Blais returns to lineup, Rangers host Flames after long break

Tonight, the Rangers finally return to the ice when they host the Flames at MSG. Game-time is 7:30 EST. At least that time frame allows fans the chance to check out Lightning/Panthers, or even Bo Horvat’s debut with the Islanders after he agreed to an eight-year contract extension worth $8.5 million on average.

Of course, nobody who roots for our team cares about the Islanders. But they did roll the dice by acquiring Horvat from the Canucks and hammering out a long-term deal that includes a full no-trade the first four years. It’ll be interesting to see how he’ll fit on Long Island.

As far as the Blueshirts go, it’s back to work. After the ridiculous extended break that included a bye week and the unwatchable All-Star Weekend in Florida, it’s go time. There are 33 games left. It all starts tonight when Calgary visits the Garden.

There will be one lineup switch. After going down to Hartford for a conditioning stint, Sammy Blais scored four goals in five games. The Rangers are hoping that will provide a confidence boost for a player who hasn’t been the same since the dirty slewfoot P.K. Subban delivered that caused a torn ACL, ending last season for Blais.

Gerard Gallant wants to see what Blais can do. So, he’ll play in place of Julien Gauthier on the fourth line. Gauthier has seen his ice-time dwindle. He scored six goals during an improved first half. Unfortunately, the scoring dried up for the energetic forward. It’s hard to predict what will happen. That means if he stays or goes with the trade deadline less than a month away.

With Will Cuylle recalled as well yesterday following staying sharp with the Wolf Pack, that means the Rangers are at the roster limit, carrying 23 players. How long do they plan to stay that way? A trade could be coming soon.

Gallant outcast Vitaly Kravtsov didn’t even take line rushes during the morning skate. Somehow, he’s fallen behind waiver wire pick-up Jake Leschyshyn, who was brought in to replace Jonny Brodzinski and anchor the fourth line. He’s solid on draws. I don’t know what else he brings.

With Gallant committed to playing checking forwards Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow on the top two lines to try to balance out things, there’s no role for Kravtsov, who must feel like he’s on an island. Perhaps Siberia. That’s how he’s been handled.

If the intention was to diminish the former 2018 first round pick’s value, job well done by Gallant. Congrats again go out to the organization on stagnating a young player’s development. A Ranger tradition over the years with most first round picks. Especially forwards.

The exception to the rule is Chris Kreider, who with one goal can tie Mark Messier on the Rangers franchise goal scoring list. You can also count J.T. Miller even though he didn’t really take off until he joined the Canucks.

They’ve been more successful developing defensemen who were selected in the first round. Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Mike Sauer, K’Andre Miller, and Braden Schneider are primary examples of players whom the organization did a good job with. Miller and Schneider are obviously still in the early stages of their NHL careers.

If there is a disappointing development, it’s Gallant continuing to stick with the top power play unit. One that has sunk. The five-man unit of Adam Fox, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Vincent Trocheck, and Chris Kreider must produce more power play goals. It’ll be interesting to see if they can get it going over this next stretch.

With the lone exception of Blais coming in for Gauthier on the fourth line, the rest of the lineup will remain the same. Here’s how it will look:

Line 1: Panarin-Zibanejad-Vesey

Line 2: Kreider-Trocheck-Goodrow

Line 3: Lafreniere-Chytil-Kakko

Line 4: Cuylle-Leschyshyn-Blais

D1: Lindgren-Fox

D2: Miller-Trouba

D3: Harpur-Schneider

Jaro Halak gets the start in the net. A winner of five straight, Gallant has full confidence in the veteran to keep it rolling. He brings a .938 save percentage over the last five starts into the game.

Calgary is a strange team. They are hanging around in the very mediocre Pacific Division. Jonathan Huberdeau hasn’t scored like he had with Florida. It’s been a tough adjustment playing under the demanding Darryl Sutter.

The Flames are getting better play from Elias Lindholm, Tyler Toffoli, and Nazem Kadri. They’re top three in points with Lindholm pacing them in assists (30) and points (45). Kadri leads in goals with 19 and has 38 points. Toffoli has been better this season with his 42 points (18-24-42) ranking second in team scoring. Huberdeau is fourth with 33.

Rasmus Andersson paces the blue line with 33 points. Noah Hanifin is second among Flames defensemen with 21. MacKenzie Weegar has struggled with just one goal and 14 assists.

Calgary boasts solid secondary scoring thanks to two-way pivot Mikael Backlund, Dillon Dube, Blake Coleman, and Andrew Mangiapane. More is expected of Mangiapane, who earned a new contract that pays him an AAV of $5.8 million. He scored 35 goals in ’21-22. This season, he has 10 goals with 16 assists for 26 points over 50 games. They’ll need better production from Mangiapane to qualify for the postseason.

The biggest surprise has been the unsteady play of starter Jacob Markstrom. Coming off a great year in which he was the runner-up for the Vezina behind Igor Shesterkin, he’s struggled to make the key saves. He’s a disappointing 13-13-5 with a 2.86 GAA and .893 save percentage.

It’s been the more consistent play of younger backup Daniel Vladar that’s provided a spark. He’s 11-4-4 with a 2.71 GAA and .906 save percentage. Similar to Halak, Vladar has won five straight decisions. He’s posted a 2.78 GAA and .899 save percentage. Counting a relied appearance against Chicago along with a victory over Seattle, Vladar is 6-0-0 with a 2.54 GAA and a .907 save percentage since Dec. 28.

According to a Flames game preview on, Sutter looks like he’ll go back to Markstrom. Jakob Pelletier will play in his fifth NHL game. He’s listed on their second line alongside Kadri and Huberdeau. Lindholm anchors the top line between Dube and Toffoli.

Calgary likes to play a deliberate style, getting in on the forecheck and using their size and strength on the walls. The Rangers want to play at a higher tempo by utilizing their speed and skill. They should be able to dictate the pace. They could draw penalties due to that superior speed.

A slower pace favors the Flames who like to play a heavier game. It’s a unique contrast in styles. The Rangers want to maintain their discipline and get a three-game home stand started on the right foot. They’ll also host Vancouver on Wednesday and Seattle on Friday.

The hottest player is Filip Chytil. He paced all Blueshirts with eight goals in January. With a career high 29 points, including his 16 goals placing third behind Zibanejad and Kreider, he’s certainly trending in the right direction. It’s been his line with Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko that have provided the spark.

Can Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad find some chemistry that leads to goals? Gallant is counting on it. We’ve seen positive results from Kreider, Trocheck, and Goodrow. It’s the top line where Panarin and Zibanejad are paired up that must perform better.

I’ll have more on the game 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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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