The Rangers return home to host the Panthers at 5 EST. Winners of five of six, they enter today’s match leading the Eastern Conference with 93 points. By virtue of 40 regulation and overtime wins along with two fewer games played, they are first over the Atlantic leading Canadiens, who also have 93 points.
With Montreal sending the Islanders to another defeat, the Rangers lead the Metro by three points with 15 games remaining. The Penguins will remain five out due to a blowout loss to the Red Wings. Updating the wildcard race, the Bruins and Capitals face off tonight with an identical 82 points. They lead Florida by six and Ottawa by seven.
To their credit, the Panthers have hung around without injured starter Roberto Luongo and backup Al Montoya. Due to the play of vet Dan Ellis, they remain in play for the wildcard. Ellis made 27 saves in a 2-0 shutout of the Hurricanes yesterday. He’s started the last four games allowing the Panthers to go 3-0-1. At 31-23-14 with just 24 ROW and 14 games left, they must play very well and get help down the stretch.
Since coming over from the Devils at the deadline, Jaromir Jagr has fit in well posting a goal and four assists in six contests. When Jagr plays, the Panthers haven’t lost a game in regulation going 5-0-1 during that span. The one game he missed they lost to the Leafs 3-2 on 3/3 when both Luongo and Montoya got hurt.
Nick Bjugstad leads the Cats with 24 goals and is tied with Jonathan Huberdeau for the team lead in scoring with 41 points. A 2010 first round pick, the 22-year old Minnesota native has developed into a good scorer improving on his rookie totals of 16-22-38 in ’13-14. He also leads them with seven power play goals. Huberdeau has been hot of late with eight points (2-6-8) in his last six. The third-year forward has returned to form after a tough sophomore year that saw him record 28 points.
Veteran Jussi Jokinen has been a reliable playmaker. His 32 assists pace the club. He has an assist in each of the last four and is 1-7-8 over the last 10. Brandon Pirri, who scored his 14th goal in Saturday’s win has six markers over the last 10. He came over from the Blackhawks last draft for a 2014 third round pick (Justin Kirkland) and a 2016 fifth round pick. Jimmy Hayes is second in goals with 17. He and Dylan Olsen came over from Chicago for Kris Versteeg. When you consider that Dale Tallon is the GM and you see the number of ex-Hawks including Brian Campbell (3-20-23) and Dave Bolland (18 points in 39 games), it’s not all that surprising.
2014 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad has been as good as advertised. His 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points has him in contention for the Calder Trophy. He’s up against freshmen Filip Forsberg (21-32-53) and Johnny Gaudreau (19-34-53) in a deep rookie class that includes Mike Hoffman (24-18-42), John Klingberg (10-26-36), Anders Lee (23-15-38), Kevin Hayes (13-19-32) and Michael Hutchinson (20 W). The difference is Ekblad is only 19 and anchoring Florida’s blueline after going number one. Pretty impressive.
Florida also boasts youngster Aleksander Barkov. He scored his 11th in a win over Winnipeg. The 19-year old Finn center has great skill and should be a future star. He matched his rookie total with 24 points. The 11 goals are a career best. Second-year forward Vincent Trocheck has 17 points. He’s a 2011 third round pick.
They also have veterans Brad Boyes, Scottie Upshall, another ex-Hawk Tomas Kopecky and captain Willie Mitchell, who was on the Stanley Cup champion Kings. With a mix of vets and kids, the Panthers have improved. They play hard and should be hungry when they visit MSG. They’re in a playoff race.
For the Blueshirts, Cam Talbot returns to net following a rare night off. He’s 12-2-3 since taking over number one duty for Henrik Lundqvist, who still hasn’t been medically cleared to return. He’s taking low shots in practice. With his status uncertain, who knows when he’ll be back. With Talbot performing so well and young pup MacKenzie Skapski winning his first two starts against the Sabres, the Rangers suddenly are pretty deep at goalie. Especially with prospects Brandon Halverson and Igor Shestyerkin proving to be good draft picks.
A once perceived organizational weakness is now a strength. If they trade Talbot either this summer or at next year’s deadline, they should get a good return including some of those picks Glen Sather gave up. There’s not much negative to say about the job he’s done. He was able to move Lee Stempniak to Winnipeg and Keith Yandle has fit in well scoring his first goal and point as a Ranger in Saturday’s win. With Kevin Klein out, it looks like a brilliant move. If only the coaching staff could remember what a power play is supposed to look like.
Derek Stepan is without a point in nine straight. Hard to believe because he’s not playing badly. When you have streaky linemates, it happens. At least Martin St. Louis has scored in two straight and the good Chris Kreider has reemerged. I disagree with Alain Vigneault benching J.T. Miller for his penalty. Granted, he didn’t have much of a game. But it seemed harsh. Especially on Miller’s 22nd birthday. Though he did move Miller up for an ineffective Kreider in a recent win. I wish AV held other players to the same standard.
What to think of Tanner Glass regaining his spot in the lineup over James Sheppard. He has played better. That much is evident despite the Corsis. However, every now and then you have to cringe like when Glass had a blatant giveaway that nearly led to a Sabres scoring chance. Thankfully, Marc Staal recovered in time. Sheppard is clearly a better player. Is this just Vigneault being too loyal to a guy he coached in Vancouver? I hope he realizes what’s best once the postseason begins.