Etem returns as Canucks visit Blueshirts

Tonight is the return of Emerson Etem as the Canucks pay a visit to MSG to face the Blueshirts. Since being dealt for minor league forward Nicklas Jensen and a 2017 third round pick on Jan. 8, Etem has played in four games under former junior hockey coach Willie Desjardins and has no points. Desjardins coached him in Medicine Hat in the WHL.

“They’ve been in the playoffs the past few years, and they got the guys that they stick with,” Etem said regarding his former team where he only got into 19 games and had three assists. “Sometimes you go in there and you just don’t fit in. I think that’s the case. I felt like I brought speed. But (they had) a couple guys with speed, it was almost like, ‘Where do I kind of fit in?’ And I think they felt the same way.”

He did also note that with the Canucks, at least he knows he’s in the lineup which is less of a worry. Kind of a indirect shot at Alain Vigneault, who didn’t give Etem much of a chance. Part of it can be blamed on a poor showing in training camp followed by a preseason which had him as a healthy scratch to start the season. But once he played, he was inconsistent and didn’t distinguish himself. However, he mostly was used on the fourth line. A short stint on the third line resulted in the trade with him responsible for two goals against in a 3-0 shutout loss at Florida on Jan. 2.

As it turned out, that was the final chance. Etem sat out a couple of games before the organization decided to send him down to Hartford on a conditioning assignment. Instead, he was gone on the same day an hour later. So much for truth in advertising. What would you expect from a team still caught up in its recent history celebrating the 1994 Stanley Cup with another pointless documentary following tonight’s game on MSG? I won’t be watching.

For now, the focus is on the current roster which has proven it can’t win consistently. Like a broken record, they haven’t won two in a row since Nov. 21-23. They blew another chance in a disappointing 5-2 loss at first overall Washington on Sunday. A game they were in control of leading 1-0 when Derick Brassard took a ill advised holding the stick penalty off a offensive zone draw which Alex Ovechkin scored on. The Caps got two more goals in the second before Chris Kreider answered with his second of the game and third in two games. It’s been a struggle for him but he’s suddenly heating up with points in the last three. Kreider is a big part of the offense who must continue to perform if the Rangers are to turn it around.

Right now, they find themselves in a tight Eastern playoff race with 37 games remaining. Despite having the second least amount of points (17) since Dec. 2, they still trail the Islanders by only a point for second and sit third in a mediocre Metropolitan Division. The Blueshirts have 53 points and are four ahead of the Pens and Devils with the Flyers and Canes five back. Six total points separate  second from seventh. Pittsburgh is off after losing 5-2 at St. Louis. The Devils host Calgary. The Caps are way up with 71 points and visit last place Columbus. Barring something unforeseen, Washington will win the division and conference. They’re 14 up on Northeast Division leader Florida who have finally hit a slump losing three straight. They’re 17 ahead of the Islanders and 18 up on the Rangers.

The Rangers will be without Brassard, who has the flu. Winter is finally here with frigid temps in the 20’s going down to the teens. There’s also a predicted snowstorm coming Friday evening into Saturday. No Brassard means Jayson Megna slots in on the fourth line with Dominic Moore and Tanner Glass. It also means Vigneault is forced to switch up the other lines. Kevin Hayes will center a line with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. Derek Stepan stays with Kreider and J.T. Miller rejoins them. That leaves Oscar Lindberg anchoring the third line with Viktor Stalberg and Jesper Fast.

Kevin Klein is a game-time decision. If he can’t go, Dylan McIlrath stays in. Otherwise, he sits with Vigneault continuing to stay loyal to Dan Girardi. Even with the blood and guts warrior not 100 percent, he’s being given every chance to find his game. It’s understandable. But at what point is it hurting the team instead of helping? By this point, the consensus is that McIlrath deserves to be in the lineup. But Vigneault refuses to play him even reducing his ice-time the final two periods in Washington. He finished with 13:09. He was on for Ovechkin’s power play goal getting faked out. But that happens. He was plus-one and steadier than Girardi, who had a rough game on for three goals against.

