RANGERS vs. DEVILS, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 FM
Practice was long over on Friday but there were still some Rangers lingering on the ice, getting in some extra work. Adam Fox was one of them, and when he finally came off and got back to his stall in the dressing room, the subject came up of what Mika Zibanejad had done the night before.
"Just look," the Rangers' rookie blueliner said, motioning across the room to Zibanejad's empty stall. "He scores five and he's still working out there, trying to get better. I think it's just testament to him and how he is. And obviously how he's a really important player for us."
It might be tempting to believe that Zibanejad, following his historic night in Thursday's Madison Square Garden thriller, was working on whatever he has in store for an encore. But really he was doing what he does every day, preparing for the next game in the Rangers' gripping chase for a playoff berth - this time a Saturday night faceoff at Madison Square Garden against the New Jersey Devils in the finale of a four-game Broadway homestand.
In the afterglow of Zibanejad's team-record-tying five-goal night in Thursday's overtime win over the Caps, there were questions on Friday about whether the Rangers would need to make sure they come down to Earth after the high of the night before - which David Quinn answered this way:
"I mean, it is the Devils, they're one of our rivals, we're 15 games left and we're two points out of a playoff spot. I don't know how much more this game can mean to our guys."
The Garden party that Zibanejad and the Rangers put on Thursday night coincided with the Islanders' loss in Ottawa and Carolina's defeat in Philadelphia, which meant that, with all the Eastern Conference hopefuls idle on Friday, the Rangers woke up Saturday morning very much in striking distance - a point in front of the Hurricanes and two back of the Isles, with those two teams squaring off on Saturday afternoon at Nassau Coliseum.
While Zibanejad returns to the scene of his historic performance - five goals on Thursday night, including the overtime winner to beat the Washington Capitals - there is the possibility of another eye-catching return, too. Igor Shesterkin skated with his teammates at Thursday's morning skate, then was a full go at Friday's practice in Westchester, and David Quinn said there was a possibility he could return to action as soon as Saturday night.
Shesterkin suffered a rib injury in a Feb. 23 car accident in Brooklyn. At the time, he had won seven consecutive starts and was 9-1 with a .940 save percentage in the first 10 games of his NHL career.
Both Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev have defeated the Devils this season, with Shesterkin making a so-far career-high 46 saves to win his second NHL start on Jan. 9 at the Garden, and Georgiev posting a 33-save shutout on Nov. 30 in Newark.
And if Zibanejad is looking for a follow-up to the standout game of his NHL career, how about Tony DeAngelo? The blueliner scored his first career hat trick against the Devils in the Rangers' Jan. 9 victory, and had points on five of the Rangers' goals in a 6-3 win. DeAngelo's goal and two assists on Thursday against Washington were a bit buried by what Zibanejad did that night, but it was his 12th multi-point game this season and put him in a fourth-place tie among NHL defensemen with 52 points.
Zibanejad, for the record, has points in eight of the 10 games Shesterkin has played, all wins, with seven goals and 12 points in the games. The Rangers' 26-year-old center has scored 20 times in his last 19 games - padded, of course, by the game of his NHL career on Thursday, when he became just the third Ranger ever to score five goals in one night.
On Friday morning, it was right back to work.
"What you love about him is, he's got such passion for the game, he wants to be the best player he can possibly be," Quinn said. "He comes every day and works hard. He is everything you want in your best player.
"It's so important for an organization when you've got your best player approaching the game the way he does, not only in games but in practices. You look at all the great organizations, their top players are great people, and they come here every day to be the best player they can be, and they raise everybody else's compete level. And that's what he's done from day one since I've been here."
The Devils raised their own compete level in a big win of their own on Friday, becoming the team to stop the St. Louis Blues' eight-game winning streak with a 4-2 win in Newark. It was the 14th game out the last 18 in which New Jersey, still 12 points shy of a playoff spot, has earned at least a point (9-4-5).
Since the Devils won these teams' first meeting, game No. 4 of 2019-20, the Rangers have won the last two by a 10-3 score, most recently on Jan. 9. Gone from the New Jersey side of those matchups, though, are Blake Coleman, Wayne Simmonds, Sami Vatanen and the Devils' ex-captain, Andy Greene - dispersed around the League at or before last month's trade deadline - as well as defenseman Will Butcher, out the rest of the year after thumb surgery.
And so the heroics on Friday came from the likes of Dakota Mermis, who scored his first NHL goal in his 18th NHL game, and from Cory Schneider, who has spent the bulk of the year with AHL Binghamton but who is 3-0-1 with a .952 save percentage since his latest return to the big club.
Schneider is expected to back up Mackenzie Blackwood at the Garden on Saturday. The 23-year-old rookie was pulled from his only career start at the Garden, back on Jan. 9, after five goals on 25 shots. But he is 21-13-8 this season with a .916 save percentage.
"At this point in the year we want to focus on a consistency - we don't want to be too high after one win just to follow it with a loss," Fox said. "(Thursday) was a huge win for us but something that now we've got to just focus on (Saturday), and not take New Jersey lightly at all."
33 Di Giuseppe - 93 Zibanejad - 89 Buchnevich
10 Panarin - 16 Strome - 17 Fast
21 Howden - 72 Chytil - 12 Gauthier
48 Lemieux - 14 McKegg - 24 Kakko
42 Smith - 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren - 23 Fox
18 Staal - 77 DeAngelo
44 Wood - 13 Hischier - 21 Palmieri
86 Hughes - 19 Zajac - 14 Anderson
63 Bratt - 37 Zacha - 97 Gusev
16 Rooney - 41 M. McLeod - 15 Hayden
25 Mueller - 76 Subban
32 Mermis - 28 Severson
33 Claesson - 5 Carrick
Since the start of the 21st Century, only four players have scored five goals in one game: Marian Gaborik (MIN, 2007), Johan Franzen (DET, 2011), Patrik Laine (WPG, 2018) and Mika Zibanejad (NYR, 2020).
Zibanejad leads the League in goals since Christmas, with 26; Alex Ovechkin is next with 24.
Pavel Buchnevich has played 244 games as a Ranger and topped 20 minutes on ice nine times - seven this season, including the last three games in a row. Buchnevich has a four-game point streak.
Jesper Fast has three goals in three games against the Devils this season.
The Rangers are 14-5 in their last 19 games in the Metropolitan Division.
The Blueshirts have allowed one goal on 17 Devils power plays (94.1%) this season, and have scored twice shorthanded.
The Devils are 6-6-1 in the second game of back-to-backs, and have swept both ends twice this season.
Mackenzie Blackwood is tied for the League lead in OT losses, with eight.
Freddy Claesson's assist on Connor Carrick's game-winning goal Friday against the Blues was the ex-Ranger's first point in his fourth game as a Devil.
Travis Zajac's next assist will be his 338th, passing Scott Stevens into fifth place in Devils history.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tony DeAngelo had five points and his first career hat trick the last time the Rangers and Devils met, at the Garden on Jan. 9. DeAngelo has five points in the last three games to give him 52 this season, fourth among NHL defensemen and making him the first Ranger blueliner to reach 50 points in a season since Brian Leetch in 2001-02.
Jesper Bratt's goal on Friday was his 100th NHL point, all with the Devils. Half his 16 goals this season have come in the last 17 games. The 21-year-old's 100 points have come against 29 of 30 NHL opponents, but none against the Rangers in six career games.