Trouba and Lemieux return to Winnipeg, Shesterkin gets his first road test as Jets honor the past


Tonight at 8 PM, the Rangers kick off a three-game road trip at Winnipeg. Having rebounded from a dismal effort in a disappointing 3-2 loss to the Sabres with a 4-1 home win over the woeful Kings, the Blueshirts step up in competition against the Jets, who hold the final wildcard with 63 points in the West.

They’ve played one less game (57) and have one more regulation win (22) than the Coyotes, who also have 63 points. The playoff race is so wild in the Western Conference that only three teams (Ducks, Sharks, Kings) are out of it.

In fact, with the Oilers losing captain Connor McDavid for at least two weeks, they’re going to have to survive without him. They have 64 points (25 regulation wins) which keep them in second place in the Pacific with Vegas third. They also have 64, but have only 25 games left and 22 regulation wins. Then comes Calgary also with 64 and just 19 wins in regulation.

The whole playoff tiebreak system is confusing. By putting more emphasis on regulation, it’s only created more of a problem. I thought just going by regulation and overtime wins (ROW) was fine. Now, you have teams like the Rangers, who have won more games (24) in regulation than almost every team ahead of them. What does it matter when they continue to hand out free points for reaching overtime? If they really cared about winning in regulation, teams would get zilch for losing in extras like the old days. That would force them to play to win in 60 minutes and separate the contenders from the pretenders.

If you follow the Eastern race closely, then you know it looks bleak for the Rangers. Despite a 27-23-4 record (27-27) and 58 points with 24 regulation wins (more than Pens, Leafs, Isles, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Canes, Habs), they trail the final wildcard by 11 points with 28 games left. This is Game 55 later. Even crazier, they have a better record than Montreal (27-24-7), who suffered a damaging one goal loss to the Coyotes last night due to a Jacob Chychrun goal with a minute to go in regulation.

The Canadiens only have 24 games remaining with just 17 of their wins in regulation. Yet they’re much closer to the playoffs due to the Leafs at 66. Five points out for third place in the weak Atlantic. It’ll be interesting to see what happens between the Leafs, Panthers and Habs down the stretch.

While all this is nice, it doesn’t help the Rangers because they play in the much tougher Metro. A division where the Pens and Isles are jockeying for second with the slumping Caps suddenly within reach. They got thumped at home yesterday 5-3 by the Islanders in a game that was never close. Alex Ovechkin remains on 698 goals with no home games until a week from Thursday. That means he’ll likely hit 700 on the road.

While you have the top three all within reach of each other, there are the overachieving Blue Jackets also at 70 points like the Isles locked into the first wildcard. They cost themselves a point due to a terrible play by Zach Werenski in overtime that allowed Brayden Point to steal the puck and set up Nikita Kucherov for the winner on the red hot Lightning. They’re only three out behind Boston. Columbus has 23 regulation wins, but only 25 games left.

Then you have the Jekyll and Hyde Alain Vigneault Flyers, who were big winners last night over the Panthers and recently blew the doors off Washington following a 5-0 home humiliation to the Devils. They are in the second wildcard with 69 points and 26 left. Trailing them are the Hurricanes with 67 points and a game at hand. They’re a unpredictable team due to the uneven tandem of James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. If ever a club needs a goalie (Henrik Lundqvist???), it’s them. They’re also without All-Star Dougie Hamilton.

So, the Rangers are basically blocked due to the division they play in. They have to make up a deficit of 11 points in their last 28 games. Even worse, they still have 17 road games (16 after tonight) to play. They enter 11-11-2. They haven’t been dominant at home either going 16-12-2. With only two home games left this month coming both on the weekend and 11 total, they’ll have to go on a serious run away from MSG.

Complicating matters is that GM Jeff Gorton and Team President John Davidson have important roster decisions to make in the next two weeks. The Feb. 24 trade deadline will be here before you know it.

With Chris Kreider and his agent finally in discussions to see if they can figure out a way for him to stay, everything is hanging in the balance. With 25 points (14-11-25) over the last 25 games, you know how I feel about Kreider. He’ll be 29 after the season, but it’s obvious he still has a lot to give.

The question is at what cost and for how long. Can a player of his nice combination of size, strength and speed be effective into his 30’s? If he can be kept even if the price is $7 million AAV over seven years, that makes the team more competitive than say getting an unproven top prospect and late first round pick back.

I’ve seen some people say that Kreider’s price went up due to what the Wild got for Jason Zucker.I wish I agreed. The difference is Zucker still has three years remaining on a deal that averages out to $5.5 million through 2023. That’s why the Pens were willing to pay 2018 second round pick Calen Addison with a 2020 first round pick in addition to total waste Alex Galchenyuk, who’s been passed around like a bad blunt. I didn’t want to use a more offensive analogy.

As much as I like Zucker, who’s a year younger than Kreider, he’s not as good a player. But the recently turned 28-year old American forward has hit 33 goals and 64 points, doing so in a career year of ’17-18 that got him his contract. Since then, he’s only scored 35 goals in 126 games. His point production has also dipped. He had 42 points in 81 games last season and was at 14-15-29 in 45 GP this year with Minnesota.

Even though they’re hanging around in the Wild Wild West, the Wild did the right thing here. They know they need to rebuild on the fly. Even if they’re stuck with those identical contracts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have. Both are still their best players along with Eric Staal. Kevin Fiala has come around finally. They made a mistake giving Mats Zuccarello that contract. Yikes. We dodged a major bullet.

