Game 32 Lundqvist and Nash return as Rangers visit Stars


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Henrik Lundqvist returns after getting four games off as the Rangers get Rick Nash back when they visit the Stars tonight. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Amanda Borges NYR.

When the Rangers take to the ice tonight in Dallas, they’ll have two starting players back. One will be number one goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The other will be star forward Rick Nash.

Coincidentally, both players missed a week. Nash was due to a groin injury. Lundqvist was due to a slump with capable backup Antti Raanta doing a great job in winning three of four games with two shutouts while allowing only three goals on 89 shots.

With each back, the Rangers should get a boost. Well, I don’t know if Lundqvist can play any better than Raanta did in that four-game hiatus. But he can get back to being the franchise netminder who has carried this team. As for Nash, he was on a roll when he tweaked a groin and left the Islander game in the second period. Now, we’ll see how long it takes for him to get back in a groove.

Coach Alain Vigneault will decide who Nash plays with. I wouldn’t expect him to break up cohesive checking unit Marek Hrivik, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast. Since they’ve been put together, that trio has been playing well enough for Vigneault to trust them offensively and defensively. He wasn’t afraid to use them late in a 2-1 loss to the Blackhawks.

With Nash back, Nicklas Jensen was returned to Hartford. The 23-year old acquired from Vancouver for Emerson Etem was okay in a fourth line role. He didn’t do anything to hurt himself even if he hardly was used in the third period the other night due to Vigneault shortening the bench.

The bigger question is what to do with Jimmy Vesey. The 23-year old rookie from Harvard University had a great third period getting double shifted by Vigneault. He led the team with seven shots and nearly beat Scott Darling to tie it. He received over half his 14:46 in the third. He certainly is a gifted scorer who uses his speed, shot and net presence to generate offense. He might be a better fit right now than Mats Zuccarello with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. Zuccarello is a creative player on the forecheck but is without a goal in the last 14.

Maybe Vigneault tries Vesey with Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner, who is without a point over four. He still leads the team with 13 goals. Vigneault had J.T. Miller back with Hayes and Grabner. Maybe that changes with Nash back. Hayes and Nash are tied for second in goals with 11 followed by Vesey’s 10. Miller has nine but remains the leading scorer with 22 points including 13 assists. Stepan and Ryan McDonagh are tied for the team lead in assists with 16.

McDonagh missed Tuesday’s big rematch due to the flu. His status is uncertain for tonight. If he doesn’t go, Adam Clendening would be the sixth defenseman again. A right skating D who is more of a possession player that can play the left point on the power play. Clendening hasn’t gotten much time. Vigneault still doesn’t trust him enough to play him and spell Dan Girardi or Kevin Klein to keep both fresh. Klein’s play has picked up since he was benched for Clendening last week. Girardi hasn’t been awful as other Ranger bloggers would have you believe. But resting him occasionally is the smart thing to do.

Brady Skjei should play more than 12-plus minutes after recovering from a cut chin due to taking a Hayes skate that cost him nearly a period. He has been up and down lately which is expected from a first-year defenseman. There will be peaks and valleys. Even Patrik Laine is going through a lull with him accidentally shooting a puck into his own net in a loss for Winnipeg. A puck he was attempting to clear. Mistakes will happen.

The lineup becomes more interesting with Nash back. Matt Puempel returned to practice this morning and spoke to reporters. He’s getting closer to being cleared to return from a concussion. The question then becomes what to do with slumping center Brandon Pirri. He’s currently centering the fourth line. Vigneault doesn’t trust him enough at five-on-five. Pirri is a power play specialist. Half of his 12 points have come on the power play including four of his six goals.

Mika Zibanejad was on the ice practicing passes. He’s still a month away. Pavel Buchnevich continues to strengthen his core so he doesn’t suffer from back spasms. He could be due back before Christmas. They don’t have to rush the talented Russian back. Buchnevich certainly was figuring it out with four goals and four assists in 10 games. When he does return, it makes the lineup that much better. He’s especially good on the power play at creating space.

