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GAME DAY: 'A Good Test on Home Ice'

Kakko Jumps on Mika's Line as Rangers Host 8-1-1 Sabres

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS vs. SABRES, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 FM

GAME DAY
On the heels of a game in which they earned a point after trailing twice in the second period, the Rangers intend to avoid a repeat by having a better first. They realize this is doubly wise given the kind of hockey Thursday night's opponent has been playing.

The Blueshirts play the middle game of their season-long five-game homestand against the NHL-leading Buffalo Sabres, 8-1-1 after 10 games to match the second-best start in their team's history. And the Rangers will roll out a new look atop their lineup on Thursday, with Kaapo Kakko skating alongside Mika Zibanejad as the Rangers play their first of six consecutive home games against Atlantic Division foes.

Recent history between Thursday's teams, however, favors the Rangers, who have won six of their last seven and 15 of 19 over the Sabres. Henrik Lundqvist has had a large hand in those numbers and will look to add to them, taking his fifth start of the season. Since Lundqvist was in goal for his 14th straight Opening Night start, David Quinn, not unlike his counterpart in Buffalo, has alternated his goaltenders throughout October's quirky schedule. Following a stretch of 11 days in which the Rangers played just once, Thursday's game will be their fifth in eight days.

Thursday night's start "has been stressed for sure," Ryan Strome said after the Rangers' morning skate at the Garden. "But starts, that comes from within - it starts from each guy just taking ownership of your responsibilities early in the games, and knowing what we need to get going, It's going to start with the very first shift tonight.

"This is a good test for us, and a good test on home ice."

"We did get a point the other night," Quinn said on Thursday morning, referring to Tuesday's OT loss to Arizona in which Tony DeAngelo scored twice in the second period to get the game to overtime. "I thought (Wednesday) was a big step moving forward. I thought our practice was good, I thought our guys felt pretty good about some of the things they accomplished and about their work ethic. And they seem to be in a good mindset right now."

Quinn was speaking while some of his Rangers were still lingering on the Garden ice, including Zibanejad and Kakko, who will play together for the first time. Chris Kreider will be their left wing, all of this meaning that Quinn will split Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin for the first time this season as he seeks optimal balance in his lines.

Kakko assisted on DeAngelo's second goal, a power-play score, in Tuesday's second period, the 18-year-old rookie's first NHL assist.

When Quinn was asked about the opportunity for Kakko to take shifts with Zibanejad, the team's leading scorer last season and so far this year with 11 points in seven games, the Head Coach joked: "Beats playing with me."

"I mean, forget it - you see Mika Zibanejad as your center, you're automatically getting a whole new level of confidence," Quinn said. "So (Kakko) is in a much better position mentally when he sees that Mika Zibanejad is his center and Chris Kreider is his left wing."

Panarin, who has four goals in seven games as a Ranger, will skate with Strome (assists in four of his last five) and his countryman Pavel Buchnevich.

The only better 10-game starts in Buffalo history came when the 2006-07 Sabres were 10-0. Buffalo is the League's only team to have three different players with six goals - Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and rookie Victor Olofsson.

Like the Rangers, the Sabres have alternated their goaltenders throughout their first 10 games, but entering their first back-to-back set this season - they play in Detroit on Friday - first-year coach Ralph Krueger could elect to go back to Carter Hutton at the Garden. Hutton is 4-1-0 with a 1.48 goals-against average and .953 save percentage in six career games against the Rangers. 

He stole a game last Oct. 6 - the Rangers' second game of 2018-19 - by making 43 saves in a 3-1 Sabres win in Buffalo (only Brett Howden beat him late, for his first NHL goal). Lundqvist returned the favor a month later, stopping 39 of 40 Sabres shots in a Ranger win at the Garden that was part of a 9-1-1 stretch.

Hutton is among the League leaders in wins (he is 6-0), GAA (1.65), save percentage (.943) and shutouts (2).

PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
20 Kreider - 93 Zibanejad - 24 Kakko
10 Panarin - 16 Strome - 89 Buchnevich
48 Lemieux - 21 Howden - 17 Fast
14 McKegg - 28 Andersson - 42 Smith

25 Hajek - 8 Trouba
18 Staal - 23 Fox
76 Skjei - 77 DeAngelo

30 Lundqvist
40 Georgiev

SABRES
68 Olofsson - 9 Eichel - 23 Reinhart
53 Skinner - 90 Johansson - 17 Sobotka
28 Girgensons - 22 Larsson - 21 Okposo
13 Vesey - 37 Mittelstadt - 43 Sheary

26 Dahlin - 33 Miller
19 McCabe - 55 Ristolainen
6 Scandella - 10 Jokiharju

40 Hutton
35 Ullmark


NUMBERS GAME

Henrik Lundqvist has won nine of his last 12 decisions against the Sabres, with a 2.10 GAA and .930 save percentage. He stopped 65 of 68 Sabre shots in two games against Buffalo last season.

Lundqvist will make his 862nd career appearance, passing Jean Ratelle for sixth place in Rangers history.

Jacob Trouba has averaged 3.86 shots on goal per game, most among NHL defensemen. 

Sabres rookie Victor Olofsson on Wednesday extended an NHL record when he scored his eighth career goal: All of this first eight NHL goals have come on power plays. The previous record was six, last done by Jeff Norton of the Islanders in 1987-88.  

Buffalo's plus-13 goal differential (37 GF, 24 GA) is best in the NHL. 

The Sabres have scored first in eight of their 10 games this season, going 7-1-0 in those games.

This is the Rangers' 1,999th regular-season game at the current Madison Square Garden, and the NHL 2,000th regular-season game: The Flyers played one home game there, on March 3, 1968 against the Oakland Seals, because of damage to the roof at the Spectrum.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jesper Fast has points in nine of his 15 career games against the Sabres, with 10 points overall.

Conor Sheary scored three times in three games against the Rangers last season, and his seven goals against them, in 14 games, are his most against any opponent.


WHADDYA SAY?

"Just a little weird playing against some old friends. I was saying the other day, I've never played against a former team before, so I'm excited for it. It will be good to see some familiar faces, not only players but trainers and staff and stuff like that. I'm looking forward to it." - Buffalo's Jimmy Vesey
 

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