¬†There again the Predators controlled play but could not put it away, in part thanks to another inspired performance by the Devils’ top¬†goalie Keith Kinkaid. ¬†Okay I’m actually being sarcastic but if you only started watching hockey this year you would think Kinkaid was the franchise goalie and struggling Cory Schneider the middling backup whose roster spot wasn’t assured going into the season. ¬†More on that later though.

Just when this game looked doomed for another dreaded shootout, one piece of Taylor Hall magic gave the Devils a magic ending when he threaded the needle through P.K.Subban on a two-on-one to Mike Cammalleri for the game-winning goal in a wild 5-4 finish that snapped the Devils’ four-game losing streak and gave them just their fourth win on the road all season. ¬†Part of my rant that I had to scrap once the Devils started scoring goals is that the Devils had only won three times away from the Prudential Center all season, and only once in regulation. ¬†While today’s win wasn’t in regulation either, it was neccesary on a lot of levels – both from a timing aspect (breaking a losing streak) and an emotional aspect (with the great comeback culminating with their best player making a winning play).

While I don’t want to dwell on the beginning of the road trip much, the fact is there were and are a lot of concerning signs with this team that a couple of pond hockey wins and loser points can’t sweep under the rug just yet. ¬†After their defense was its usual leaky self in Pittsburgh last weekend, the team went to Canada and laid a dud in Winnipeg on Tuesday. ¬†To be fair the Jets’ home/road splits are about as stark as ours, but still the compete level hasn’t been there in an alarming number of games away from Prudential Center this season. ¬†It seems from time to time as if this team’s effort level rises and falls based on the level of competition and it was that way again on Thursday as they put forth a better performance in Chicago, but a nightmare second period and an ill-timed OT breakdown led to a 4-3 defeat, though to an extent it was one they did well to salvage a point after¬†a shockingly resurgent Travis Zajac posted a hat trick and single-handedly dragged the team into OT. ¬†After years of being middling offensively, Zajac is starting to look like the 2009 version that actually could put up 55-60 point seasons in addition to his good defensive work.

So far this team’s needed Zajac to turn back the clock because a couple of its other leading guns in Henrique and Kyle Palmieri have shown up on the back of milk cartons after too many games this season. ¬†It’s been Zajac and fellow vet Cammalleri who’ve carried the offense since Camm’s return after his daughter’s pneumonia was thankfully dealt with. ¬†Before his hiatus Camm looked a step slow and perhaps over the hill but since, he’s looked even better than vintage version. ¬†All of the points from #13 and #19 are masking the other ills on the team, including a horrendous defense that yes, does miss Adam Larsson tremendously. ¬†While clearly this Devil team needed a gamebreaker like Hall, even Larsson backers like me couldn’t have seen just how much the defense would suffer without him this year. ¬†With our shot totals against increasing seemingly by the game, the Devils’ style has changed overnight from the ‘boring trap’ team to a pond hockey circus – although it’ll take some time for the perception to follow.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this season so far has been a negative though. ¬†If Henrique’s been the most dissapointing Devil from an effort standpoint, Cory’s been the most dissapointing one from a performance standpoint. ¬†While it’s obvious the defense has been more leaky than in past seasons, that doesn’t excuse the kind of goals a normally unflappable Schneider’s been giving up lately. ¬† Dribblers, weak rebounds, unscreened wristers…too often the red light’s gone on during the last two weeks and there are signs it’s starting to get to Cory. ¬†Some of his puckhandling snafus recently have been scary even for him, to the point where you can tell he’s pressing. ¬†Not to mention breaking his stick over the crossbar after the OT losing goal in Chicago on Thursday. ¬†You can blame the defense for some of the woes but considering Kinkaid’s playing better in front of the same defense, the franchise goalie has to shoulder some blame too. ¬†When your save percentage is in the low .910’s and your career norm is high .920’s that shows there are issues there.

Still there are things to be encouraged about too. ¬†In years past the Devils wouldn’t have been able to survive a leaky defense, slumping goaltending or a couple of key forwards going cold but this team’s come up with seven out of twelve points since coming back from the West Coast. ¬†Considering they have exactly zero regulation wins in that time, it’s taken a lot of extra work to get those seven points. ¬†Fourteen OT games out of their first twenty-four contests to be exact. ¬†At least the Devils usually give you your entertainment’s worth, but if they’re going to have any hope of getting back into and maintaining a playoff position they’re going to need to shore up their rough edges this week when they return to the Rock for a pair of games.

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Rangers implode in 4-3 loss to Eichel, Sabres

On a night where they visited Buffalo, the Rangers got exposed. In truth, they were no match for the Sabres’ speed which was dominant at five-on-five. The score didn’t reflect it. But eventually, Jack Eichel changed the script by scoring the tying and winning goals in a well deserved Sabres’ 4-3 win over the Rangers.

If not for a couple of power play goals from Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash, it probably would’ve been a blowout. Rare is the game where the Blueshirts have looked over matched. It happened at home against the Penguins. Only Pittsburgh won much bigger.

