Rangers look to make it 11 for 12 on the road at depleted Avalanche without MacKinnon


Tony DeAngelo and Mika Zibanejad jump jump real high like Kris Kross during Zibanejad’s five goal game. The Rangers take on the Avalanche, who are without Nathan MacKinnon tonight. They still must show up ready. AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

It’s another big game later tonight for the Rangers. Fresh off a satisfying 4-2 win at Dallas last night in which Mika Zibanejad scored number 40 to become the 20th Blueshirt to do so, they will face a very good team in the Avalanche.

Having won 10 of their last 11 on the road, they’ll need another good performance to come away with a crucial two points at Colorado. News hit earlier that star player Nathan MacKinnon won’t be available due to a lower body injury.

As dynamic a player as he is ranking in the top five in scoring with 93 points (35-58-93), it doesn’t matter. All you need for proof is how poorly the Rangers played in an awful 6-4 loss to the Devils, who don’t have the talent of the Avalanche. It’s imperative that they approach this game with the same intensity as last night.

For whatever reason, the Rangers are a better team away from MSG. They play with more urgency and attention to detail. They enter play 19-12-2 on the road. That included a franchise record nine-game road win streak that was snapped in Philadelphia. By returning to their winning ways yesterday, it shows that they’re more comfortable away from home where they’re 18-16-2.

With 13 games remaining, they have eight of their last 13 on the road. That includes the game tonight in Colorado and Saturday in Arizona. They then return to MSG for Calgary and Pittsburgh with a return trip at the Penguins to conclude a home-and-home series between 3/18-20. After that, they have Buffalo on the road, return home for Columbus and then hit the road again for a three-game road trip at Washington, Tampa Bay and Florida to conclude March.

Basically, all these road games along with three home sandwiched in between will go a long way to determining if the Rangers can qualify for the postseason. The final three April games are home for the Flyers, at the Pens for a third game versus them, and the home finale against the Blackhawks. It seems strange that that’s the final game. Facing a team in the other conference. Hopefully, it’ll mean something.

Now that I broke down the remaining schedule, anyone can see how tough it’ll be to make the playoffs. There are a lot of hard games against quality opponents. With the exception of the Blackhawks, who trail the wildcard by eight points, every other team is fighting for the playoffs. Only the Coyotes are out of playoff position with four more points than Chicago. They trail Nashville, Vancouver and Winnipeg by four with 12 games left. They also have to jump over Minnesota, who is one point out.

The point is there aren’t any pushovers on the schedule. Even if there were, we saw what happened on Saturday. It’s not only the Devils playing spoiler. The Kings have done it as well out West along with the Ducks. The Sabres just beat the Caps and even the lowly Red Wings won a game over the Lightning in a shootout.

When it gets to this part of the year, every team is playing hard. So, the Avalanche are without MacKinnon, Mikka Rantanen, Nazem Kadri, Matt Calvert and Philipp Grubauer. Andre Burakovsky and star rookie defenseman Cale Makar are day-to-day which means they’re questionable for later.

None of it means anything if the Rangers don’t win the game. They’ll likely be facing the Pavel Francouz. A 29-year old veteran who’s played extremely well since Grubauer went down. He is 1-2-1 over his last four with 3.69 GAA and a .868 save percentage. So, he has cooled off. But overall, Francouz is 20-7-4 with a 2.43 GAA, .922 save percentage and a shutout.

Michael Hutchinson is the backup. Since joining Colorado, the journeyman is 1-0 with a 1.00 GAA and .944 save percentage. His only game came versus Detroit in a 2-1 win on Mar. 2. He made 17 saves.

Despite the injuries to key players, the Avalanche are fighting for the top spot out West with the Blues. They trail St. Louis by two points for first place. The Blues have 92 and the Avs have 90. Colorado has a game at hand with 13 left.

With MacKinnon out, captain Gabriel Landeskog has been on fire lately. One of the NHL Three Stars of the Week that highlighted Zibanejad’s five goal game with him named First Star, the 27-year old forward recently had a eight-game point streak (5-8-13) snapped in a 3-1 loss at the Kings. Since the All-Star break, Landeskog is 8-13-21 over 20 games. That’s half his production in an injury riddled year. Overall, he’s got 21 goals with 21 assists for 42 points in 53 contests.

If MacKinnon, Makar, Burakovsky, Rantanen and Kadri all are out, that leaves Landeskog as the only top six scorer on the Avs. However, they can’t be taken lightly due to good secondary scoring coming from Joonas Donskoi, JT Compher and Valeri Nichushkin. Tyson Jost has also picked it up and old friend Vladislav Namestnikov has been a good addition after coming over from Ottawa. He’s dangerous shorthanded and is 3-2-5 in eight games with Colorado.

