Zibanejad returns in Turkey Eve showdown versus tough Hurricanes


When the bright lights switch on at the Garden ice later tonight for warmups and then the game, the Rangers will get Mika Zibanejad back. After missing 13 consecutive games with an “upper body” injury, the number one center finally makes his return to the lineup.

Having last season’s leading scorer back for a tough Carolina Hurricanes, who visit MSG for a Turkey Eve showdown, should help balance out the lineup. Coach David Quinn already revealed his plan to reunite Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich with Zibanejad on the old KZB Line. A good idea since the cohesive trio had solid chemistry in ’18-19. We’ll see if they can rekindle some magic versus one of the NHL’s top defenses.

Even with a good plan to have Zibanejad center the top line while Ryan Strome and Filip Chytil anchor the second and third lines, there’s no guarantee the Rangers will be successful. However, they did go into Carolina and beat the Canes 4-2 on Nov. 7. A game in which Henrik Lundqvist continued his mastery over the Hurricanes by making 45 saves. In 44 games, he’s 31-12-1 with a 1.98 goals-against-average (GAA), a .934 save percentage and two shutouts. Fresh off a 26 save performance that moved him past Curtis Joseph into sole possession of fifth place on the all-time wins list with 455 for his career, he’ll make the start.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Blueshirts can duplicate their performance three weeks ago in Raleigh. They face a very good third place team that has a good differential due to averaging 3.42 goals-per-game to rank seventh in offense, and allows 2.83 goals a game which ranks 11th. Even though you can’t call Carolina starting goalie Petr Mrazek a legit number one guy, his team defense that’s led by high scoring rover Dougie Hamilton (10-15-25) and underrated defensive defenseman Jaccob Slavin (13 Pts, +13, 41 blocks & 19 takeaways) are very good. Brett Pesce remains overlooked and Jake Gardiner is on the third pair. Joel Edmundson has been solid.

The Canes bring a 15-8-1 record with 31 points in 24 games. They trail the first place Capitals by six points and the second place Islanders by three. They’re one up on fourth place Pittsburgh and two ahead of the Jekyll and Hyde Flyers.

With a 11-9-2 mark that’s good for 24 points and sixth in the Metro Division, the Rangers are hanging in there. While they have been predictably up and down due to having the league’s youngest lineup that features rookies Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox, Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren, coach David Quinn has to be pleased with his team’s resiliency. Especially in the historic comeback from 4-0 down to stun the slumping Canadiens on Saturday night. Montreal got destroyed by the Bruins 8-1 highlighted by a David Pastrnak hat trick on Tuesday.

The point is they followed up the miraculous 6-5 win by showing mental fortitude by posting a come from behind 3-2 overtime win that Kreider tied up on the power play with 2:50 remaining, and Tony DeAngelo won 32 seconds into extras. It demonstrated that they are capable of putting together back-to-back wins. Monday’s was more conventional because they played better.

Here we are again. Can they string together three straight games and do what’s called a winning streak as we’ve seen in Major League II? We’re about to find out.

It shouldn’t be easy against a very good skating and attacking opponent in Carolina. Nobody allows fewer shots on average (28.4) than the Canes, who also are sixth best in shots for per game (33.8). Conversely, the Rangers allow 36.0 shots a night which ranks 30th out of 31 teams. Only the Blackhawks give up more (36.8) and they’ve been winning thanks to goalie tandem Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford. They cooled off the Stars by shutting them out 3-0. The Rangers average 29.7 shots per game which ranks in the bottom third.

For them to be successful, they’ll have to win their fair share of draws and not get pinned in their zone due to Carolina’s strong puck possession. They rank eighth in power play (21.9 percent) and eighth in penalty kill (84.0 percent). The Rangers would be wise to stay away from undisciplined penalties since their penalty kill is still 24th (74.1 pct). The power play is better ranking 10th overall at 20.8 percent. The key is not being deliberate or stationary. Set up more shots.

While the Blueshirts are clearly led by dynamic scorer Artemiy Panarin, whose 30 points (12-18-30) have reminded fans a little of what Jaromir Jagr did following the lockout, they only have one more player who’s over 20 points. That would be Strome, who’s been instrumental in Zibanejad’s absence by forming good cohesiveness with Panarin. Strome will enter the team’s 23rd match with six goals and 16 assists for 22 points. Following Panarin and Strome is playmaking Russian Pavel Buchnevich, who is up to 4-14-18.

The Canes have a little more balance at the top led by super sophomore Andrei Svechnikov (11-16-27), whose lacrosse style goal was the first in NHL history. He’s a elite talent. Teuvo Teravainen paces them with 19 assists. He has 26 points. Captain Sebastian Aho leads in goals with a dozen, but hasn’t scored the way he’s expected. He’s got 20 points to rank fourth on the team. Hamilton has been superb offensively with 10 goals, 15 helpers and 25 points really making a difference. He loves to shoot the puck and hit. He’s a big risk taker who keys the Canes transition.

