RANGERS vs. MAPLE LEAFS, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG 2, 1050 AM
Finally, there was a little rest when the Rangers could use it.
After a stretch of 27 days in which the Rangers played 15 hockey games with one weeklong trip out West, the Blueshirts this week were able to enjoy a three-day breather at home, and are set to do it again next week when the Christmas break arrives. In between, though, is three games in four days that gets underway with an Original Six Friday night match at Madison Square Garden, and their first meeting in 2019-20 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
David Quinn's Rangers - a team that racked up the off-days when they were unwelcome back in October - took Tuesday to rest, held a lighter practice in Westchester Wednesday, then ramped it up on the Training Center ice on Thursday. How productive was all of that?
"I'll let you know (Friday) night after the game," the Head Coach said. "But standing here right now, I think it really was, especially with some of the things we've got going on health-wise."
"I think a couple days did us well," said Jacob Trouba. "We played a lot of games there in a short amount of time, especially with the first couple weeks where we were not playing at all really. So I think to recharge, rest and get away from it for a second is good for us, and we're ready to get back to it."
If there were any decision to be made in goal for the opener of this three-game set, Alexandar Georgiev made Quinn's mind up for him 10 months ago. That was the last time the Maple Leafs came to Broadway, back on Feb. 10, when Georgiev set a Madison Square Garden record for saves by a Ranger goaltender, stopping a career-high 55 of 56 shots and backstopping the Blueshirts to a 4-1 win - on the goaltender's 23rd birthday. For good measure, Georgiev followed that up six weeks later in Toronto with 44 saves on 45 shots, in a game the Rangers took 2-1 on Ryan Strome's first career overtime winner.
This year's Rangers have points in two of their last three games and nine of their last 13 (7-4-2). They played well in a loss on Monday night against the Nashville Predators, a game in which Artemi Panarin scored for the fifth straight game - the League's longest active goal streak - and the Rangers finished with a 41-24 edge in shots on goal, and 70-48 in shot attempts. In three of their last four games, the Rangers have allowed 26, 18 and 24 shots, all lower than the totals from any prior game this season - and that's a building trend that Quinn sees as having at least as much to do with how his team has managed the puck in all three zones as with anything it has been doing in the defensive end.
"I think we're defending better, I really do," Quinn said. "Structurally I think our D-zone coverage has been good and I think we're managing the puck a little bit better. And I think we continue to grow as a team. We've got the puck more, we've forechecked a little bit better; incrementally we've done things a little bit better in a lot of different areas. When you do that, it adds up."
"I'm not huge on looking at the shots," said Trouba, "it's more the quality of scoring chances is what you need to key in on, and when those are down, that's usually a good thing."
When it was mentioned that those, too, are down, Trouba said, "That's a good thing."
Friday's game will be No. 34 of the season for the Rangers, who have faced every Eastern Conference team except for three; one is these Leafs, and another is the Philadelphia Flyers, whom the Blueshirts visit on Monday night before the Christmas break begins. (The Rangers don't see the Islanders until Jan. 13.)
In the meantime comes the first of two meetings in nine days between the Rangers and a Leafs team that appears to have found some footing since a Nov. 20 coaching change. Toronto comes to Broadway 4-1 in its last five games, and 8-4 overall under Sheldon Keefe, who took over from Mike Babcock when the Leafs' record sat at 9-10-4. Toronto's goal differential has swung by better than a goal per game on average since the switch.
Frederik Andersen, the NHL leader in wins, will take the nets for the Leafs in the opener of their own back-to-back set. The Leafs are 17-14-4 this season and Andersen has all 17 of their wins; Michael Hutchinson is 0-6-1 and Kasimir Kaskisuo, in his NHL debut on Nov. 16 in Pittsburgh, was on the wrong end of a 6-1 loss that was Babcock's second-to-last game.
The Leafs have had two days off following their 5-3 victory over Buffalo behind a pair of goals from Auston Matthews, who has scored five times in the last five games. Matthews leads the Leafs in goals (21) and points (36); John Tavares, who led Toronto last season with 47 goals - third in the NHL - has just 13 this year in his first season as captain of the Maple Leafs, though six of them have come since Keefe took over.
"This is a team that certainly plays at a very high pace, and we have been stressing that," Quinn said. "We have been managing the puck better lately … but if there's a team in the league that thrives off turnovers and soft play, it's Toronto. So it's been a teaching point, a point of emphasis for us."
10 Panarin - 16 Strome - 89 Buchnevich
20 Kreider - 93 Zibanejad - 17 Fast
48 Lemieux - 72 Chytil - 24 Kakko
14 McKegg - 21 Howden - 42 Smith
76 Skjei - 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren - 23 Fox
18 Staal - 77 DeAngelo
11 Hyman - 91 Tavares - 16 Marner
88 Nylander - 34 Matthews - 24 Kapanen
47 Engvall - 15 Kerfoot - 65 Mikheyev
41 Timashov - 33 Gauthier - 19 Spezza
44 Rielly - 94 Barrie
8 Muzzin - 3 Holl
23 Dermott - 83 Ceci
Alexandar Georgiev stopped 99 of 101 shots (.980) in his last two games against the Maple Leafs. He made 55 of those last Feb. 10 at the Garden - an MSG record for a Rangers goaltender - which included saves on all 23 shots during four Toronto power plays.
Artemi Panarin's five-game goal streak, the longest active streak in the NHL, is tied for Panarin's career high. He has six goals in that span, and has points in 22 of the Rangers' last 26 games.
Mika Zibanejad has four goals and two assists during a three-game point streak. Zibanejad's next assist will be his 100th as a Ranger.
The Rangers' penalty kill has been perfect in six of the last seven games.
Brett Howden will play in his 100th NHL game, all as a Ranger.
Auston Matthews scored twice against the Sabres on Tuesday night and has 21 goals this season, making him the second Maple Leaf ever to score at least 20 goals in each of his first four seasons. Hall of Famer Dave Keon began with six straight 20-goal seasons, from 1960-61 through 1965-66.
In 23 games under Mike Babcock the Leafs scored 3.13 goals per game and allowed 3.43; in Sheldon Keefe's 12 games, the Leafs have scored 3.5 goals per game (tops in the East) while allowing 2.58.
The Leafs' power play has clicked at 31.5 percent since Keefe took over on Nov. 20, highest in the League in that time.
The Leafs are 9-10 on the road this season, but 6-3 under Keefe.
Frederik Andersen has four wins and a .930 save percentage in the Leafs' last five games.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Pavel Buchnevich has 10 shots in the last two games, including a career-high six against the Predators on Monday. Buchnevich scored the opening goal of the Rangers' 2-1 win in their final meeting with the Leafs last season, before Ryan Strome won it in overtime. He'll begin play on a line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome.
Mitch Marner has 2-4--6 during a five-game point streak, and 2-7--9 in eight career games against the Rangers. Marner and Morgan Rielly lead the Leafs with 20 assists apiece.