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GAME DAY: Blueshirts Close Out Decade in Oil Country

Coach Quinn Stresses 'D' as Georgiev & Rangers Face NHL's Top 2 Scorers

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS at OILERS, 9 p.m.
Rogers Place
MSG Network, 98.7 FM

GAME DAY
David Quinn knows exactly what he wants his Rangers' New Year's resolution to be, and he isn't interested in holding off until midnight to make it happen.

The Head Coach of the Rangers had something on his mind when he took the ice for practice on Monday afternoon in Westchester, and stated it in no uncertain terms not long afterward: Quinn wants his group to draw a line and make a team-wide recommitment to defense and to 1-on-1 battles. His Rangers are coming off a stirring sweep of a back-to-back, at home to Carolina and in overtime in Toronto, and they arrive in Edmonton for a New Year's Eve match against the Oilers with three wins in their last four games. "We're ecstatic we got four points" in the back-to-back, Quinn said, but he had one or two things he wanted to add.

"We know that we're going to have to elevate our commitment to playing defense, managing the puck, and every single guy has to do that. It has to be across the board, and it's a mindset," Quinn said on Monday. "We found a way to win; I think that's part of growth as a team. … But at the end of the day, you've got to play defense. That is a want more than anything. It's a mindset."

Their chance to test it out comes on Tuesday night in front of Alexandar Georgiev, in the Rangers' final game of the 2010s, and up against a team that possesses the Nos. 1 and 2 scorers in the NHL over the first half of the season, in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid's 63 points lead the League with Draisaitl just two behind him, though both players' breakneck pace over the season's first two months has slowed somewhat in December, as have the Oilers, whose head coach has been banging the drum about team defense for weeks now.

Edmonton's 4-1 victory at Madison Square Garden back on Oct. 12 moved their record to 5-0 for the first time in 34 years, and they stood at 16-7-3 on Nov. 24. Since then, however, they have gone 4-10-1 and have lost eight of their last 10 games (2-7-1) -- the latest a sobering 5-1 loss on home ice to the archrival Flames in which Calgary went ahead 11 seconds in.

Over the past 10-game stretch the Oilers have been outscored 39-23. Against the Flames, Draisaitl was minus-3 for the second straight game and is minus-28 in his last 20 matches.

"Our mindset to defend, which was so strong coming out of training camp, has eroded," Edmonton coach Dave Tippett said after the Calgary game. "When you start chasing games as often as we've done, you don't look like a good team."

Of course, Tippett's crew will have to contend with one of the NHL's best one-two punches coming at them, too: Mika Zibanejad scored three times during the weekend back-to-back and has nine goals in the last 10 games - tied with Patrice Bergeron for most in the NHL during the stretch - while Artemi Panarin has points in nine of those 10 games and 51 for the season, eighth-most in the League.

Perhaps those kinds of numbers have somewhat obscured the fact that Brett Howden has put in two goals in his last four games, which happens to coincide with Quinn moving him onto the wing - by choice, at first, then more out of necessity when Brendan Lemieux suffered a fractured hand during Friday's win over the Hurricanes, which could keep him out until the All-Star break.

"I think it's kind of opened up the game a little bit for me right now," Howden said. "I'm trying to keep things more simple and have that attack mentality going towards the net, so over this last little while I feel like the ice has really started to open up for me."

Howden scored just 1:41 into Saturday's game in Toronto, on one of his four shots on goal, one shy of a career high. And as Quinn pointed out, "he had two great chances after he scored the other night, too."

At the other end, Georgiev will be looking to push his winning streak in road games to seven games, on the heels of his 44-save effort on Saturday in Toronto. Georgiev is 3-0 on Canadian ice this season, and takes back-to-back starts after Henrik Lundqvist took the previous three straight.

His likely opponent, Mike Smith, is seeking his first win since Nov. 23. Smith has lost four straight decisions, not including his relief appearance for the also-struggling Mikko Koskinen in the second period of Friday's loss to the Flames.

Smith was the winning goaltender on Oct. 12 at the Garden, which was the Rangers' island in their absurd October schedule - their only game in a span of 11 days. Smith also wrote his name in the books that day as the goaltender against whom Kaapo Kakko scored his first NHL goal.


PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
10 Panarin - 16 Strome - 17 Fast
20 Kreider - 93 Zibanejad - 89 Buchnevich
21 Howden - 72 Chytil - 24 Kakko
38 Haley - 14 McKegg - 29 Fogarty

76 Skjei - 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren - 23 Fox
18 Staal - 77 DeAngelo

40 Georgiev
30 Lundqvist

OILERS
18 Neal - 97 McDavid - 44 Kassian
10 Nygard - 29 Draisaitl - 56 Yamamoto
16 Khaira - 93 Nugent-Hopkins - 89 Gagner
23 Sheahan - 91 Haas - 15 Archibald

77 Klefbom - 74 Bear
25 Nurse - 4 Russell
84 Lagesson - 6 Larsson

41 Smith
19 Koskinen


NUMBERS GAME

Artemi Panarin's three assists on Saturday in Toronto gave him 51 points through 38 games, eighth in the NHL. He is the first Ranger to reach 50 points in 38 games since Jaromir Jagr in 2006-07.

Saturday was Panarin's 16th multi-point game this season. Only four NHL players have more, and two of them are Oilers: Connor McDavid (18) and Leon Draisaitl (17).

Alexandar Georgiev is 8-2 in road games this season, with a 2.66 GAA, .930 save percentage and two shutouts. He is 3-0 in Canada.

Ryan Strome's 10th goal on Saturday made him the fourth Ranger into double digits this season, with Filip Chytil at nine and Tony DeAngelo at eight. Nineteen different Rangers have scored goals this season.

Jacob Trouba has three assists in the last two games, and his next point will be No. 200 of his NHL career.

Connor McDavid has 435 points in 328 games as an Oiler. He needs one more point to tie Esa Tikkanen for 10th place in the franchise's history. He needs 1,234 more to catch Wayne Gretzky in first.

Leon Draisaitl has 20 points in the last 20 games but also is minus-28 in that span, which dates to Nov. 16 - by far the worst number in the League, though his teammate Oscar Klefbom is next at minus-19 in that time.

Klefbom is far and away the League leaders in blocked shots, with 131. He also ranks third in ice time at 25:43 per game.

The Oilers are tied with Tampa Bay for the NHL's top power play at 29.3 percent. Edmonton has been outscored 93-72 at 5-on-5.

Mike Smith has an .828 save percentage (16 goals on 93 shots) in five December games.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Ryan Strome, who played 100 games as an Oiler before the Rangers acquired him last Nov. 16, has three goals, five points, plus-4, and 12 shots on goal over the past two games. He is second on the Rangers with 35 points in 38 games.

Kailer Yamamoto, with eight goals and 16 points for AHL Bakersfield before he was called up on Sunday, is expected to make his season debut for the Oilers, playing on Leon Draisaitl's right wing. Yamamoto was called up along with defenseman William Lagesson, who could make his NHL debut on Tuesday night.

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