Assuming Klein is back, he’ll stay with Ryan McDonagh on the top pair. That leaves Dan Boyle with Marc Staal. An iffy pair defensively but Vigneault prefers Boyle’s offense and puck possession. So, even with him going cold this month and his defense coming back down, he stays in. Don’t forget he’s a fixture on the top power play unit with McDonagh. Even with the power play struggling 1-for-its-last-26, he stays as the trigger. Boyle had a goal reversed in the final minute of the third due to an offside. He has no points in January.

Girardi would slot in with Keith Yandle, whose play has also slipped. He still remains the team’s best offensive threat from the blue line. The issue is more in his end. He’s been shaky. But that’s no different than the rest. McDonagh hasn’t been the same player either. Klein remains their most consistent.

Henrik Lundqvist returns to the net. Antti Raanta allowed four goals on 23 shots in Sunday’s loss. He only really could’ve had one with Ovechkin sniping past him with Fast possibly screening him out. It would be nice if Raanta was able to give Lundqvist more breaks. Especially when the schedule picks up following the All-Star break. For now, Vigneault will ride Hank.

This is the first of four games left before All-Star weekend in Nashville. The Rangers get two days off before visiting Carolina Friday and Ottawa Sunday. Buffalo visits The Garden on Monday, Jan. 25. Every opponent is beatable. But that all depends on the Rangers’ mindset. Can they find their game and put together a little streak to put themselves in better position?

“I have full confidence in this group that we can hang with any team in the NHL,” Stepan told the AP following the loss to the Caps.

For the Canucks, they go for a three-game win streak. Currently fourth in the Pacific Division with 48 points sitting just a point back of San Jose and Arizona, they’re right in the thick of the race. Only the Kings are comfortably in with 59 points tops in the division. Ten ahead of the Coyotes and Sharks. Then you have Vancouver followed by Anaheim (45) with Calgary and Edmonton (43). Six total points separate second from last. Three teams are gonna make the cut. Sad. Isn’t it? This new playoff format. Someone in a much better Central division could get left out.

Lately, it’s been the play of Jacob Markstrom who’s splitting time with Ryan Miller. At one time, the 25-year old Swede was highly thought of. A former second round pick of the Panthers, he came over to Vancouver in the Roberto Luongo trade on Mar. 4, 2014. Miller recently returned and made 47 saves in a 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders. So, it stands to reason that he’ll get the start. He won the first head-to-head meeting with the Rangers back on 12/9 making 32 saves in a 2-1 Canucks win.

Both Daniel and Henrik Sedin are having good seasons. Henrik won’t play due to getting hit from behind by Islander forward Mikhail Grabovski, who was assessed a five-minute major for boarding and game misconduct. Still no word on whether Grabovski will be disciplined. Daniel will play and leads the Canucks in scoring with 41 points (19-22-41). Henrik is second with 37 including a team best 28 assists.

“Probably a 10-day injury or so,” Desjardins said with Henrik out through the All-Star Game. “We always want protection of our players. I think everybody in the league does. The league reviews a lot so that’s not for me to comment on it. One thing you always want your players to feel is safe.”

Jared McCann will move up to the top line playing with Daniel and Jannik Hansen. Bo Horvat has been hot lately. The former 2013 first round pick who’s best known for being acquired for Devils’ starter Cory Schneider has nine points over the last seven contests. That includes six of his eight total goals. Still only 20, Horvat is a big part of Vancouver’s future along with youngsters Jake Virtanen and Ben Hutton.

There will also be familiar faces returning in ex-Rangers Derek Dorsett and Brandon Prust. However, it looks like Prust could be the odd man out. Both Hutton and journeyman Adam Cracknell are expected to make their first MSG appearances.

Alex Edler is their leading point getter from the back end with 18. He’s one of seven holdovers from Vigneaut’s 2010-11 roster that lost to the Bruins for the Stanley Cup. The others are both Sedins, Hansen, Alex Burrows, Dan Hamhuis and Chris Tanev. Chris Higgins would be eight but he was waived. Current Blueshirt Glass was part of that roster too.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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