Strong finish crucial for the Rangers to establish their identity as they face Sabres in another must win game
The Rangers and Sabres will face-off for the final time this season at Madison Square Garden tonight. Igor Shesterkin will be in net with the potential for Colin Blackwell to be a late scratch. The forward went into the boards hard in the Rangers 6-3 win over Buffalo last time out. Jacob Trouba has already been ruled a no-go.
Rangers: 25-18-6 (56 pts)
Sabres: 13-29-7 (33 pts)
(7:00 p.m. ET – TV: MSG Network, Radio: ESPN 98.7 FM)
Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin continue to lead the way
Since his slump during the first 27 games of the season, Mika Zibanejad has been the star he was last year. Over the last two seasons, Zibanejad has proven that he can be one of the top centers in the league. The Rangers needed him to be at his best if they were going to be competitive. Now that he’s back, the Rangers have found themselves clawing their way back into the playoff race.
Zibanejad has set an example for the Rangers’ younger players this season. They can learn not just from his spectacular play but the time it took him to get there. His first half of the season was so out of character, he likely was experiencing a significant lack of confidence. But the fact that he was able to get through it and recover is important to him and the team as a whole. The young players need to understand they’re going to face adversity, they already have, and they need to be ready to work through it.
Per NYR: Mika Zibanejad is the only NHL player who has recorded three hat tricks this season, and he is the first Ranger who has registered three hat tricks in a season since Marian Gaborik in 2010-11.
Artemi Panarin has played MVP-caliber hockey when he’s been in the lineup this season. Of course, he’s missed a few games this season between being injured and taking a leave of absence. Despite missing time, Panarin has put up impressive numbers. He’s a top player in the NHL and one that the Rangers need in order to reach the playoffs. Panarin and Zibanejad must continue to lead the team by example down the stretch. The young players need to know that the end of this season still has meaning because while the Rangers probably won’t the playoffs this year, it is a reasonable goal for next season.
Alexis Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko gaining confidence
Alexis Lafrenière has been looking noticably more comfortable playing at the NHL level of late. He is better adjusted to the pace and is thinking the game at a higher level. His improvement has been so dramatic that he now finds himself on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. As the No. 1 overall pick, there were so many expectations early in the season that just couldn’t quite be met. But now, Lafrenière’s game is starting to pick up. He is making more plays and producing more consistently. It should be interesting to see what he can do in the last few games.
Kaapo Kakko’s game has been on the rise for weeks, and he finally scored twice against the Sabres on Sunday. Kakko has been flying lately, getting involved in plays and going to the net. However with a shot like his, he could always be shooting more. That’s the kind of player he needs to be. Kakko and Lafrenière have to continue to work hard and improve into the end of the season. It will elevate their game for next year and make a statement about the young Rangers players. Their continued improvement at the end here will make them plenty relevant and competitive next year.
Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller stepping up in Jacob Trouba’s absence
Adam Fox was already impressive as a rookie, and has just continued his incredible play. This season he added more of an offensive element to his game, causing people to compare him to Brian Leetch. That’s some pretty fine company. His play on both sides of the puck this year makes him a true candidate for the Norris Trophy. Fox is averaging workhorse minutes at 24:34 a night. With Jacob Trouba out, Fox has even more responsibility and he is already doing an excellent job. It’s hard to tell he’s only a sophomore just by watching him play.
There was question as to whether or not K’Andre Miller was actually going to make the team this season. But now, it’s difficult to imagine what the Rangers defense would’ve looked like without him. He came in and immediately looked comfortable playing defense at the NHL level, which is definitely not easy for all young defensemen. Partnered with Trouba, Miller has been effective on the defensive end of things all season. Now without Trouba, Miller has already stepped up. It was particularly noticeable against the Sabres on Sunday. Miller and Fox are representative of the Rangers’ future on the blue line. They need a strong finish as well in order to set the tone for next season.
Rangers Pre-Game Notes
- All-Time vs Sabres: 82-79-25-6 (46-31-15-3 at home; 36-48-10-3 on the road)
- The Rangers have won eight of their last 10 home games (8-2-0 record), and have outscored opponents, 51-24, over the span. New York has also earned at least one point in 10 of its last 12 home games (9-2-1 record).
- The Blueshirts are the only NHL team that has five players who have recorded at least 44 points in 2020-21 (no other NHL team has more than three). New York is also the only NHL team that has four players who have registered 17 or more goals this season.
Notes courtesy NYR
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