Rangers to face returning Devils without Panarin and Miller

There are two storylines for tonight’s second installment of the Battle Of Hudson. The first one is that it’s the first time the Devils will play in February due a COVID-19 outbreak. Their last game came on Jan. 31 when they defeated the Sabres 5-3 to end a three-game losing streak. Then both teams had COVID issues which paused their seasons. Buffalo played last night falling to the Islanders 3-1.

With a few players still not available, it’ll be interesting to see how the Devils play. Will there be some rust? Colorado lost too the other day after returning. This will only be their 10th game. The Devils are 4-3-2 with 10 points. They’ve performed okay under Lindy Ruff, even getting recent contributions from Mike McLeod, Nathan Bastian and Miles Wood. Jack Hughes is the offensive leader who makes everyone around him better. Rookie defenseman Ty Smith was off to a great start. Ultimately, it’ll depend on Kyle Palmieri, who didn’t score a goal before the pause. He’s in a contract year. That means Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald must decide if he’s worth keeping.

The second storyline surrounds the Rangers, who enter play winless in three straight. The only point against the Bruins in an overtime loss on a Brad Marchand goal. They’ve been shutout in two of the three games including a mind numbing one-goal loss to their Kryptonite, Rangers killer Jaro Halak. He only had to make 21 saves. That one turned in a wild second period that saw fisticuffs with even Pavel Buchnevich defending himself against Jeremy Lauzon. The power play continued to fire blanks and Boston swung the momentum on a Nick Ritchie goal that banked in off Igor Shestyorkin. Ritchie would bump into Shestyorkin later with not one Blueshirt coming to his aid.

The lack of offense has been problematic. They’ll be without leading scorer Artemi Panarin for a second consecutive game. Rookie defenseman K’Andre Miller also won’t be able to go due to an upper-body injury. The report from New York Post reporter Mollie Walker is that Panarin is close to returning. So, it’s possible they could have him back for Thursday night versus another COVID opponent in the Flyers. Also expected to return despite several regulars not being ready. That isn’t good.

As strange as it is for the NHL due to all the disruptions in the schedule from the pandemic, it’s play on. For the Blueshirts, that means resolving their scoring issues. They’ve held down opponents to 33 goals. However, they’ve only scored 31 themselves. Defense isn’t the issue. Neither is goaltending with rookie Igor Shestyorkin rounding into form. He’ll once again get the call. Until the team starts getting more done at five-on-five and on the power play, they’ll continue to struggle. They’re 2 for their last 31 and are 6 for 52 (11.5 percent). That ranks near the bottom. At least the improved penalty killing unit is doing the job. At 84.4 percent, they rank in the top five.

The key to fixing the lack of scoring is simple. Get Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider going. Zibanejad has been in an awful slump with only one point in his last 10 games. The lone point a primary assist on an empty net goal from Buchnevich. Another player who’s fallen back to earth. Zibanejad’s only goal came via the power play versus the Devils on 1/19. As for Buchnevich, that empty netter is his only point in the last five. He hasn’t been shooting the puck enough recently. He has fallen back into bad habits by over thinking. That got him in trouble when he committed a turnover that led to Marchand’s OT winner last Wednesday.

Kreider remains stuck on four goals with only 27 shots. That’s four less than Buchnevich. If you combine the KZB trio, they have eight goals with seven assists for 15 points in 13 games with a minus-13 rating. That’s not even close to what they were last year. So, David Quinn Took Buchnevich off the first line and demoted him to line three (really four) in the third period of last game. That’s how annoyed he was.

To be honest, Kreider deserves to be off the line too. He’s not doing anything. The lack of scoring is one thing. He’s always been streaky. But the lack of physicality from a player who must be engaged is the biggest disappointment. He needs to get back to finishing checks and making life tougher on opposing goalies. When the power forward plays with edge, he can be very effective. He also is a superb skater. It’s just not clicking.

Zibanejad is the engine who makes it go. Whether it’s from having COVID before the season and basically no training camp, we haven’t seen the same electric player who lit up the Caps for five goals last year. They’re not going in. Either he’s misfiring as he did last Friday or the netminders are getting over to make the saves. There’s also been some bad puck luck with the top center drawing iron. At some point, it has to go in for him. He’s too talented a player for this to continue. Once he gets going, it’ll have a positive effect on Kreider and whoever plays with them.

Ryan Strome remains stuck on six points (4-2-6). Despite playing better after the slow start, the second center needs to produce more. Sure. He’s been moved around on the power play. But he’s a capable player at even strength. So what if there’s no Panarin. It’s not like they had the same form as last year. If it is Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko again, there’s enough skill for the second line to get on the score sheet. In fact, I’m calling a breakout game for Kakko, who has been better than his 2-1-3 line suggests. He’s been doing a lot right and putting himself in position to score. I say he gets one. I also think Lafreniere is close as well. He works diligently and is noticeable.

Quinn seems to like Colin Blackwell. There’s a good chance he starts the game with Zibanejad and Kreider. Not the biggest in stature, Blackwell makes up for it in work ethic with his grit and determination strong suits. He wins most board battles and does a good job protecting the puck. The Rangers have been looking for a Jesper Fast replacement. It’s either Blackwell or complementary wing Phil Di Giuseppe. Both work hard at five-on-five.

The line of Kevin Rooney, Julien Gauthier and Brendan Lemieux have been so effective lately that they’ve easily been the team’s best. All have factored in on goals with Gauthier getting his first NHL goal against Boston. Lemieux has played some of his best hockey, picking up two assists in a game. Rooney has been a nice fit. He is a good penalty killer as advertised, scoring a shorthanded goal. He also is solid on the forecheck. That has resulted in some points. They are the best checking line the team has had in a while.

Figure Buchnevich to start with Brett Howden and Di Giuseppe. It’s been tough sledding for that line with Howden unable to replace Filip Chytil. Chytil is still not skating. They badly miss him. What happens to Howden when Chytil gets healthy? I think Gauthier should have a spot on the fourth line with Rooney and Lemieux. Is Howden a bust? He kills penalties okay and is good on face-offs. But where is the offense? It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who started so well his rookie year. He’s still only 22.

The defense will have a different look without Miller. That could mean Jacob Trouba back with Brendan Smith, who is set to return after missing time. The best defenseman is Adam Fox, who gets around 26 minutes a night. He does everything for this team. Between playing well at even strength against quality competition along with warrior Ryan Lindgren, Fox runs the point on the power play and kills penalties. There’s nothing he can’t do. For all the ink Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes receive, it’s the more well rounded Fox who’s a better overall player. He has a high IQ. The good news is he’s still on his entry level contract through next year. Lindgren is up this summer.

As for Trouba, he plays hard by finishing checks and blocking shots. But he takes undisciplined penalties, sometimes gets caught out of position and isn’t contributing enough offensively. I’m not suggesting he’ll ever reach 50 points again. That was on a high scoring skilled offensive team in Winnipeg. But Trouba should be able to hit the net more frequently with his heavy shot. He should be good for six or seven goals and around 25 assists. For the money they pay him, he’s been a disappointment. The effort is there. The execution isn’t. Maybe he should make a phone call to Bret “Hitman” Hart.

I would guess Anthony Bitetto and Libor Hajek remain as the third pair. Why not? They haven’t been bad. No glaring mistakes and Hajek is showing more confidence with the puck in his end.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what Devils team shows up later. It’s their first game in 17 days. If the Rangers don’t come out fast for this one, there’s no point in discussing it. They need to score goals and get a win. End of discussion.

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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