The Sabres are still in the rebuilding process. They were without key defensemen Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov. They relied heavily on top blue liner Rasmus Ristolainen, who logged over 26 minutes. Jake McCabe and Cody Franson also played roles as did Josh Gorges.

How bad were the Rangers at even strength? They got outscored 3-1 and outshot 31-15. The Buffalo fore-check was relentless. They used their superior speed, size and strength to keep the defense off balance. Dan Girardi had his worst game of the season. On for two goals against and a noteworthy 38 shots against, he was too slow. Never was that more evident than on Eichel’s winner which came with 5:32 left in regulation.

Evander Kane blew by Girardi like he was a statue. Henrik Lundqvist, who had his own struggles, fell down and watched as Eichel centered a pass for Kane that banked off a standing still Mats Zuccarello and in. It really was indicative of how the game was played. The Rangers had no answer for the Buffalo top line of Eichel, Kane and Sam Reinhart. They got pinned in their zone for long stretches and survived only due to Lundqvist, who wasn’t good allowing four goals on 34 shots.

In a way, he kept them in it by making some very tough saves. But you can make a case that all four goals he gave up were questionable. It started badly when just 18 seconds in, McCabe sent what looked like a harmless dump in from the red line that went off Johan Larsson’s skate taking a funny hop over a startled Lundqvist.

The only period they played well in was the first period. Despite the bad bounce, they outshot Buffalo 11-8. An overly aggressive Marcus Foligno reached out and grabbed Girardi for a hooking minor with under five minutes left. That allowed McDonagh to take a Derek Stepan feed and fire home his first of the season through a good Chris Kreider screen.

A second Buffalo penalty on Franson for cross checking resulted in another Ranger power play goal in the second. On this one, Adam Clendening made a nice read at the left point. Playing for Kevin Klein, who was a healthy scratch due to recent struggles,  Clendening fired a shot from the left point that booing target Jimmy Vesey got a piece of to force Anders Nilsson to leave a rebound. Nash pounced on it for his 11th to stay hot and give the Rangers a 2-1 lead at 8:15.

But it was short lived. On the next shift, Buffalo came right back with a big shift from their checking line. Taking advantage of chaotic play behind the Ranger net, Foligno fed Brian Gionta, who buried one home with Lundqvist again out of position. On that one, Staal and partner Nick Holden got caught. Zuccarello was also on for it. He really had issues defensively. J.T. Miller and Matt Puempel also were on. Predictably, Puempel didn’t see much time afterwards. He only received nine shifts totaling 7:47 of ice-time.

Oscar Lindberg also got only nine shifts (7:57)¬† from Alain Vigneault, whose in game adjustments remain mystifying. With his D clearly having problems with Buffalo’s team speed, he never once changed his D pairings. That left McDonagh with Girardi. It was a long night for them. He also only played third pair Brady Skjei and Clendening 14-plus minutes. They were more effective as was Staal and Holden.

When the game was tied, the Sabres came very hard. Let’s just say the ice was tilted. The Rangers spent the rest of the second on their heels. With the lone exception of one good shift from Kreider and Jesper Fast, they were outgunned. Kreider delivered a big hit to free a puck loose to Fast, who in turn fed a pinching Staal for his second goal this season to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead headed to the third.

In it, it was all Buffalo who held a 12-5 edge in shots along with territorial control. A Clendening rough on Eichel which somehow was called a hold led to Eichel’s tying power play goal with 7:15 left. Taking a feed from Kyle Okposo, he cruised through the Ranger zone and took his wrist shot fooling Lundqvist thru the wickets. It was a hard accurate shot but stoppable.

Then came the Girardi hiccups with everyone out of position including the goalie and Zuccarello, who may as well have not been on the ice. Eichel got the nice bounce which was deserved for his third goal in two games since returning. He looks even better.

As for the Rangers, they might want to consider keeping Clendening in for tomorrow’s game against Carolina and sitting Girardi. But that’s up to the coach. We’ll see.

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Hall returns for Devils, Quenneville to debut in Chicago

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John Quenneville makes his NHL debut for the Devils in Chicago. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NJDevils.

When the Devils face the Blackhawks at United Center at 8:30 PM, they will have two players in the lineup they didn’t recently have. One will be star forward Taylor Hall. The recently turned 25-year old missed the last eight games due to left knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus.

In 14 games, Hall had five goals and seven assists. He should provide a big boost offensively. With Mike Cammalleri hot since his return up to seven goals and seven assists, the Devils finally have their two most talented offensive players back in the lineup.

They’ll still need more from Adam Henrique, who remains a mystery with four goals and six assists in 22 games. Kyle Palmieri also must pick it up. Both were 30 goalscorers last year for the first time in their careers. Neither has come close to fulfilling expectations. Palmieri will play his 21st game. He’s 3-6-9.

