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GAME DAY: Rangers Go For Road Sweep in Columbus

Close Back-to-Back Aiming for Fourth Straight Win; Keane Summoned From Hartford

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS at BLUE JACKETS, 7 p.m.
Nationwide Arena
MSG Network, 98.7 FM

GAME DAY

COLUMBUS -- The Rangers had just completed their come-from-behind victory in St. Paul on Thursday night, and David Quinn was asked about the calm demeanor his team had kept on the bench, down two goals late in a game.

"There's a belief in each other and a belief in our team," Quinn was explaining after the 4-3 shootout win over the Wild. "These guys enjoy playing with each other and they enjoy playing for each other, and I don't think there's ever a doubt in their mind that we have the ability to come back.

"I always point to that Montreal game when we came back from 4-love. We can reflect on that when we're in situations like this -- but I also think that that game brought us a little bit closer together, and created the feeling that we have right now."

The Rangers, winners of three straight and four in a row on the road, 6-2 in their last eight games, take that feeling into Columbus and put those numbers on the line Friday night when they face the Blue Jackets with a chance to complete a sweep of a three-game road trip.

Columbus has lost three straight for the first time since the Rangers won here back in early December. But their current 0-1-2 stretch includes their only regulation loss of the past month, a 9-1-3 run that has them holding onto one of the East's Wild Card spots, on 71 points. The Rangers, at 62 points and with a pair of games in hand, also have two games remaining this season against the Blue Jackets but no time to waste in making up ground.

"We obviously understand the situation we're in and we're just going to take it game-by-game," Quinn said on Thursday night. "We're going to enjoy this until we get on the plane, because we have a huge game (Friday) night."

On Thursday in Minnesota, in a snarly affair that Ryan Strome called "a big-boy game," they got a huge performance from their biggest players: Artemi Panarin scored the Rangers' first goal in regulation and then set up the last, Mika Zibanejad's game-tying strike with 1:06 to play after the Rangers had trailed by a pair with eight minutes left.

On the blue line, they got a full game from Brendan Smith as a defenseman for the first time this season, once Marc Staal was ruled out because of a flu. Then on Friday morning the Rangers announced that Joey Keane had been called up from Hartford; the 20-year-old could make his NHL debut on Friday night, depending on the status of Staal and Tony DeAngelo, who took only one brief shift in overtime on Thursday.

Panarin emerged from the game with 76 points this season, fifth in the NHL. Zibanejad's goal, meanwhile, was his sixth in eight games, and his 50th point in 43 games this season.

Zibanejad had to sit out most of November with an upper-body injury, and so he didn't get to play in the game in Montreal that Quinn was referring to, back on Nov. 23 when the Blueshirts climbed back from 4-0 and 5-3 deficits to win an epic game, 6-5. But Zibanejad understands its importance all the same.

"I didn't play in the Montreal one that we keep going back to," he said after Thursday's game. "I didn't play that one, but just watching that, it was the same feeling like today -- we were not out of it. I didn't think it was that big of a gap between us, even though the 3-1 lead for them -- but we believe in here, and we know when we do things right, good things can happen, and they did today."

What allowed those good things to happen were some of the saves that Alexandar Georgiev made in the third period and overtime, including two plays to stop breakaways with the game still 3-1 early in the third. Georgiev was the reason, too, why the Rangers left Columbus with two points in their first visit here this season.

In fact, these two teams have begun their four-game season series by trading thefts in one another's rinks, with Georgiev stealing the points with 45 saves at Nationwide Arena on Dec. 5, and Oliver Bjorkstrand swiping the points with two third-period goals, the last with 27 seconds left, on Jan. 19 at Madison Square Garden -- breaking up Igor Shesterkin's shutout and handing the rookie his only NHL loss in seven games so far.

Panarin received a standing ovation in that Dec. 5 game, then proceeded to score the game-winning goal in his first trip to Columbus as a former Blue Jacket.

After that game, the Jackets left for a four-game road trip on which they won just once, dropping them to 12-14-6 through 32 games. In the 26 games since then, they are an astonishing 18-3-5.

