Game Preview: Rangers get Buchnevich and Nash back as Matthews led Leafs visit


On an emotional night at MSG in which they'll honor Steven McDonald before the game, the Rangers host Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Maple Leafs.

On an emotional night at MSG in which they’ll honor Steven McDonald before the game, the Rangers host Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Maple Leafs.

As noted in a previous post, tonight will be special. The Rangers will honor the memory of former NYPD officer Steven McDonald in what should be an emotional and stirring ceremony. There won’t be a dry eye in the building. McDonald represented this city as well as anyone. That’s why the Rangers had an award in his honor which continues this season.

There’s still a game to play. Believe it or not, the Maple Leafs and Rangers will actually play hockey after having the last five days off. The last time we saw the Rangers, they were showing the heart that McDonald would’ve been proud of in a gutsy come from behind 5-4 win over the Blue Jackets with Extra Effort candidate Michael Grabner completing a hat trick by scoring with 16.5 seconds left for the game-winner. He leads the team with 19 goals. Who would have ever thought he’d be this good through 42 games?

The thing about this team is they don’t just rely on top players. However, the first line anchored by Derek Stepan with Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello carried them for a stretch last month. With Kreider scoring 11 of his 16 goals in December, he looks to be on the fast track to stardom. It’s taken a while for the talented power forward. But his 30 points in in 36 games are the best production on the team. Stepan also had a big month finishing with five goals and 11 assists for 16 points with a plus-11 rating in 15 games to help raise his season total to 31 points. That ties him with Kevin Hayes for tops.

Zuccarello wound up with 14 points with his only goal coming on an empty net. He has an assist in three games this month and his point total is 30 (8-22-30). At some point, they’re gonna need more goal production from last year’s Steven McDonald Award winner. Maybe the time off will help.

The rest allowed the Rangers to get healthier. Both Pavel Buchnevich and Rick Nash return tonight. Buchnevich hasn’t played since 11/12 due to back spasms. The 21-year old Russian was heating up with goals in his last four before the bad back kept him off the ice for over a month. He had to do strengthening exercises before getting into three games with Hartford. In those games, he had a goal and assist. For the season, he is 4-4-8 in 10 contests. The Rangers will play it safe with the rookie by not playing him initially in back-to-backs. Buchnevich will be a scratch tomorrow at Montreal.

Their depth allows them to do that. They also get the ultra talented Nash back. A multidimensional two-way player who plays every situation, he too was hot before a groin injury sidelined him for 10 games. He had four goals and two assists in his last seven games before tweaking his groin in a shootout win over the Devils on 12/18. Nash has 13 goals and seven helpers for 20 points in 30 games.

Coach Alain Vigneault doesn’t want to mess with the chemistry for the Stepan line and the line of Hayes, Grabner and J.T. Miller. So, Nash and Buchnevich will find themselves on another line. They can either play with Oscar Lindberg or Brandon Pirri. Lindberg works so well with Jesper Fast that it’s hard to see him getting the opportunity. But he has been playing better than Pirri, who really needs to get untracked offensively to stay in the lineup. Don’t forget rookie Jimmy Vesey who can complement any line he’s on with his speed and offensive instincts.

Mika Zibanejad is close to returning. When he does, the Rangers will be even stronger. There is nothing new to report on Matt Puempel. He remains out with a concussion. Speaking of which, post-concussion symptoms are what sidelined defenseman Marc Staal prior to the break. He is not ready to return. It is sad that he has to go through another serious injury. Between the freak accident in which brother Eric leveled him during a game for his first concussion and taking a shot to the eye that nearly blinded him, the former 2005 first round pick has been through a lot.

Somewhat ironically, it is Staal’s 30th birthday today. He was having a good bounce back season before the injury. Defensively, he had been solid pairing well with Nick Holden. Staal also contributed three goals and three assists with 22 penalty minutes and a plus-10 rating. With Staal, it’s never been about statistics. But rather the intangibles and leadership he brings. He plays with an edge. Without him, the Rangers don’t come back to beat the Penguins in the second round during their run to a Stanley Cup Final in the 2014 playoffs. His key work on Sidney Crosby was crucial. Here is Vigneault talking about McDonald prior to his first year behind the Ranger bench:

That team went “above and beyond” overcoming a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in franchise history to finally conquer the Pens. They did it in 2015 during the same round by stunning the Caps with heroics coming from Kreider, Stepan and Ryan McDonagh in Games 5 and 7. I’ll never forget what it was like being there.

As for Staal, who knows how good he could’ve been without the injuries. He still has been an All-Star who once was on the top pair with Girardi as shutdown tandem. Like Girardi, he battled through injury to play during a heartbreaking 2015 postseason that ended miserably with the Lightning shutting out the Rangers at MSG in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Little did we know half the blue line was hurt. But it goes to show how much they were willing to put their bodies through. Had they won, what would have been left in the tank for the Blackhawks? We’ll never know.

When I think of Staal, I always am reminded of two goals he scored. The first coming during his rookie year when the Devils and Rangers were tied late in regulation during Game 4 of the first round in 2008. Then Staal fired and scored his first career postseason goal with 3;14 left beating hockey legend Martin Brodeur. MSG was a madhouse. The Rangers advanced in five games. The second shall forever be known as The Miracle. Started by Brad Richards when he tied Game 5 with time to spare in regulation, Staal scored off a face-off win in overtime.