As much as I love Zuccarello, I’m not unrealistic. The Rangers did the right thing last year moving on from him. And they might have it a home run landing Matthew Robertson in the second round of last draft. Especially if he becomes that top pair left defenseman the organization lacks. They should not rush him. If it takes two or even three years, so be it.

Don’t forget K’Andre Miller is close to turning pro. His transition will be a key part of the revamping of the blueline which may or may not include leading scoring defenseman Tony DeAngelo. I hope he stays.

I’m more open to the idea of moving Ryan Strome because he will never have more value. The issue is if he goes, that means Filip Chytil must take over the second center slot full-time. Is he ready for that kind of responsibility? He’s not great on face-offs and I still believe he would be better suited on the wing due to his scorers instinct. But recording his first two assist game over the weekend is a plus. It should be a confidence builder.

If you move on from the versatile Strome, who David Quinn trusts enough to use in all situations, that’s hard to replace. It’s him and Mika Zibanejad who take all the key draws. Even as they improve, the Rangers remain one of the worst face-off teams. But they do have some good set plays in the offensive end that have resulted in goals. That tells you there is growth.

Brett Howden remains a fourth liner until proven otherwise. He is more than capable of killing penalties and taking draws. However, he doesn’t have good hands and hasn’t proven himself enough to earn a top nine role. Tonight, he’ll play on the wing again with Greg McKegg and Brendan Lemieux. That’s your fourth line.

Meanwhile, Quinn’s liked what he’s seen from Phil Di Giuseppe to give him an extended look on a cohesive third unit with Chytil and the suddenly emerging Kaapo Kakko. For a fringe NHL player at 26, he possesses good speed and a shoot first mentality. I don’t know if he’s the long-term answer. But I have no problem with the coaching staff giving him a opportunity. He’s earned it.

Of course, with this being Winnipeg, it’s the big return of both Jacob Trouba and Lemieux. Lemieux came over in the Kevin Hayes trade last year with the same first round draft pick (Ville Heinola) that went back to the Jets along with Neal Pionk for Trouba. Even if he had expressed a desire to stay, the Jets likely couldn’t have retained him. However, Trouba knows what to expect tonight. The boo birds will be out in full force. As for Lemieux, he respects his former team and knows they gave him a chance. They certainly miss his grit. His agitating physical style will be on display. I wouldn’t be shocked if he got into a fight or a two minute exchange of roughs. That’s who he is.

We know that Trouba has been a disappointment in Year One for the Blueshirts. I knew he was never going to match the 50 points he had on a much more talented and deeper team. I was realistic. I figured he’d be good for double digit goals and around 40 points. The 23 he has with the minus-10 rating are disappointing any way you slice it. You can’t only blame Brady No ‘D’ Skjei. Trouba is supposed to be better than this. You can even make the argument that since his hot start, Skjei has been better. That speaks volumes.

The bigger headline is Quinn deciding not to worry anymore about Lundqvist’s ego. He’s gonna go with the hot hand. Right now, it’s rookie Igor Shesterkin over both Hank and Alex Georgiev, who’s only gotten one start since the break. Not exactly ideal for him. He also relieved Lundqvist in one game.

The truth is the 24-year old Shesterkin or Shestyorkin is ready for this. In six starts, he’s 5-1-0 with a 2.34 GAA and .933 save percentage. All he does is win. It doesn’t matter who it’s against. He dominated both the KHL and AHL already. Now, he’s handling the pressure of the NHL.To be fair, I like how they’ve used him. They let Shesty get adjusted by playing him on home ice. Now, it’s time to test him on the road in a hostile environment with great fans, who will be extremely loud. Particularly due to Trouba. How will Igor fare under such madness? I think it makes for great theatre. The Canadian spotlight will be on too. That’s even more fun.

Given their current situation, I expect the Jets to come out firing. They boast some of the best elite talent up front. Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, emerging star Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Nik Ehlers are formidable. Pionk has fit seamlessly under Paul Maurice, who’s wisely used him in a more protected offensive role. His zone starts are over 56 percent in the offensive zone. His 37 points (6-31-37) lead the Jets on the back end and dwarf Trouba, who of course is used in a more defensive role by Quinn.

Josh Morrissey remains overlooked despite being a good skating left defenseman who excels as a 24-year old. Those two see the nuts and bolts of the action with Maurice relying on Dmitri Kulikov, Nathan Beaulieu, Tucker Poolman, Anthony Biteto, Luca Sbisa and newbie Sami Niku. Niku is a player to watch.

Shesterkin will oppose top Winnipeg netminder Connor Hellebuyck. He’s been much better than last year winning 24 games with a 2.67 GAA and. 920 save percentage. At 26, Hellebuyck is one of the best American goalies in hockey. He was a fifth round pick in 2012. His win totals over the last three years are 44, 34 and 24. Only Ben Bishop and John Gibson are better currently representing America. Jonathan Quick has the hardware.

It’s Alumni Night for the Winnipeg Jets. Both Thomas Steen and Randy Carlyle are in the house. They’re both being honored tonight before the game. Each will be inducted into the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame. They’re very deserving. Steen was a career Jet who totaled 817 points (264-553-817) in 950 games as a popular center. Carlyle was a former Norris winner who came over from Pittsburgh and was a very good defenseman in the last half of his career for Winnipeg. He used to put up offense but sacrificed it in the late stages of an outstanding career for Phil Housley, Teppo Numminen and Fredrik Olausson. In 564 games as a Jet, Carlyle had 306 points (80-226-306) and was a three-time NHL All-Star.

The Jets will wear their Heritage jerseys as a fitting tribute to the two former players. I love it. These are nice.

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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