RANGERS vs. FLYERS, 12 p.m.
Madison Square Garden | Kids Day, presented by Party City
NBC, 98.7 FM
By any measure, David Quinn's Rangers have had a bit of success on the road lately - nine away wins in a row right up until their Friday night visit to Philadelphia. That game was barely over, and the last of the fans at Wells Fargo Center had barely filed out, before Quinn was talking about how eager he is to get back home.
"Their crowd was good tonight," the Head Coach of the Rangers said right after Friday's game. "I can't wait to get back to the Garden in front of our fans Sunday afternoon."
Game 2 of a Rangers-Flyers weekend showdown comes home to Madison Square Garden on Sunday, a special noon puck drop to kick off a week of four games in front of those Garden fans, beginning with the Blueshirts' chance to hold serve on home ice and answer back for Friday's defeat in Philly.
Part of the storyline of this homestand, though, will be adjusting to life without Chris Kreider, lost to the Blueshirts on Friday night because of a fractured foot he suffered blocking a shot in the first period of what was a 1-0 game in favor of the Rangers, and turned into a 5-2 loss.
Mika Zibanejad said afterward that it was hard to put into words what the loss of Kreider meant to a Blueshirts team that has been surging up the Eastern Conference standings for the better part of two months now. "A key player and a key guy in the locker room and on the ice," Zibanejad called his linemate. "It (stinks)."
At the same time, there is this opportunity presenting itself on Sunday: Thanks in part to what transpired on the out-of-town scoreboard this weekend - Columbus' loss on Friday, and Carolina's back-to-back losses on Friday and in OT on Saturday - the Rangers, with a win on Sunday, can walk out of the Garden sitting in a playoff position in the Eastern Conference. (Stick tap to Charlie Lindgren, Ryan's big brother and the Canadiens goaltender who beat the Canes on Saturday night.)
And then, of course, the Rangers have some other key players suiting up on Sunday, and it would be hard to put into words, too, what Zibanejad has meant to this Ranger team this season - same goes for Artemi Panarin, two major drivers of the 9-2 charge the Blueshirts have put together leading up to Sunday's game, and of their 16 wins since Jan. 7, most in the NHL. (And for all that the Rangers have done on the road, with those franchise-record nine straight wins, seven of those 16 wins since Jan. 7 have come on Garden ice.)
Zibanejad will need a new left wing when the Rangers hit the ice on Sunday, and so it will be interesting to see how much Quinn decides moving forward to link him up with Panarin, something the Head Coach has refrained from most of the season to maintain the matchup problems those players present on separate lines, with the exception of late in games when seeking a spark - for an example, just go back to Thursday's game in Montreal, when Panarin set up Zibanejad for a game-tying goal in the Rangers' come-from-behind win, two days after Panarin set up Zibanejad for a game-winner on Long Island.
Both players sat for the final seven-or-so minutes of Friday's game in Philly, as Quinn took an opportunity to give both players a breather with the Blueshirts playing their third game in four nights, and their 16th in 29 days since returning from the All-Star break. Zibanejad has logged the sixth-highest ice time per game among NHL forwards; Panarin, the 19th-highest.
And while Friday's game was the first time in 10 games that Zibanejad was held off the scoresheet, and the first time in seven games he hadn't scored a goal - he hit the 30-goal mark for the second straight season only the night before, in just his 50th game - Panarin extended his own point streak to 12 games with a terrific assist for Jesper Fast's goal just 2:49 into the match. The League's third-leading scorer now has two separate 12-game point streaks this season, and has a chance on Sunday afternoon to set a career high in that category once again.
He'll have to do it against a Flyers team that ended the Rangers' five-game winning streak on Friday night, and rides their own five-game winning streak up the Turnpike for Sunday's match.
The Flyers are one of only four teams, and the only one left in the Eastern Conference, that has yet to visit the Garden this season. But it will be familiar scenery for a couple of them: Alain Vigneault, the Rangers' bench boss from 2013-18, will be behind the visitors' bench at the Garden for the first time as Philadelphia's Head Coach, while Kevin Hayes will be a Broadway visitor for the first time in his NHL career.
Hayes' goal in Friday's third period was the last of five straight from the Flyers, and was the center's third in two games against his former club this season.
Carter Hart made 26 saves to win the home-and-home opener - 18 of his 21 victories now have come on home ice. The 21-year-old will get the nod again on Sunday in New York, looking to improve on his 3-10-1 record on the road. It will be Hart's fourth career start against the Rangers, but his first at Madison Square Garden.
A sixth straight win would be a season high for the Flyers. Their 14-4-1 run since Jan. 13 has vaulted them to within three points of the Capitals for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The Rangers, though, have won 13 of their last 17 games within that division, and more than that are 18-6 in their last 24 games following a loss. Quinn's group has not lost back-to-back games after the All-Star break.
"We've been bouncing back pretty well, all season. We're not here to try to blow this (loss) up," Zibanejad said on Friday, not long after the Rangers' first road loss in six weeks. "I think
we really put ourselves in a good spot to really make it interesting here for the remainder of the season.
"That's one game. Obviously we would like to win that one, but we'll get some rest (Saturday), and we'll be ready Sunday."
Sunday's game is the 300th regular-season meeting between the Rangers and Flyers. The Blueshirts have a record of 132-121-37-9 in the first 299. This also will be the 6,499th regular-season game in Rangers history.
The Rangers are 13-4-1 in their last 18 home games against the Flyers.
The Rangers went 11-4 in February, a franchise record for wins in the month. They have 15 games on their March schedule, seven at the Garden - beginning with this week's four-game homestand - and eight on the road.
The Blueshirts have points in seven of their last eight games (4-1-3) that start before 7 o'clock. Sunday's noon start is their earliest this season.
The Rangers and Flyers are tied for the best third-period goal differential in the NHL, at plus-24 (Rangers: 82 GF, 58 GA; Flyers: 81 GF, 57 GA).
Philly has outscored opponents 22-10 during its five-game win streak.
The Flyers, the NHL leaders in home-ice wins (23-5-4), are 14-15-3 on the road.
Carter Hart at home: 18-2-2, 1.67 GAA, .941 save%
Carter Hart on the road: 3-10-1, 3.88 GAA, .855 save%
Flyers captain Claude Giroux has six goals and 14 points in his last 10 games.
Philadelphia's victory on Friday was the 685th of Alain Vigneault's NHL coaching career, moving him past Pat Quinn into 10th place all-time. Vigneault won 226 of those games with the Rangers.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Artemi Panarin's assist in Friday's home-and-home opener extended his point streak to 12 games, matching the career high he established between Oct. 24 and Nov. 20. It also was his 88th point of the season, a new career best before the end of February. Panarin has played 63 games as a Ranger and has points in 50 of them.
Sean Couturier's first-period goal Friday night was his 20th of the season, and his second-period assist was the 400th point of his NHL career. The Flyer center has three goals and 10 points in his last seven games against the Blueshirts.