RANGERS vs. MAPLE LEAFS, 7:30 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 FM
Two meetings, 18 goals, and now the rubber match between the Rangers and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
These Original Six rivals will meet for the final time this season on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden -- having split the first two with high-scoring wins in one another's rinks -- as the Blueshirts continue their four-game homestand on Broadway.
Ryan Strome, for one, will be sorry to see the season series end. The Mississauga, Ontario, product has three goals and five points in the Rangers' two games against the Leafs this year, and a three-game goal streak against Toronto stretching back to his overtime winner on March 23 back in his hometown.
"If you have success against something you just want to do it again and again, right?" Strome said with a grin. "But listen, it's the NHL: Everyone's good, everyone's trying to win, there's no easy games and there's no easy nights. But it is always fun to score against Toronto, that's for sure."
Strome had been doing all of his scoring those last three games against Frederik Andersen, but the Blueshirts will see a new man, Michael Hutchinson, in Toronto's nets after Andersen was forced out of Monday's blown-lead loss to the Panthers with a neck injury that leaves him day-to-day.
In fact, Wednesday night's Rangers-Leafs rubber match will feature an all-new matchup in goal: David Quinn will send out Igor Shesterkin to take his fifth start for the Rangers, after the Leafs saw Alexandar Georgiev stop 177 of their shots the last four times the teams have played. Shesterkin, though, has begun his NHL career with three wins in his first four starts in the League, most recently last Friday's 23-save post-bye-week victory over the Red Wings, a win the 24-year-old rookie tried to put to bed by himself with a couple of cracks at Detroit's empty net.
The changes, though, may not be limited to the goal crease. Strome and Artemi Panarin found themselves skating in Tuesday's practice in Westchester on separate lines, likely to carry into Wednesday night's match, with Panarin and Jesper Fast centered by Filip Chytil.
And while Mika Zibanejad is expected to play despite fighting off flu symptoms that kept him out of Tuesday's practice, he may or may not have Chris Kreider on his left wing in this game. Kreider was a full go on Tuesday in Westchester but remains day-to-day for game action after the upper-body injury he suffered during Saturday's win in Detroit.
"He's definitely getting better and better," Quinn said. "We'll see how it feels."
The injury has cost Kreider one game already, Monday's against Dallas to open this Garden homestand, when into his place stepped Phillip Di Giuseppe, up from Hartford to make his Rangers debut. It was something of a surprising one-for-one swap in the lineup, in that Quinn did have left-wing options to fill Kreider's spot, but elected to keep together his other lines while also giving Di Giuseppe, who has 14 goals and 26 points for Hartford this season, some minutes with Zibanejad.
"I saw a lot of energy. I thought he did a good job, I thought he played well," Quinn said of Di Giuseppe. "A lot of times you bring a guy up from the American League and they're in an offensive role and they play key minutes with the top players, and then they get to the National Hockey League and we all have a tendency to put them on the fourth line. So you want to let a guy play a little bit to his strengths."
Given how Di Giuseppe handled it, the Head Coach said, "I would consider doing it again, yes."
Di Giuseppe entered Monday's match with 150 NHL games under his belt, for Carolina and Nashville, so it wasn't first-game butterflies he was feeling, but something else.
"The biggest thing was just putting on the Rangers jersey and playing at MSG -- that was the biggest excitement for me," the 26-year-old Toronto native said, adding about linemates: "I don't try to worry too much about who I'm playing with or where I'm slotted; I know what I have to do, and what I have to bring every night. And if I get to play more minutes, that's great -- I'm up for the challenge."
The Rangers' challenge on Wednesday night is to slow a Toronto team that, since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench back on Nov. 20, has been the NHL's highest-scoring team by a significant margin, averaging 3.93 goals per game under the new Coach.
The Leafs, 9-10-4 when the coaching change occurred, are 19-8-3 since.
"We just have to be smart, because they can turn it up so quickly," said Strome. "We've seen some of their goals this year where it looks like nothing's happening and all of a sudden there's a turnover, then Boom."
But aiming to stretch their winning stretch to four games on Monday night at home to the Panthers, the Leafs built up a 3-1 third-period advantage, then lost Andersen, then lost the lead. Hutchinson came off the bench cold to allow three goals on 13 shots in a 5-3 loss -- losing hold of what Keefe called, perhaps curiously, "the best defensive game we've played the entire season."
The usual suspects dominated the scoresheet that night for Toronto: goals from Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares, with two assists from Mitch Marner. Matthews' goal, which made the score 3-1 before the tide turned in the third, was his 37th of the season, third in the League behind Alex Ovechkin's 40 and David Pastrnak's 38.
Andersen, second in the NHL in starts (42) and wins (24), did not travel with the Leafs to New York, nor did defenseman Morgan Rielly, out since Jan. 12 with a fractured foot.
20 Kreider* -- 93 Zibanejad -- 89 Buchnevich
10 Panarin -- 72 Chytil -- 17 Fast
33 Di Giuseppe -- 16 Strome -- 24 Kakko
21 Howden -- 14 McKegg -- 48 Lemieux
55 Lindgren -- 8 Trouba
76 Skjei -- 23 Fox
18 Staal -- 77 DeAngelo
11 Hyman -- 34 Matthews -- 16 Marner
15 Kerfoot -- 91 Tavares -- 88 Nylander
18 Johnsson -- 47 Engvall -- 24 Kapanen
42 Moore -- 19 Spezza -- 41 Timashov
8 Muzzin -- 3 Holl
23 Dermott -- 94 Barrie
38 Sandin -- 83 Ceci
The Rangers have scored seven times on their last 13 power plays, and are 17-for-42 (40.5 percent) since Dec. 27, tops in the NHL.
The Rangers are 15-6 in their last 21 games following a loss.
The Blueshirts are the only team with a player in the top five in NHL scoring (Artemi Panarin, 71 points) and the top five in scoring among NHL defensemen (Tony DeAngelo, 40 points).
The Rangers are 6-3 in their last nine games at Madison Square Garden. Over their last three home games, the Rangers have outshot opponents 117-64.
Adam Fox has 12 points in his last 13 games, and his 28 points are the most for a Rangers rookie defenseman through 51 games since Brian Leetch in 1988-89.
The Maple Leafs changed coaches 23 games into the season:
First 23 games under Mike Babcock: 3.13 goals per game (13th in NHL), 9-10-4 record
Last 30 games under Sheldon Keefe: 3.93 goals per game (1st in NHL), 19-8-3 record
Toronto's 15 road wins this season trail only Washington's 20 and Tampa Bay's 17.
The Leafs are 4-4-2 and have allowed 40 goals in their last 10 games.
John Tavares has 14-28--42 in 48 career games against the Rangers, but no goals and five assists in his last 10 games vs. the Blueshirts.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ryan Strome, against the Maple Leafs, has goals in three straight games and points in four straight. In the two games against Toronto this season, he has 3-2--5, a plus-3, and 11 shots on goal. Strome is fourth among NHL centers with 23 primary assists this season.
Auston Matthews is third in the NHL with 37 goals; he has scored 21 of them over his last 23 games, including a pair against the Rangers on Dec. 28 after scoring just once in his first 10 games against the Blueshirts.