Shesterkin getting close as Rangers face a must win versus Caps

Losers of three straight, the Rangers desperately need tonight’s game versus the Caps. With 16 games remaining, they trail the second wildcard Islanders by four points. By virtue of a point in a 3-2 overtime loss at Calgary, the Blue Jackets moved up a spot to the first wildcard last night.

Columbus has 79 points with 14 games left. They’ve lost 11 times in the three-on-three OT. They have only 24 regulation wins. The Islanders have 78 points with 17 left and only 24 regulation wins. They visit Ottawa tonight. A game they should win. The Rangers are at 74 with 30 regulation wins. But unless they can make up ground, that all important first tiebreaker won’t matter.

Both the Panthers and Canadiens are also in action on a busy Thursday night. Florida has 73 points including 28 regulation wins with 16 left. They host the league-leading Bruins in a big game. The Panthers can also still chase down the Maple Leafs for third place in their division. They’re five points behind idle Toronto, who have 15 left. Montreal is up to 71 points and still believes they can sneak in. With 14 left, they only have 19 wins in regulation. They host the Lightning.

Perhaps the forgotten team in this wildcard chase are the Hurricanes. Still without either Petr Mrazek or James Reimer, they’re counting on Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg in net. They’re 0-2-1 so far with truly ugly numbers. Maybe they should put a phone call into the Marlies and Leafs organization regarding the availability of David Ayres. I’m not kidding. The Canes have 75 points with 18 games remaining. If they put it together, they could make it. They are in action visiting the surging Flyers.

Here’s the scenario. A Flyers win of any kind and a Rangers win in regulation over the Caps and suddenly it’s the Alain Vigneault Flyers in first place of the Metro. They’ve reeled off seven in a row including a 5-2 win at Washington last night. The Pens are also playing when they invade Buffalo. They ended their six-game losing streak by blowing out the Senators 7-3 on Tuesday night. They have 82 points with 17 left. That’s three behind the Flyers, four behind Washington and three clear of Columbus.

You got all that? There’s a lot on the line later for the Rangers. They can’t afford to drop another game. It could really hurt in the standings. Especially with the Isles having a favorable match-up and other teams they’re competing against also playing. Win and they’re very much alive with 15 to go. They have the edge in the first tiebreaker.

It’ll be Alex Georgiev making his second straight start and fifth in six with Henrik Lundqvist backing up. He’s looking to rebound from letting in a tough wraparound goal to Brayden Schenn in a heartbreaking 3-1 home loss to the Blues the other day. It wasn’t all on him. The team didn’t score at five-on-five for a second consecutive game. That won’t work. They have to get in gear quickly.

On the encouraging front, Igor Shesterkin took part in the morning skate and has been upgraded to day-to-day. Some very good news for the team. He even spoke a little English while having fun.

It’s hard to believe he could be ready by the weekend. Given the situation, the Blueshirts sure can use him. While it’s hard to pin the last three losses on just goaltending alone due to how poorly they played in the one game Lundqvist got, Shesterkin is a difference maker. My hope is he isn’t rushed back. Don’t take that risk. He’s going to be special.

As far as tonight goes, it’s Georgiev versus Ilya Samsonov. So basically, an all Russian match-up. Even though technically, Georgie is from Bulgaria. He has represented Russia at the World Championships. So, two young netminders looking to spark their teams.

Do we see any changes to the lineup? Does coach David Quinn consider moving up Kaapo Kakko to the first line next to Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich? No disrespect meant to Phil Di Giuseppe, who brings a strong work ethic. But I’d prefer to see Kakko due to how he’s looked recently. He’s due.

I would keep Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast intact. But again, Quinn loves to make in game adjustments. He can mix it up. You can see Panarin with Zibanejad and either Buchnevich or Fast. Maybe even Kakko. But then a lot changes. Filip Chytil can play with Brett Howden and Kakko like they have been, or wind up with Buchnevich or even Brendan Lemieux, who isn’t the same since a broken wrist.

I am in favor of seeing what Julien Gauthier can do in a more expanded role. He has the speed and power forward instincts. But he remains on the fourth line with Greg McKegg and Lemieux, who you can plug anywhere. I wonder how Gauthier would look with Zibanejad.

Defense I can’t see changing much. Tony DeAngelo needs a big game. So does Jacob Trouba. Adam Fox of course has to be involved. I’m curious to see Ryan Lindgren when he comes up against 700 Goal member Alex Ovechkin. They both love to hit. Of course, Ovechkin is like a freight train. Lindgren is like a combo of Mike Sauer and Darius Kasparaitis. Yes. I didn’t feel like making the popular Jeff Beukeboom comparison. Lindgren has that same edge to him as Kasparaitis and most recently and too briefly, Sauer.

So, what’s the key to winning? Keep the Caps off the power play. They have too many weapons that can hurt you. Not just Ovechkin in his office. But T.J.Oshie, who’s been hot of late in that slot area. The always dangerous John Carlson at the point for the one-timer or pass over to the Great Eight. Nicklas Backstrom, who is both playmaker and capable of sniping from the right circle if you give him time. Plus Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has great speed and skill in transition. The pesky Tom Wilson in front where he makes his living.

The Rangers want to play the Caps at five-on-five. Make them work. They played the night before. Generating a forecheck can tire them out. The defense hasn’t been good even after the addition of Brendan Dillon. Panarin should see a lot of him and probably Dmitri Orlov.

Of course, you always have to keep an eye on Jakub Vrana. A dangerous skater who makes his living in transition. He can fly and has great hands. Despite how they’ve played lately, Washington is deep.

It’ll take another full 60-minute effort to win. Stay disciplined. Especially Strome, whose penalties have been killing the Rangers. Reputation or not.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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