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GAME DAY: Blueshirts Start Back-to-Back with Blue Jackets

Moving Pieces on Power Play; Panarin Back in C-bus

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS at BLUE JACKETS, 7 p.m.
Nationwide Arena
MSG2, 1050 AM

GAME DAY
Given back-to-back days in between games for the first time since mid-November, David Quinn could already see dividends in his team's practice session on Wednesday in Westchester.

"Our energy was as high as it's been in a practice in a long time. You could feel it," the Head Coach said. "There was a real purpose and there was a crispness to our practice, an attention and enthusiasm. It was a good feel, that practice."

And why not? What awaits them on Thursday night in Columbus is, Mika Zibanejad said, "an important game - it's a division game."

The Rangers are in the Ohio capital for their first meeting this season with the Blue Jackets, the start of their third back-to-back set in a span of two weeks. Thursday's opener features Alexandar Georgiev taking the Rangers' nets and will be the first game back in Columbus for ex-Blue Jacket Artemi Panarin -- and as Zibanejad said on Wednesday, "The guys want to win for him."

They also want to stretch their points streak on the road to four games, their winning streak against Metropolitan Division opponents to six, and to bounce back from Monday's 4-1 Garden loss to the Vegas Golden Knights that broke up their four-game winning streak on home ice. The Rangers dropped into an early 2-0 hole in that game but had chances to make a game of it, but perhaps most frustrating at night's end was the 0-for-6 on power plays just two days after their special teams had taken things over in a shutout win in New Jersey.

To that end, the Blueshirts come to Columbus with a tweak or two in their power-play alignment. Kaapo Kakko will slide up to the No. 1 unit, giving the Rangers a lefty shot stationed around the right-wing circle, opposite Panarin on the other side. The rookie crafted a superb play from exactly that spot for an early goal that held up as the winner against the Devils, finding Adam Fox through the zone for a backdoor dunk - rookie-to-rookie on the scoring play.

"With Mika coming back (from injury), and some more other moving parts, we're just better off having that lefty up on that half-wall," Quinn said. "And I think Kakko the last few games has earned that opportunity."

Righty shot Ryan Strome will move down to a second unit, on which Fil Chytil will get a look on Thursday night.

Through it all, though, Quinn continues to press his players not just to shoot pucks, but to want to shoot pucks.

"We want to tap it in, it's just it's our mentality," he said. "One of the reasons we have one of the best shooting percentages in the National Hockey League is because we only shoot when we think we're going to score."

"We have skilled enough guys to make the plays and whatnot, but I think when we're struggling we're looking for the plays and not the shots," Zibanejad said. "When we're playing well, we're shooting a couple and then the plays will open up for us."

Georgiev's last five periods of hockey have been near-flawless, which includes his 33-save shutout his last time out, Saturday in Newark, which was his first shutout this season and third of his career. Georgiev has stopped 55 of the last 56 shots to reach him, going back to the Blueshirts' massive comeback two Saturdays ago in Montreal.

Henrik Lundqvist is lined up for the start on Friday night back at the Garden when those Canadiens come to Broadway for a rematch.

First, though, the Rangers will deal with a Blue Jackets team struggling to score goals and to string wins together. Columbus has lost back-to-back games and four of six, all in regulation, and is 6-9-2 following a 5-3-2 start.

Only the Red Wings have scored fewer goals than Columbus' 68. Cam Atkinson, who was sixth in the NHL last season with 41 goals, has just one in his last 17 games and four all season.

What's more, the Blue Jackets took a hit on Saturday when defenseman Zach Werenski went down at Barclays Center with a shoulder injury that will keep him out a month. Dean Kukan took Werenski's spots paired with Seth Jones and on power plays, on which Kukan scored his first NHL goal Tuesday against Arizona.

On Thursday, Andrew Peeke will join the Blue Jackets' blue line for his NHL debut. Pierre-Luc Dubois (8-10--18) and Gustav Nyquist (7-11--18) lead the way for the hosts, who following Thursday's game play four straight games, seven of their next 10, and 12 of their next 18 on the road.

Marc Staal skated with the Rangers during their practice on Wednesday and is closing in on a return. No Ranger had played more games against the Blue Jackets than Staal's 27.


PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
10 Panarin - 16 Strome - 20 Kreider
48 Lemieux - 93 Zibanejad - 24 Kakko
17 Fast - 72 Chytil - 89 Buchnevich
15 Nieves - 21 Howden - 42 Smith

76 Skjei - 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren - 23 Fox
25 Hajek - 77 DeAngelo

40 Georgiev
30 Lundqvist

BLUE JACKETS
14 Nyquist - 38 Jenner - 28 Bjorkstrand
71 Foligno - 42 Texier - 13 Atkinson
22 Milano - 18 Dubois - 52 Bemstrom
20 Nash - 10 Wennberg - 77 Anderson

46 Kukan - 3 Jones
27 Murray - 58 Savard
44 Gavrikov - 2 Peeke

70 Korpisalo
90 Merzlikins


NUMBERS GAME

Since Oct. 22, the Rangers are 7-1-0 following a loss.

The Blueshirts are 11-0 when holding opponents to two goals or fewer; Tuesday's 4-2 home-ice loss to Arizona dropped the Blue Jackets to 1-11-2 when scoring two or fewer.

Alexandar Georgiev stopped 39 of 41 shots in his last game against the Blue Jackets, carrying a 2-2 tie through overtime but losing when Artemi Panarin scored the only goal of the shootout.

Three of the teams' four meetings last season were tied after regulation time.

Brady Skjei's next point will be his 100th in the NHL.

Gustav Nyquist, Columbus' co-leading scorer with 18 points and a veteran of 527 NHL games, has scored against 29 of the League's 31 teams. The remaining two are the Red Wings, for whom Nyquist played the first 481 of his 527 games, and the Rangers, who have held him scoreless in 16 all-time matchups.

The Blue Jackets are finishing a 10-game stretch in which they have played eight at home. After Thursday's game, 12 of their next 18 are on the road.

David Savard has blocked 756 shots in his 516-game Blue Jackets career. Ten more and he'll pass Jack Johnson as the franchise's all-time leader.

Andrew Peeke will make his NHL debut. Riley Nash will play in his 500th NHL game.

The Rangers are 10-10-0 all-time in the Ohio capital.

The Blue Jackets are 3-0 on Thursdays, and 22-4-1 on Thursdays since March 2018.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Artemi Panarin will face Columbus for the first time as a former Blue Jacket; as a Blackhawk from 2015-17, Panarin scored four goals and seven points in four games against Columbus. He leads the Rangers and is tied for eighth in NHL scoring with 12-21--33.

Oliver Bjorkstrand had two points in October, then 13 in November, the most for any calendar month in the 24-year-old's career. Bjorkstrand has 2-6--8 in 10 career games against the Blueshirts.

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