FACEOFF: 7pm Central
TV/RADIO: NBCSN, WGN Radio
Only seems like six years ago that the Rangers were in town for the reverse fixture on this on Banner Raising night, where it became obvious to everyone that Trevor Daley was not going to work out here as the Rangers walked out 3-2 winners (you probably were watching Jake Arrieta get in up to the elbow against the Pirates. I know I was). The Hawks finally wrap up the season series with their Original 6 brethren on Broadway tonight. They’ll find a weird squad when they get there.
The Rags are currently entrenched in the automatic playoff spots in the Metro division. They’re 16 points behind the Olympus residents that the Caps are right now, but have a four-point cushion on the Islanders in 3rd and five on the Devils (and we’re all ready for a Rangers-Islanders playoff series). This only feels like the 27th consecutive season that the Rangers are attempting to navigate their way to glory without a #1 center but still pretending Derek Stepan is that. They’re on something of a roll right now, going 5-1-1 in their last seven and only a last minute desperation heave from the Kings kept them from winning six of the last seven.
The Rangers have had this little burst without arguably their two biggest guns. Alleged wiener-tucker Rick Nash has missed the past few weeks and is set to miss a couple more, and Ryan McDonagh has missed the past week plus after being suckered by Meat Train/Brain Wayne Simmonds in Philadelphia. McDonagh looks set to return tonight, and he is unquestionably their best d-man and one of the better ones around. McDonagh’s numbers aren’t all that impressive but that’s mostly to do with having to drag Dan Girardi’s rotting carcass around the ice all season (“Girardi” being New York slang for “Seabrook”) It will be a boost.
When looking deeper at the Blueshirts it gets really confusing. They’re an underwater possession team, carrying a team-rate of 48.6%. But they have the second-best even-strength goal-differential in the league at +34 (trailing only the Caps’ +37). Half of it is luck, as the Rangers boast the league’s best team shooting percentage at evens at 9.3%. the other half is that Henrik Lundqvist, even at 33 and having been so for a decade, remains one of the league’s best goalies. He’s at .924 and 2.29 for the year, and has the third best ES SV% and adjusted SV% in the league. He’s a fucking metronome. It’s kind of hard to believe he’s only 33.
Without Nash, arguably with him, the Rangers don’t really have any front line scoring but do it as more of a socialist’s dream. They have seven guys who have scored more than 10 goals and 11 that have registered more than 20 points. But no one has more than 20 goals and Mats “I Miss The Shire” Zuccarello leads them with 43 points. Zukes is probably the hottest Ranger (not in that sense, as that will always be Hank) with six points in his last five games.
Alain Vigneault, despite being close to the top of the list of guys you don’t want coaching your team when things get important), always seems to pile up the regular season points and wants his teams to generally play with the puck. While the Rangers don’t have a littany of stars they do have a solid grouping of forwards who can all skate (and shit in stairwells, allegedly) and when the Rangers are on it feels like they’re constantly buzzing around the offensive zone. They’re just not on all that much.
For the Hawks, Erik Gustafsson will return to the lineup after a two-game sit-down because he wasn’t being aggressive enough in the offensive zone, according to Q. This has been a rare occurrence in Q’s tenure here, but what that tells you is that he sees what everyone else has this season. The Hawks need more push and inspiration from their defense, Gustafsson is the only candidate below Keith who can provide it, and Q is going to get it from him no matter what it takes. Panik stays on the top line to start, and Crow will return to the cage.
The Rangers boast the best home record in the East, where Vigneault can shield the parts of the lineup that need it, like keeping Yandle in the offensive zone, or keeping Brassard free of checking centers who would use him as chum. So it’s not the easiest assignment tonight. The Hawks haven’t had the easiest time with New York the past couple years, going 1-1-1 in the last three games and scoring all of three goals. With the Stars getting a point last night in St. Louis the Hawks are in second having played two games more, and the Blues only sit four points back with a game in hand of their own and two more tilts with the Hawks left this season. While the Hawks are more than capable of going through St. Louis and Dallas without home-ice in the spring, it’s not something they’ll want to do if they don’t have to. So whatever malaise hit them on this last homestand is going to have to clear quickly. The schedule from here does not let up, as the Hawks will be playing either desperate teams clinging to playoff chances (Wild, Preds, Bruins) or some of the better teams around (Wings twice, Caps, Blues, Stars, Kings) before it lets up in mid-March.