While Henrique and Palmieri try to straighten out, the Devs can take solace knowing they’re getting contributions from youngsters Nick Lappin and Miles Wood. Lappin has four goals and two helpers while Wood scored his first NHL goal in a 3-2 defeat at Winnipeg on Tuesday. He also had a penalty shot but was unable to beat Connor Hellebuyck. Lappin notched his fourth in that one.

Tonight marks the NHL debut of John Quenneville. Selected 30th overall in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft, the 20-year old from Edmonton has adjusted well to pro hockey. He was leading the Albany Devils in scoring with 17 points (7-10-17) in 19 games. He gets the call with Beau Bennett placed on the injured reserve for a right leg laceration sustained on Nov. 28.

Making room for Hall’s return is Reid Boucher, who was placed on waivers. A 2011 fourth round pick, it looks like Boucher’s stay with the Devils could be over. After recording eight goals and 11 assists in 39 games last season, he had two assists in nine contests so far. Maybe the 23-year old needs a change of scenery. If he clears, he’ll be reassigned to Albany.

Yohann Auvitu is back in the lineup in place of Jon Merrill on defense. It’ll be interesting to see how Quenneville fares in his debut against the ultra talented Blackhawks.

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Game 25: Vesey faces Sabres, Clendening in for Klein

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Jack Eichel makes his home debut for the Sabres tonight when the Rangers visit Buffalo. It’ll also be an interesting return for Jimmy Vesey who spurned the Sabres to sign with the Rangers last summer. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Buffalo Sabres.

Fresh off a nice come from behind 3-2 home win over the Hurricanes, the Rangers take their act on the road when they visit the Sabres in Buffalo tonight. It should be intriguing with Jimmy Vesey making his first appearance in Western New York since Sabres general manager Tim Murray gambled by trading away a third round pick (Rem Pitlick) on June 20 for his negotiating rights.

At the time, the move made sense for Buffalo with Murray having a slew of draft picks. He parted with one to try to get Vesey under contract as a Sabre. However, the Hobey Baker Award winner decided to go to unrestricted free agency and let teams bid on him. The Sabres were still in the mix but ultimately fell short with the Rangers winning out.

Ultimately, it was Vesey’s decision. The 23-year old forward has been a good player for the first place Rangers, who look to make it two straight in what’ll be their first meeting against the Sabres. Buffalo just got Jack Eichel back. He didn’t disappoint in his first game scoring and setting up goals in a 5-4 win over the Senators. In a fun story line, you’ll have the last two Hobey winners facing each other. Eichel won it for Boston University scoring 71 points as a freshman. Vesey won it with 46 points as a senior at Harvard University.

Thus far, Vesey has eight goals and six assists in 24 contests for the Rangers. It was his power play goal which was the game-winner the other night. A play set up by Rick Nash, who had his best game of the season scoring the tying goal on a beauty of a backhand top shelf by Cam Ward and assisting on Vesey’s winning tally with 5:12 left in regulation.

Alain Vigneault continues to shuffle the deck minus Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Oscar Lindberg got back in the lineup with Josh Jooris out. He only received 12 shifts logging a team low 8:07 winning three of five face-offs. Even though he didn’t play a lot, Vigneault praised him for playing a strong physical game.

There will be one change of note. As has been noted in this blog, Kevin Klein has struggled this season. He was beaten on one Carolina goal following a turnover. Vigneault has finally decided to sit Klein and give Adam Clendening another look. It’ll be his first game since Oct. 22. Sure. He got into another as a extra defenseman. But didn’t take one shift.

This will be different with Clendening counted on as one of the top six. Does Vigneault try him with Brady Skjei? It would seem like a natural fit. A good skating right D with a superb skating left D who has flourished. Skjei has 12 assists and has fit in well on the power play. He was basically stuck with Klein the last couple of games. It didn’t go well.

With Nick Holden continuing to fit in with Marc Staal, I don’t see a reason for a change. Holden scored his third goal to start the comeback on Tuesday. After struggling to establish himself early on, the former Av has really figured it out. Gotta give Jeff Gorton credit for making a good trade. Holden ranks second in defense scoring on the team with 12 points (3-9-12) and is plus-11. Dan Girardi also has three goals and is plus-13.

Henrik Lundqvist gets the start. He made 26 saves on Tuesday for the win. Anders Nilsson will oppose him for the Sabres. He replaced starter Robin Lehner, who again is hurt. Nilsson finished with 26 saves in relief of Lehner to get the victory at Ottawa. He’s been pretty solid as the backup entering play with three wins, a 2.20 GAA and .939 save percentage.

If their win over Ottawa is any indication, the Sabres should get a continued jolt from Eichel. It allows Ryan O’Reilly to center the second line. In the win, Buffalo was lethal on the power play going 3-for-5 with goals coming from Eichel, O’Reilly and leading scorer Kyle Okposo. Sam Reinhart also scored his fifth. Rasmus Ristolainen tallied two assists giving him 11 for the season. He must be accounted for from the back end.

The Sabres’ speed should be a good test. The Rangers like to play fast. So, it could be a fast paced game with momentum swings. The team that’s more disciplined should come out on top.

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