All I can say is I hope Staal gets healthy soon and is back to being the player we saw during the first half. He may never be that guy in 2012 who helped the team advance to the Conference Finals. But he’s still a core piece who is instrumental on a defense that doesn’t have much edge without him. Marc will play chippy. He’s shown it by cross checking Crosby and going after players during scrums. That leadership can’t be understated.

Without him, Adam Clendening gets to play in a third consecutive game. Hopefully, he continues to make the most out of the opportunity. It was his big power play goal and shot that got redirected by Grabner which allowed the team to rally past Columbus. As Vigneault likes to say, this is another kick at the can for a player on his fifth NHL team. A good skating right D who is best utilized offensively, the 24-year old Clendening is someone to root for. In 11 games, he has a goal and four assists. When he does play, Vigneault uses him on the left point of the second power play unit. An area he can excel at.

What remains to be seen is what Vigneault will do with McDonagh. He finally tried rookie Brady Skjei with him the previous two games with mixed results. Skjei is a much better skater than Girardi or Kevin Klein. Without Staal, it’s probably the best way to go. We’ll see what the coach decides.

The time off should mean Henrik Lundqvist gets the start. He was heroic in the Columbus win despite allowing four goals. The Swedish King didn’t allow any more following an early Blue Jackets goal in the second period that put them in a 4-1 hole. But Lundqvist finished with 33 saves and was resilient. I’d imagine we will see Antti Raanta tomorrow at Montreal. But they just are coming back from a break. Even though he’s struggled at the annoying Bell Centre, maybe Vigneault will go back to Lundqvist and see if he can deliver in the first look at the Atlantic-leading Canadiens.

Their opponent are the very fast and talented Maple Leafs. Led by rookie Auston Matthews, Toronto is in the hunt for the playoffs in the Atlantic. They are extremely dangerous and can score goals in a bunch. Matthews has fulfilled lofty expectations by leading the Leafs in goals with 21 and points with 35. The 19-year old 2016 first overall pick from Scottsdale, Arizona is amazing. He has it. The game breaking speed and hands. He centers the top line with rookies Connor Brown and Zach Hyman. Brown has done well with nine goals and nine helpers while Hyman is more of a smart unselfish player with 13 assists and five markers. They’re a handful.

The Leafs still possess James van Riemsdyk. The Middletown, New Jersey native is quietly having a good year ranking second in points (33) with 14 goals. He still plays with Tyler Bozak. But they now have overlooked Calder candidate Mitch Marner. A great skater with lethal speed and unreal one-on-one skills that can make defenses look silly, he is right there with 32 points (10-22-32). Marner went fourth overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. When he’s in transition, watch out.

Toronto can put out William Nylander with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov as a second unit. Kadri’s 16 markers rank second behind Matthews. Nylander has 26 points (8-18-26) and is a very smart playmaking forward like Dad Michael. Komarov plays chippy and hits everything. He is that annoying pest but with more skill than Jarkko Ruutu. He’s real good in front of the net.

The Rangers will also see former Islander Matt Martin. No stranger to the rivalry, he still plays as feisty as ever leading the Leafs in hits with 146. His last big one caused a ruckus with the Canadiens in a 5-3 loss. Here it is:

Martin’s hit on Jeff Petry was clean. He never left his feet but finished his check. A tenacious worker, that is his role. He only has two goals and two helpers but has 77 penalty minutes. The Islanders passed on re-signing him allowing Martin to leave for Toronto where he got a four-year contract that pays him an average of $2.5 million thru 2020. You can understand why they passed but ask any Islander fan and they’ll admit they miss his presence.

On the back end, the Leafs are led by Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly. Both are superb left skating defensemen who can start the transition and jump in offensively. Gardiner paces Toronto with 21 points (6-15-21) on the back end while Rielly has a similar line to McDonagh going 1-16-17. Rielly pairs with 25-year old Russian rookie Nikita Zaitsev (1-15-16). A former KHLer who played for CSKA Moscow and fits into Mike Babcock’s system. Gardiner pairs with former Cap Connor Carrick. Another young player who’s only 22. Former Ranger Matt Hunwick is on the third pair with bruiser Roman Polak.

If there is a big difference between these teams aside from the Leafs’ youth, it’s their physicality. They can really hit. So, it’ll be interesting to see how the Rangers deal with that. However, Toronto is known for bad third periods and can implode. For the Blueshirts, it’s about sticking with it. They are a much better third period team.

Toronto’s number one goalie is former Duck Frederik Andersen. He got off to a rough start but has settled down. Even though he has a 2.69 goals-against-average, he also boasts a .918 save percentage with 17 wins in 33 games. The issue for the Leafs has been at backup. They have gone through Jhonas Enroth and don’t want to rush Antoine Bibeau. So they claimed former Jacket Curtis McElhinney. The same guy who got lit up last week.

Updating projected lines, NHL.com’s Dan Rosen has Lindberg playing with Vesey and Nash which leaves Pirri with Buchnevich and Fast if he can go. Fast was sick. So, that will be decided at game time. If he can’t, Marek Hrivik would take his place. Here are the D pairs:

McDonagh-Skjei

Holden-Girardi

Clendening-Klein

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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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