Rangers and Penguins square off in last regular season battle
The Pittsburgh Penguins visit the New York Rangers on Thursday to conclude a stretch of three meetings in under two weeks between the Metropolitan Division rivals.
As it stands, the second-place Rangers (45-20-6, 96 points) and third-place Penguins (41-20-10, 92 points) are in line to meet in the first round of the playoffs.
With only a few weeks left in the regular season, Thursday’s game could go a long way in determining which team receives home-ice advantage in that series.
New York Rangers taking it one at a time
New York dropped back-to-back games before bouncing back Tuesday with a 3-1 win against the New Jersey Devils.
“Good teams have to make sure those losing streaks don’t stay long,” said Rangers goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who extended his win streak to a career-long five games.
Despite his recent success, Georgiev likely will give way to No. 1 netminder Igor Shesterkin on Thursday.
Shesterkin secured the wins in the two recent games against Pittsburgh, but overall he is just 4-4-1 with a 3.11 goals-against average and .886 save percentage since March 10.
The Rangers aren’t worried about aesthetics, however.
“At this time of year, you can draw it up any way you want — we’re looking for those two points to fight for home ice” in the postseason,” New York forward Ryan Strome said.
Artemi Panarin set up a pair of goals on Tuesday to give him a career-high 65 assists on the season. He has 22 points (four goals, 18 assists) in his past 14 games.
“I can’t worry about Carolina being right there and Pittsburgh just being a little bit behind,” Gerard Gallant said. “We just take it one game at a time… As coaches, you prepare your players to get ready for a good Pittsburgh team. We played them well lately and the points will take care of themselves.”
New York Rangers lineup expected to be crowded soon
The New York Rangers are about to be overloaded with choices to fill out their four lines in the near future.
While Kaapo Kakko and Kevin Rooney continue to skate on their own, they are close to a return. When they do, the New York Rangers will need to decide which 12 healthy forwards should be in the lineup out of 17 possible options.
Some of the potential scratches are obvious, but others will not be an easy decision. That includes what line a player like Kakko should play on. Same for Barclay Goodrow, who may be regulated to fourth line duties once everyone is ready to go.
The trade deadline additions have already bumped players like Ryan Reaves out of the lineup, and things will only get harder for him to get back in once Kakko and Rooney return from IR.
“You don’t want to be around the guys that bring any negative energy to the locker room,” Reaves said after a recent scratch. “I’m getting older, and with all the guys we’ve got in here there are probably some games I’m not going to play. Am I happy about it? No, you never want to sit but you can’t be a distraction in the locker room. You have to be the same guy and bring energy.”
Penguins looking to show Rangers who they are
Pittsburgh has something to prove after dropping the two recent games against the Rangers – a 5-1 setback at Madison Square Garden on March 25 and a 3-2 loss four days later at home.
“Huge game for us,” Penguins forward Bryan Rust said of this matchup. “Obviously, that last one at MSG, we’d like to forget about, but I think it’s going to be in the back of our minds that we need to come out and play a lot better than that.
“We’ve got to establish ourselves and kind of show them who we are.”
Pittsburgh has lost five of its last seven games (2-4-1). That includes getting swept in a home-and-home series against the Colorado Avalanche, the top team in the NHL.
The Penguins feel they’ve been playing pretty well outside of that earlier game in New York.
“I think our team is competing extremely hard,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “I love the fight in our game.
“We’re down to the sprint, so every game is big. Every game is important. We’re scratching and clawing and doing our best to put our best game on the ice to try to win games.”
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–Field Level Media contributed to this article.