When Buchnevich and Zibanejad are finally healthy, the Rangers could get back to scoring more goals. Their balance will be even stronger now that Lindberg looks fully recovered from off-season knee surgery. He will likely replace Pirri and stay in the lineup. Hrivik looks like a keeper. It’ll be interesting to see what they decide.

The Rangers take on a Stars team that remains inconsistent. Despite boasting the talented combo of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, Dallas is out of the playoffs currently with 30 points. They’re in the wildcard picture tied with Los Angeles and Nashville in points. But have played three more games (31) which is why they’re on the outside looking in. With Pacific teams such as Calgary and Edmonton improving, they’re not a playoff lock.

Jason Spezza expressed concern following a recent loss. The team responded by beating the Ducks 6-2 highlighted by a goal and two helpers from Benn and two assists from Seguin. The Stars can score goals with Patrick Eaves surprisingly pacing them with 11 followed by 10 from Seguin and nine from Benn. Rookie Stephen Johns has contributed three goals from the blue line.

Dallas has gotten a good year out of meat and potatoes grinder Antoine Roussel. He’s fourth in scoring with 16 points (5-11-16), has two game-winners and is first in the NHL with 85 penalty minutes. He is the type of physical player that could give the Rangers trouble on the forecheck. Never mind that they’ll have to deal with the speed of Benn, Seguin and Spezza (5-10-15). They’ll also try to key on rover John Klingberg, who paces the defense with 14 points (2-12-14). He hasn’t been as effective as last year but is a dangerous player with a big shot who can also find the seam to spring teammates.

Part of the problem for Dallas (12-13-6) is injuries to key players. Patrick Sharp has only played 11 games and remains out with a concussion. Ales Hemsky is also on the injured reserve having gotten into only one game. Talented youngster Mattias Janmark has yet to play. Such games lost to talented forwards have hurt the Stars’ depth. It’s forced coach Lindy Ruff to rely on other players such as Eaves, Roussel, Devin Shore (5-8-13) and Radek Faksa (3-7-10). Old hat Lauri Korpikoski has played 30 games and contributed four goals and five assists in a supporting role.

The Stars do get back young defenseman Jamie Oleksiak after serving a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head. Ruff has used eight D rotating guys in and out. Veteran Dan Hamhuis is a big minutes logger as is Johnny Oduya. Both are counted on. Jamie’s younger brother Jordie Benn has tallied a goal and seven helpers in 28 contests.

Dallas can use more from Cody Eakin and Jiri Hudler. Both of who are finally healthy. Each is capable of contributing. Hopefully, that’s not tonight against Lundqvist.

Goaltending remains an issue. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen continue to split time. Each have won six games with Lehtonen a slightly better goals-against-average (2.92) compared to Niemi’s 3.12. However, Niemi boasts the higher save percentage (.906) while Lehtonen checks in at .894 with the team’s only shutout. It looks like it’ll be Niemi opposing Lundqvist.

Antti Niemi is expected to start in goal tonight against the NY Rangers.

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Dallas ranks 15th on the power play clicking at 17.4 percent including 16.4 at home (9-for-55). The Rangers power play is fourth overall going 22.6 percent including 26.5 on the road (9-for-34). The Stars have allowed five shorthanded goals while the Rangers have allowed one. The Stars rank 28th on the penalty kill going 76.6 percent but are much better at home killing off 87.2 percent (41-of-47). They’ve scored two shorthanded goals with Sharp and Gemel Smith tallying. The Rangers also rank fourth overall on the penalty kill killing off 86.1 percent including 84.4 on the road (27-of-32). They have four shorthanded goals led by Miller (2) with Hayes and Stepan each also tallying.

The Rangers have been shorthanded just 79 times ranking near the top. On the other hand, the Stars rank near the bottom having been shorthanded 111 times.

Face-off is 8:37 PM with the game on MSG. If they move it for the Knicks later like the other night, I’m gonna be annoyed. The Knicks play at the Warriors at 10:30 out West.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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