Rangers to play penultimate game against wildcard desperate Sabres on busy Monday night, playoff implications, Steven McDonald Award

When the Rangers host the wildcard desperate Sabres later tonight at The Garden, there’ll be plenty of playoff implications at stake. It will be a busy Monday night for several teams.

A win can put the Rangers in a tie for second place with the idle Devils. After handling the woeful Blue Jackets 4-0 this past weekend, they are within two points of the Devils. They lost to the Bruins 2-1 in a playoff caliber game in prime time. Had they won, they would’ve vaulted over the Hurricanes into first place.

Instead, it’s the Canes leading the Metro Division with 109 points. They are a point up on the Devils and three ahead of the Rangers. Carolina visits Ottawa at 7 EST. A win of any kind combined would lock the Rangers into second or third with the potential of a Battle of Hudson first round series.

Vince Mercogliano clarified how the division could shake out in the above tweet. The Canes have three games remaining entering tonight’s match with the Senators. Even after losing to the Sabres on Saturday, they’re in the driver’s seat. What they do will determine the division match-ups.

For the Blueshirts, they want to get as high as possible. They can still steal home ice away from the Devils ‘if’ that much anticipated series happens. The Devils play the Sabres tomorrow night at The Prudential Center.

While the top three teams in the Metro battle it out, the Sabres are in a much different scenario. By winning their last two, including holding off the Hurricanes at home thanks to newcomer Devon Levi, they’re still alive for the wildcard.

With four games left over five days due to a blizzard during the winter, the pressure is on to win. A long shot to qualify, they need to run the table. In fact, there’s a chance that they could be eliminated tonight.

Let’s say they earn a win over the Rangers. That takes them to 87 points with three games left. The problem is they can’t catch either the Panthers or Islanders in regulation wins. Each enters with 91 points headed into key games later. The Islanders visit the Capitals while the Panthers host the Maple Leafs. If both the Cats and Isles win, that would eliminate the Sabres.

However, if one of those two were to lose in regulation, the Sabres would still be in play. But they must beat the Rangers to have a chance. You have to believe they’ll be motivated to get a win, which would put the pressure on the Devils. They also were Levi’s first NHL win in his debut. Another factor.

The Penguins are off. They have 90 points with two left. As usual, Sidney Crosby is trying to carry them into the playoffs. His two goals and assist in a 5-1 win over the Red Wings helped the all-time great reach 1,500 career points. Crosby became only the 15th player to 1500. Pittsburgh will be scoreboard watching. They host the Blackhawks tomorrow.

Gerard Gallant plans to make no changes following Saturday’s return of Patrick Kane. That means Igor Shesterkin will get the start. He’s been much better the last month. He can tie former teammate Alexandar Georgiev for second in wins. Georgiev has proven himself with the Avalanche. He’s won 38 of 59 starts. Only Boston’s Linus Ullmark has more victories, with 39 on the powerful Bruins.

Adam Fox is expected to play. He ranks seventh among NHL defensemen in scoring with 71 points (12-59-71). He’s played in every game this season. Although the Norris looks like Erik Karlsson’s award with the Sharks’ defenseman chasing 100 points, Fox has had another superb season. The 12 goals and five game-winners are career highs. He needs four points over the last two games to surpass last year’s career best mark of 74 points.

Even if he doesn’t get nominated for the game’s best defenseman due to a slew of worthy candidates that include Dougie Hamilton and Quinn Hughes, he remains one of the game’s top defensemen. With partner Ryan Lindgren rounding into form, Fox will be a big key to the postseason.

It’s the top four on the Rangers’ blue line who’ll continue to handle the tough assignments. Jacob Trouba was recently announced as the second winner of the Rod Gilbert Mr. Ranger Award. A deserved honor for a player’s player, who gives an honest effort night in and night out. The 28th Rangers captain has continued to lead by example. His big hits, key blocks, and the intensity he’s shown make him quintessential to team success. Congrats to Trouba on his work both on and off the ice.

