RANGERS (43-24-9) at HURRICANES (33-28-16)
TV: 7 p.m. ET; MSG, FS-CR, NHL.TV
RALEIGH, N.C. -- The New York Rangers can clinch a Stanley Cup playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with a regulation or overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday.
The game marks the return of Eric Staal to Carolina, where he played all 12 seasons of his NHL career until he was traded to the Rangers on Feb. 28. Beyond winning the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006, Staal was the face of the franchise for much of his time in Raleigh.
"I've been through a lot with the Hurricanes organization, so it's going to be a different feeling coming to the rink," Staal said. "But I'm with a great group and excited to have the chance to clinch a playoff spot and hopefully get a big win tonight. Hopefully we finish strong and go on a long run in the playoffs."
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault expects the game to have added significance for Staal, who swapped one brother, Jordan Staal, for another, Marc Staal, as a teammate when he joined New York.
"Hopefully tonight Eric can go out and play well and help us win," Vigneault said. "I'm sure he's geared up and fired up. I would say he wants to play and get it over with."
The Rangers have won all three games against Carolina this season, outscoring the Hurricanes 11-4. Asked about that, Carolina coach Bill Peters offered a light-hearted response.
"Nightmares. That's why I'm so tired. I haven't slept," Peters said. "Their size and speed and pace give us trouble. Good defense, they move the puck. Good goaltending. They're hard to play against."
The Hurricanes will get a first look at left wing Sergey Tolchinsky, who will make his NHL debut. The first-year pro had 32 points in 65 games with Charlotte of the American Hockey League. An undrafted free agent after his junior career with Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League, Tolchinsky attended New York's prospect camp in 2013 before attending Carolina's camp and signing with the Hurricanes.
"I'll try to create offense as much as I can, but still play smart and manage my risk plays," said Tolchinsky, who will play on a line with Derek Ryan, a familiar Charlotte teammate. "Just try not to be nervous and play my game. Ryan and I played the last three games [together]. I think we have some chemistry. I think it will help me a lot."
Here are the projected lineups:
Chris Kreider - Derick Brassard - Rick Nash
J.T. Miller - Derek Stepan - Mats Zuccarello
Kevin Hayes - Eric Staal - Jesper Fast
Tanner Glass - Dominic Moore - Viktor Stalberg
Ryan McDonagh - Kevin Klein
Keith Yandle - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Dan Boyle
Scratches: Dylan McIlrath, Oscar Lindberg
Jeff Skinner - Victor Rask - Chris Terry
Joakim Nordstrom - Jordan Staal - Elias Lindholm
Nathan Gerbe - Jay McClement - Brad Malone
Sergey Tolchinsky - Derek Ryan - Patrick Brown
Jaccob Slavin - Ron Hainsey
Noah Hanifin - Brett Pesce
Ryan Murphy - Justin Faulk
Scratched: Michal Jordan
Injuries: Riley Nash (upper body), Phil Di Giuseppe (upper body). Andre Nestrasil (back), James Wisniewski (knee)
Status report: McIlrath, who missed 10 games with a knee injury, has been cleared to play, but he will not dress against the Hurricanes. … Carolina returned Brody Sutter to Charlotte.
Who's hot: Kevin Klein has two goals and seven assists in the past 10 games. Stepan has two goals and three assists in the past three games. … Rask has four goals in four games.