RANGERS vs. PREDATORS, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 FM
The last time the Rangers squared off with the Nashville Predators, Mika Zibanejad remembers the game well, because he remembers having to watch it on TV. He was missing a Rangers road trip for the first time in two seasons, in this case sitting out game number two of what would become 13 games out of action because of an upper-body injury.
"That game, the guys played unbelievable," Zibanejad said of the Nov. 2 match in Nashville, a 2-1 Ranger victory behind goals from Fil Chytil and Ryan Strome and 32 saves from Alexandar Georgiev.
Zibanejad was mentioning Monday morning how much happier he is to be playing in the rematch on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, and his Head Coach was speaking about how much happier and better the Rangers are with him. This will be the 11th game for Zibanejad since he rejoined the lineup, and after the 10th game, David Quinn observed that "he's really starting to find his groove and look like he did before the injury."
Zibanejad has scored four times in the last two games -- in the last four periods, actually -- and came home this weekend from the Rangers' four-game road trip with five goals overall. He is not alone in that regard, either: He and Artemi Panarin were offensive forces on the West Coast, with Panarin matching Zibanejad's four goals in the last two games, including his first hat trick as a Ranger on Thursday in San Jose. Panarin scored six times on the trip and brings a four-game goal streak into Monday's match, the first of three straight home games this week.
But the goals alone are not the reason Quinn believes, when it comes to Zibanejad, "you're talking about an elite player here," as the Coach said on Monday. "This is a guy who plays all three zones and plays them really well. Once he started getting his groove back (off the injury), and once one went in, then all of a sudden you could see things loosen up a little bit for him, and him feeling a little bit better about himself. And when that happens, he's very productive."
The Rangers are 6-0-1 when Zibanejad scores a goal, and that first number is all that concerns him. When asked about himself on Monday morning, he preferred to talk about how well Panarin is playing. "It's fun to play with him, it's fun to be on his side, and see all the things that he brings with the scoring and the way he thinks the game and everything. That's fun to watch and fun to be part of," Zibanejad said. Of his own recent hot streak, he added: "I don't want to focus on that too much. It's just about us winning and getting better, and that includes me as well. I just want to win."
Winning is something Georgiev has done with regularity recently: The 23-year-old netminder has won five of his last six starts, and will get a chance for six out of seven when he faces the Predators for the second time. Both Georgiev and the Rangers' penalty kill were massive in that Nov. 2 matchup, with the Rangers polishing off a pair of Nashville power plays in the game's final five minutes to preserve the one-goal win.
Two of Georgeiv's last four victories have been shutouts, including the road-trip opener in Las Vegas last Sunday. The Rangers on Monday morning were still teetering on the edge of feeling good about their 2-1-1 road trip and lamenting that one last point they felt got away in Saturday's shootout in Anaheim.
"More than anything though, we've got to focus on what's in front of us -- get over our trip and move forward," said Quinn, whose team is 10-1 in its last 11 games following a loss. "We have a really good hockey team in here tonight."
Strome called the Predators "a good team, a desperate team right now," which has a lot to do with the fact that Nashville has lost back-to-back games, the latest a dispiriting 4-1 loss on home ice to the Stars on Saturday night. The defending Central Division champs began this season 8-3-1; since then have lost 13 out of 19 games (6-9-4), starting with an OT loss to Calgary on Halloween, then their loss in the Blueshirts' visit.
Monday's game is the start of a four-game road trip for the Predators, who are 5-6-1 on the road. Eleven of Nashville's next 14 games are away from home, including a New Year's Day trip to the Cotton Bowl to face the Stars in the 2020 Winter Classic.
But it is Saturday's Dallas game that sends the Preds to the Garden with a chip on their shoulders. Playing without Viktor Arvidsson (injured reserve), Mattias Ekholm and Mikael Granlund -- none of whom is expected to face the Rangers -- Nashville grabbed the game's first lead on Austin Watson's fifth goal 1:04 into the second, before the Stars closed out the period with four unanswered scores. More than one Predator used the word "embarrassing" in the aftermath of the game.
Quinn said he expects "a long night, 60 minutes of hard hockey. We've got to make sure there are no excuses."
He was referring in part to the Preds' circumstances, and in part to his Rangers coming off a long trip a long way away, from which they arrived home in the wee hours of Sunday morning. "Nobody feels sorry for anybody. Nobody cares about your schedule," Quinn said. "Nobody cares how much sleep you got last night. Nobody cares how many games you played the last five days or six days.
"Everybody has their own challenges throughout a hockey season, and we've got a really good hockey team in front of us tonight."
"It'll be good to get back at home in front of the home crowd, too," Strome said. "Going on a road trip like we were on, we miss being at home. It'll be fun to be back at the Garden."
10 Panarin -- 16 Strome -- 24 Kakko
20 Kreider -- 93 Zibanejad -- 89 Buchnevich
14 McKegg -- 72 Chytil -- 17 Fast
48 Lemieux -- 21 Howden -- 42 Smith
76 Skjei -- 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren -- 23 Fox
18 Staal -- 77 DeAngelo
9 Forsberg -- 92 Johansen -- 19 Jarnkrok
8 Turris -- 95 Duchene -- 10 Sissons
23 Grimaldi -- 13 Bonino -- 15 C. Smith
32 Trenin -- 42 Blackwell -- 51 Watson
59 Josi -- 4 Ellis
5 Hamhuis -- 57 Fabbro
52 Irwin -- 7 Weber
The Rangers are 7-3 in their last 10 games against Nashville; each of the last three has been a one-goal game.
The Blueshirts are 13-1 when holding opponents to two goals or fewer; the Predators are 0-6-3 when scoring two or fewer.
The Predators are one of only two NHL teams whose leading scorer is a defenseman: Roman Josi's 26 points (7-19--26) lead the way. (John Carlson's 45 points lead the Capitals.)
Both team's best periods have been third periods: The Rangers have outscored opponents 37-24 (second-best differential in the NHL); Nashville has outscored opponents 41-33.
Over his last six games, Alexandar Georgiev has stopped all 39 shots he has seen while shorthanded.
The Predators had the second-best goals-against in the Western Conference, and third-best in the League, last season, allowing 2.58 per game. This season they have allowed 3.19 goals per game, third-most in the West.
Nashville's per-game average of 34.2 shots on goal is the second-highest in the League, behind Montreal's 35.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jesper Fast scored twice and had three points in the four games on the Rangers' West Coast trip. In his last five games against Nashville he has three goals and two assists, and his five career goals against the Predators are his most against any NHL opponent.
Nick Bonino leads the Predators with 12 goals -- on pace to shatter his career high of 22 set six seasons ago -- and is fourth in the League in goals per 60 minutes with 1.81. Only three of his 12 goals have come in road games.