K’Andre Miller is part of that second pair, which draws most of the tough assignments. Having set new career highs in goals (9), assists (34) and points (43), the 23-year old former 2018 first round pick continues to improve. He still takes big risks by jumping up for offense. He’ll have to pick his spots better during his second postseason.

Niko Mikkola has afforded Gallant to get Lindgren extra rest. Since coming over from the Blues as part of the Vladimir Tarasenko deal, he’s proved to be a versatile defenseman who can be plugged anywhere. He provided relief by playing with Fox on the top pair when Lindgren was out. Back with Braden Schneider on the third pair, the defensive defenseman should provide Gallant with a reliable depth player on the back end. He scored his first goal of the season at Columbus.

With two assists the other night, Mika Zibanejad has caught Artemi Panarin for the team lead in scoring. Each is tied with 89 points. The team leader in goals (39), power play goals (20), power play points (37), and tied with Fox for tops in game-winners (5), Zibanejad already has established a new personal best with 89 points. He needs two goals to match his career high set in 2019-20. Two more assists would match his career best (52) that came last season.

It would be nice to see Zibanejad top 90 points. He also is just ahead of Chris Kreider for the highest plus/minus among Rangers forwards with a plus-25. One of the game’s best two-way centers, Zibanejad deserves every accolade be receives. There’s a reason I call him Mika Magic.

Vincent Trocheck has had a terrific finish. The second line pivot has produced his best year since he was a Florida Panther. He scored his 22nd goal on Saturday. His 63 points (22-41-63) are better than anyone expected. Especially given the inconsistent start during a challenging first half.

Since the All-Star break, Trocheck has produced more consistently. The former Hurricane is 8-21-29 over the last 31 games. He’s found better chemistry with Panarin. It took a while. With Gallant keeping Trocheck between Panarin and Tarasenko, it’s Zibanejad centering Kreider and Kane on the first line. Considering how well they played with Zibanejad during a stretch, Panarin and Tarasenko can always be flipped. That’s totally up to Gallant.

Two lines that aren’t likely to change are the third and fourth lines. Having reunited the 21 and over Kid Line, Turk has seen good results. Filip Chytil set personal bests across the board. His 22 goals, 23 assists, and 45 points earned him a new four-year contract extension. He is the best finisher amongst former high picks Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere. They’re cohesive due to the unique combination of Chytil’s speed, Kakko’s puck possession, and Lafreniere’s tenacity.

Each member has played their best hockey of their young careers. Both Kakko and Lafreniere enter needing a point to hit 40 for the first time. Kakko has 17 goals with 22 assists and a plus-12. Lafreniere has 16 goals with 23 assists and a plus-11. Nearly identical.

With so much focus on the top six, it’ll again be up to the Kid Line to provide secondary scoring in the playoffs. How they perform is crucial to the team’s success.

Gallant also boasts a strong checking line he can count on. The trio of Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, and Tyler Motte are reliable. Playing a no-nonsense style, they are effective at getting pucks in and winning battles on the forecheck.

Goodrow has 11 goals with 20 assists for 31 points in his second season on Broadway. The gritty center has been strong at even strength, with 28 of his 32 points coming there. A good penalty killer, he plays shorthanded along with Motte and Vesey, who was nominated by the Rangers as a candidate for the Masterton Trophy.

There also is the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. With it being the second to last home game, that could be announced before the start of tonight’s game. I would give it either to Vesey or Trouba. But since Trouba won the Rod Gilbert Mr. Ranger Award for all the work he does in the community, I think Vesey is a good choice.

A player who came into camp without a guaranteed contract, all he did was win a spot on the roster through his hard work and dedication. While not the most talented player, Vesey makes up for it by bringing a lunch pail work ethic. His effort has resulted in a good year that earned him an extension. The 11 goals, 14 assists, and 25 points are solid production for a player who’s got tremendous character. He even played on the top line when necessary.

I’ve never viewed the prestigious Steven McDonald Award as one that must go to the best Ranger. There are exceptions. But I’m more of a Jed Ortmeyer type of fan. I appreciate the hard work Vesey has put in. He’s been a trusted regular who excels on the penalty kill and comes back defensively. He deserves it.

Here’s hoping the fans recognized his contributions.


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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