I still say the Rangers made a mistake moving him after two games. They should’ve waited. Look at our secondary scoring for proof. Namestnikov has quietly put together a solid season with 16 goals and 14 helpers for 30 points with four shorthanded goals. That’s tied for the league lead.

The Avalanche still can get offense from the blueline thanks to Sam Girard and the always overlooked Ian Cole, who the Pens never should’ve got rid of. He’s a solid defender. Of course, the Rangers will see former fourth round pick Ryan Graves. A defenseman who never was given a chance despite some good play with the Wolf Pack, he’s blossomed into a top four physical D with a heavy shot that’s produced nine goals. He leads the league in plus/minus (42). Amazing that they gave him away for nothing.

Keep an eye on rookie Martin Kaut. A gifted rookie with two goals and an apple in eight games. Kind of forgotten is Erik Johnson, who once was taken number one overall by the Blues in 2006. Now a 31-year old veteran, he’s healthy and that means he draws most of the tough assignments. He’ll get the big minutes along with Graves, who normally pairs with Makar. Nikita Zadorov loves to bang the opposition with crushing checks. The Blueshirts better beware.

When you look at the Avalanche roster, you can understand why they’re so good. Even if there’s a discrepancy between MacKinnon and the rest if the scorers due to setbacks to Rantanen, who’ll be back, Kadri and Landeskog, who’s back on form, they’re well balanced. It won’t be an easy game. They’ve only lost nine games in regulation, entering with a 17-9-6 home record. Like the Rangers, they’re better on the road boasting a 24-11-2 mark.

On the news front for the Rangers, they’ve recalled forward Steven Fogarty from Hartford. As expected, it’s an emergency recall due to the lower body injury Filip Chytil suffered in the first period last night. He’s day-to-day.

If Chytil can’t go, then you’ll see Fogarty plugged in on the fourth line with Brett Howden likely centering Brendan Lemieux and either Kaapo Kakko or Phil Di Giuseppe. I’m curious to see what David Quinn decides following the two-goal game from Kakko, who got his second last night on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. Does he stuck with Di Giuseppe on the first line to start with Kakko on the third line, or does that change?

Stay tuned. As brilliant as Artemi Panarin has been with his 94 points ranking fourth in scoring, he’s gone a season high seven games without a goal. The Bread Man is still setting up teammates with nine assists over that span. However, he’s not shooting the puck as much. Part of that is due to how much attention he’s been getting. Opponents are keying on him and taking away his shot. The other aspect is his reluctance to shoot. He’s always looking for the backdoor pass which he’s so good at. They can use a goal off his magic stick tonight.

Ryan Strome is also in a slump without a goal in six and only one helper. He’s still shooting, but they haven’t been going in. They can sure use big nights from the unique combo of Panarin and Strome.

The encouraging part is the secondary scoring has picked up thanks to Howden, Kakko and Greg McKegg. They’ll need to continue chipping in. Most of the scoring is coming from Tony DeAngelo (15-38-53) and Adam Fox on the back end. Fox is now up to 40 points, meaning he and DeAngelo are the first pair of Blueshirts defensemen to record at least 40 points or more since the dynamic duo of Brian Leetch and Sergei Zubov. That’s insane.

It would be nice if Jacob Trouba contributed. He’s been stuck on seven goals for the longest time. He certainly shoots the puck enough leading the defense with 167 shots. More alarming, Trouba doesn’t have a single point since the Brady Skjei trade. He gets a little power play time on the second unit, but his primary job is to shutdown opponents. Playing with Brendan Smith is a big adjustment from Skjei, who was a better skater that could carry the puck out.

Between the two, I gotta be honest. Smith has been better than Trouba. They’re both minus-12. But I like how Smith has played despite his lack of foot speed. However, he makes up for it with his compete level. Needless to say, Trouba’s ice time is down with the coaching staff managing Smith, who’s the sixth defenseman despite being paired with Trouba. Both kill penalties.

They’ve leaned more on Fox and Ryan Lindgren, who is continuing to gain a reputation for his physicality and tenacity. DeAngelo remains with Marc Staal, whose minutes have gone up in some games. Quinn at times has tried Fox with DeAngelo. A unique offensive skating pair I like. But they can’t do it too much due to the defensive aspect.

In regards to what Quinn decides as far as who starts, that’s entirely up to him. He can stick with his original plan and start either Alex Georgiev or give Henrik Lundqvist the biggest start of the season. Or he can reverse course and tab Igor Shesterkin following his 31 save performance where he looked like himself. Don’t forget they have two days off before the Coyotes.

I’ll update things later.

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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