Rookie Martin Necas is becoming a more consistent secondary threat. With 16 points (6-10-16) and better production lately, he’s a player to watch. The center is particularly effective around the net at making plays. Astonishingly, Jordan Staal is an afterthought with only 3-4-7. However, he’s a strong two-way pivot who wins face-offs and kills penalties. The veteran is certainly capable.

Ryan Dzingel has been a solid addition. He does most of his work on the forecheck around the net. Erik Haula was off to a good start with eight goals, but remains out indefinitely. Nino Niederreiter has not had much impact this year. He’s been a disappointment as has Gardiner (-14 rating). Haydn Fleury has been a decent contributor on the blueline.

Mrazek is 11-4-1 with a 2.63 GAA, .903 save percentage and two shutouts. The 27-year old Czech netminder is in his second season with Carolina. After a off ’17-18 with both Detroit and Philadelphia, he was a pleasant surprise for coach Rod Brind’Amour. In 40 games last season, he went 23-14-3 with a 2.39 GAA, .914 save percentage and four shutouts. He split time with former backup Curtis McElhinney, who now has a similar role in Tampa.

James Reimer is the new backup for the Hurricanes. He posted a 19 save shutout over the Red Wings on Sunday. The veteran is 4-4-0 with a 2.71 GAA, .910 save percentage and a shutout.

With it being the night before Thanksgiving with tomorrow off, it should be Mrazek opposing Lundqvist. This will be the 37-year old veteran’s 14th start for the Blueshirts. In 14 games, he’s 6-5-1 with a 3.26 GAA and .910 save percentage. The save percentage tells the story of how much work he normally gets. The goals-against-average summarizes how the Rangers play with a young roster. Alexandar Georgiev is no better. He’s 5-4-1 with a 3.42 GAA and .903 save percentage over 10 games (9 starts).

Based on yesterday’s Rangers practice which Chytil sat out with Brett Howden taking his place on the third line, the expected lines at the game’s start could look like this:

Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich

Panarin-Strome-Fast

Lemieux-Chytil-Kakko

Haley-Howden-Smith

I like having the gritty Lemieux with Chytil and Kakko to create havoc on the forecheck. There’s a lot of skill between Chytil and Kakko with Lemieux supplying the dirty work. I’m most looking forward to seeing what they can do.

Howden is a better fit on the checking line where maybe they won’t be limited as much by the coach. Howden has Quinn’s trust. He’s picked it up with a goal and two assists since Lias Andersson was sent down. He does win his share of face-offs.

As for the defense, it’ll be the same as Monday:

Skjei-Trouba

Hajek-DeAngelo

Lindgren-Fox

Even though it’s laid out that way, I feel like Fox and Lindgren are the second pair due to being more consistent at five-on-five. Plus Lindgren kills penalties. Fox has become a fixture on the power play. He is currently on the second unit with Trouba. DeAngelo works on the top unit due to his uncanny ability to read and react by jumping in for offense. He plays his role well. Skjei and Trouba remain sketchy defensively. They weren’t too good against Minnesota. But if it’s gonna work, you have to let them work through it.

At this point, Boo Nieves is a healthy scratch. I don’t view him as having much of a future with the big club. Maybe he’ll eventually catch on with a different organization that’ll give him a chance. It’s a numbers game.

When you look at the Rangers depth chart, they’re deep at center. Lias Andersson remains ahead because he was a first round pick two years ago (three drafts). You have to believe he’ll earn another recall and get to play some wing with Howden. There’s also center prospects Morgan Barron and Karl Henriksson. So, the Rangers future looks bright down the middle. A real positive.

There’s a lot for fans to be excited about. Chytil has seven goals since returning and is showing much better poise with the puck. Kakko shows flashes of why he went second overall behind Jack Hughes. He will continue to benefit from not facing top defensemen or match-ups due to Panarin and the return of Zibanejad. That’s actually a smart coaching move by Quinn.

Offense shouldn’t be a issue. This team has proven it can score without Zibanejad. However, they’ve had peaks and valleys on the power play without the key trigger man. They definitely missed his big righty shot from the left circle. That threat of a one-time rocket certainly should give the man-advantage a boost.

With a healthy lineup that’s more balanced, there’s a opportunity for the Rangers to put together a nice stretch. It’ll continue to depend on the consistency of the overall team performance with an emphasis on the defense and penalty kill. Plus the goaltending.

We’ll learn more about this team tonight against a quality opponent. Enjoy your Turkey Eve. Be safe and celebrate it with loved ones and friends.

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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