Much of their success has to do with goaltending, despite losing their No. 1 to meniscus surgery around the New Year. As Joonas Korpisalo went down, Elvis Merzlikins' play for the Blue Jackets has been almost hard to believe -- 12-3-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in 16 starts since Korpisalo's injury. Half of Merzlikins last 10 starts have been shutouts, which makes him the League leader.

What's more, fellow rookie Matiss Kivlenieks turned in a sparkling NHL debut at the Garden on Jan. 19, stopping 31 of 32 Ranger shots in the Jackets' 2-1 win. Kivlenieks was in goal for his third career start on Thursday night as the Blue Jackets let a two-goal lead get away in Buffalo, then needed a goal from Markus Nutivaara with 1:13 left to salvage a point out of a 4-3 OT loss. 

Columbus already had a host of injuries that last time these teams met, but suffered their most devastating this past Saturday, when Seth Jones went down with an ankle injury that will need surgery and cost him at least the remainder of the regular season. Cam Atkinson also suffered an ankle injury in that same game, with his return not expected for two to three weeks.

 
PROJECTED LINEUP

RANGERS
20 Kreider -- 93 Zibanejad -- 89 Buchnevich
10 Panarin -- 16 Strome -- 17 Fast
33 Di Giuseppe -- 72 Chytil -- 24 Kakko
48 Lemieux -- 14 McKegg -- 21 Howden

76 Skjei -- 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren -- 23 Fox
42 Smith - 44 Keane

40 Georgiev
30 Lundqvist

BLUE JACKETS
71 Foligno -- 18 Dubois -- 28 Bjorkstrand
14 Nyquist -- 38 Jenner -- 52 Bemstrom
22 Milano -- 11 Stenlund -- 50 Robinson
24 Gerbe -- 20 Nash -- 15 Lilja

8 Werenski -- 65 Nutivaara
44 Gavrikov -- 58 Savard
4 Harrington -- 2 Peeke

90 Merzlikins
80 Kivlenieks


NUMBERS GAME

In 48 games for the Wolf Pack, Joey Keane is sixth among AHL defensemen in goals (eight), and 13th in points (28), and was selected as an AHL All-Star in his first season in Hartford.

Artemi Panarin is fifth in the NHL with 76 points. The only other Ranger over the past 13 years with that many points in a season was Marian Gaborik, who had 76 in 2011-12, and 86 in 2009-10.

Panarin was plus-3 on Thursday night. His plus-28 for the season leads all NHL forwards.

Chris Kreider has 27 points (16 goals) in his last 27 games.

The trio of Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich has 17 goals and 31 points in the last nine games.

Among rookie goaltenders, Igor Shesterkin leads the League in GAA (2.18) and save percentage (.941). Columbus' Elvis Merzlikins is second (2.19) and third (.930), respectively.

In 16 starts since Joonas Korpisalo's knee injury, Merzlikins is 12-3-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average and .950 save percentage

Merzlikins before Joonas Korpisalo's knee injury: 0-4-4, 3.41 GAA, .889 save%
Merzlikins since Korpisalo injury: 12-3-1, 1.57 GAA, .950 save%

Merzlikins leads the NHL with five shutouts, all in the last 10 games.

Seven of the Rangers' next 12 games are against Metropolitan Division teams. The Blueshirts are 10-5-0 within their division this season; Columbus is 10-5-3.

The Rangers picked up their first shootout win in game No. 56 of the season. Previously, since the shootout was implemented in 2005-06, their latest first SO win was 34 games into 2013-14. The Blue Jackets (0-2) are one of five teams still without a SO win, along with Boston (0-7), Ottawa (0-5), Los Angeles (0-2) and Colorado (0-1).


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Artemi Panarin will play his second game in Columbus as a former Blue Jacket, looking to extend his point streak to five games and close in on 400 for his career (he's at 396 in 377 games).

Oliver Bjorkstrand has 11 goals in his last 13 games, including his pair in his return from a monthlong absence on Jan. 19 at the Garden. In the first Rangers-Blue Jackets meeting, on Dec. 5 in Columbus, Bjorkstrand went without a point despite a franchise-record-tying 10 shots on goal.

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