Tonight, the Rangers return home to host the Penguins at MSG. The game time is 7 PM with your usual drop of the puck around 7:08 between 33rd and Seventh.
Rookie Alexandar Georgiev will get the start in goal. Fresh off a scintillating 44 save performance in a 2-1 overtime win over the Leafs in Toronto, the 23-year old Bulgarian makes another start against a quality opponent. This time, it’s old Patrick rival Pittsburgh. The Pens are battling for playoff position in the Metro Division. They’re in third place with 93 points. They have six games remaining entering tonight’s match.
Five total points separate first place Washington from fourth place Carolina. The Caps lead the division by a point over the Islanders, who all but sealed up a playoff berth by sweeping the Flyers and Coyotes over the weekend. The Pens have 93 points, trailing the Isles by two for home ice advantage if they meet in the first round. With a 2-1 overtime win last night over Montreal, the Hurricanes have 91 points with seven games left. So, they could make up ground.
In the wildcard race, the Canes are first with the Canadiens second with 88 points. Montreal leads Columbus by two for the final spot. The Blue Jackets got a badly needed 5-0 victory over Vancouver thanks to a shutout from Sergei Bobrovsky. They have 86 points with a game at hand on the Habs. The two teams meet later this week in Columbus. Montreal has a home game against Florida tomorrow night.
There’s your up to date playoff race. The West is more complicated with technically everyone except the Kings still alive. Even the Oilers. There are a couple of bigger games later that affect that race. In case you’re wondering about the Stars, they’ve hung in pretty good without Mats Zuccarello. They’re in the first wildcard with 82 points. One up on the Avalanche, who lost to the Blackhawks in overtime last night. Dallas has the ROW tiebreaker, but still has some work to do to get in. Zuccarello is skating. Hopefully, he will be back to help them soon.
Regarding Georgiev, who goes for his 12th win in the 26th start of the season, it’s another chance to prove himself against one of the league’s best. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel have been on a roll. With Matt Murray back in form and Kris Letang playing well, the Pens are 8-2-3 in March. Their only two regulation losses came to Columbus and St. Louis.
Quite a few of those games have gone to extras. Prior to a 3-2 regulation victory in Dallas on Saturday, they went to the shootout to edge Nashville and fell to those jerks in Carolina. They blew one to the Flyers losing in overtime. So, the last four games have been close for Pittsburgh. They’re 2-0-2.
The game tonight is the third of four meetings against the Pens. Pittsburgh won the previous two. On 1/2, they blew out the Rangers 7-2 to chase Henrik Lundqvist from net. Georgiev replaced him and allowed one. Last month on 2/17 in Pittsburgh, it was a crazy game the high scoring Pens took 6-5. Evgeni Malkin had two goals including a highlight reel one on Georgiev, who was in for all six on 41 shots. The old Mika Zibanejad line did damage with Zuccarello scoring twice and the next Ranger captain notching his 26th with 18 seconds left to make it interesting. Kevin Hayes had a goal and assist.
Honestly, that game seems like a long time ago. Since then, the Rangers have moved on while Zuccarello and Hayes look to make an impact on the Western Conference playoffs. Hayes recently had his best game in a Jets’ 5-0 blowout of the Predators. He had a goal and three assists to help emerging star Kyle Connor record his first career hat trick.
The Rangers will also finish at the Penguins on April 6. As much as these games don’t mean so much, they’re still rivalry games. That should be etched in the back of the players minds after allowing the Pens to do whatever they wanted in the first two meetings. Thirteen goals is way too many. We’ll see how much pride the boys have in the final home game against a rival you love to hate.
Even if Malkin doesn’t play, the Pens have plenty of firepower. They’ve gotten large contributions from Jared McCann since he and Nick Bjugstad came over from Florida for Derick Brassard (now on Colorado). Justin Schultz has been playing this month after that gruesome injury last Fall. So, that’s a bonus for their D that includes Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson and Marcus Pettersson. GM Jim Rutherford quietly remade it.
There’s always the pesky Patric Hornqvist, who loves crashing the net for deflections and rebounds. Some of it legal and some illegal that can lead to scrums. Similar to Brendan Lemieux, who’s become a fan favorite in record time. Coach David Quinn has moved the son of Claude Lemieux around, even giving him a shift with Zibanejad and Buchnevich the other day. It was an effective shift. Of course, he was involved on Buchnevich’s 18th goal from Brady Skjei and the improved Kevin Shattenkirk.
Shattenkirk has looked much better for about a month now. He’s back to skating well and picking up assists. Quinn has rewarded him with a spot on the first power play unit while Tony DeAngelo has shifted to the second unit. Shattenkirk has been able to get more shots through for rebounds. He also showed a mean streak by throwing down a Leaf behind Georgiev’s cage. That was as physically involved as I can remember seeing Shattenkirk. It’s good to see the prideful defenseman playing with confidence and edge.
Lately, he’s paired up with Skjei while DeAngelo has stuck with Marc Staal in the top four. John Gilmour is working with Neal Pionk on the third pair. Neither are great defensively, but do compete hard. It remains to be seen if either will be part of the Rangers blueline in ’19-20 and beyond. Pionk is restricted this summer along with DeAngelo, who’s a lock to be re-signed. As for Gilmour, he’s 25 already and has proven he can dominate at the AHL level. He led all AHL defensemen in scoring with 20 goals and 33 assists for 53 points.
With K’Andre Miller wrapping up his freshman year at Wisconsin, he’s about a year away. It would be wise for the 2018 first round pick to return for his sophomore year. In 26 games for the Badgers, Miller posted five goals and 17 assists totaling 22 points with a plus-seven rating and 18 penalty minutes. The big lefty skating defenseman could become that top pair D that the Rangers lack. He’s 6-4, 207 and skates like a forward which he was before converting to D.
Blueshirt fans should also be excited for promising Libor Hajek, who looked good in his short stint before an injury ended his season. Don’t forget about Ryan Lindgren, who is more of a defensive defenseman that likes to mix it up. With other European prospects Nils Lundkvist and Nico Gross, plus recently signed North American Joey Keane, the back end could look vastly different down the road.
Updating tonight, Staal will not play and as expected, Jesper Fast is done for the season. So, I guess that means Fredrik Claesson comes back in for Staal.