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GAME DAY: Return of the Rangers

After week-long layoff, NYR face the Oilers at MSG

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS vs. OILERS, 1 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 FM

GAME DAY

One layoff is behind them. Another looms close on the horizon. But in this moment, the Rangers don't care about any of that. It is enough that they get to play a hockey game again.

On Saturday afternoon the Rangers will swim ashore on the desert island in their October calendar, one game in a sea of off-days - the Rangers' first game in a full week, and their only one in a span of 11 strange days. But the game in the middle of all that turns out to be a matchup of two of the NHL's five remaining unbeaten teams, the 2-0-0 Rangers against the 4-0-0 Edmonton Oilers at Madison Square Garden.

The Oilers happen to have been in town all week, having routed the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday and taken a shootout from the Devils on Thursday in Newark. The Rangers have been in town all week too, practicing in Westchester.

The Oilers are looking to go 5-0 for the first time in 34 years.

"Yeah, they're coming in hot," Henrik Lundqvist said as the Rangers' wrapped up their preparation on Friday. "Their top guys are playing really well. We're going to focus on the things we've been talking about all week now. It's going to be a good test for us to play a team like that."

The Rangers are coming in as hot as any team could be with no game action for a week, since their victory last Saturday in Ottawa. This Saturday's game against the Oilers will be followed by four off-days until they play a back-to-back in New Jersey on Thursday and Washington Friday.

The Rangers fielded questions about the layoff every day this week; none complained about it, only admitting that no one was particularly thrilled but that their focus was on making the most of the abundant time for X's and O's. Lundqvist declared it a productive week, although he and David Quinn were careful to withhold final judgement.

"I'm interested to see how tomorrow unfolds, to be honest with you," the Head Coach said after stepping off the ice on Friday, though he pointedly added: "I feel really good about what I felt today out there. Guys are eager, obviously, as you can imagine. So it's going to be interesting."

"In the end, (Saturday) is what matters, but I think long-term it's been a good week because the coaches had an opportunity to go through a lot of different things with a lot of new guys here," said Lundqvist, who will have had even more time off than his teammates - eight idle days - since he took the Opening Night start on Oct. 4. "We can work a little extra on so many different things, and that's hard sometimes when you play every second day."

The scheduling, though, presents the awkward scenario in which the NHL's First Star of the season's opening week has been put in park for most of Week No. 2. When last we left Mika Zibanejad, he was steamrolling his way back-to-back four-point games to start 2019-20, including his third career hat trick last Saturday in Ottawa. Zibanejad and his linemates, Artemi Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich, have combined for 14 points through the two games this season.

That's one of many reasons the Rangers will do no tinkering at the top of their lineup; a little further down, Greg McKegg will make his Rangers debut playing on the fourth line, while Brendan Lemieux will step into an increased left-wing role - the lineup domino effect after Vlad Namestnikov was dealt to Ottawa on Monday. Lemieux played just 9½ minutes in the season opener but went up to 13 minutes in Ottawa as Quinn went searching for spots to find him some more ice.

"He's got an opportunity here to assume a little bit more of a role," Quinn said. "I thought he earned it during the Ottawa game, and he did so at times last year too. So it is a great opportunity for him to make a statement, not only for himself but to us, and grab this opportunity and run with it."

Lemieux will skate on the left side of Brett Howden and Jesper Fast on Saturday. Quinn put that trio out for an offensive-zone faceoff in the third period of a tie game on Opening Night, and it resulted in the winning play: Howden winning the draw, Fast taking the shot, Lemieux net-crashing, Howden cleaning up a rebound.

"That's how you score goals in this League if you don't play power play or top line or just beat your guy 1-on-1," Fast said. "We're three hard-working guys and we've got to score goals by working hard to get pucks to the net, and be in front of the net. A lot of goals are scored in that area and for us playing as a line now, we've got to get there."

Even with Zibanejad's weeklong layoff, only two players have passed him atop the League's scoring list; one is McDavid, who enters with 10 points (3-7--10) in his team's first four games. But while McDavid and, nowadays, Draisaitl (8 points) always command the attention when the Oilers come to town, the biggest eye-opener in the early part of Edmonton's season has been James Neal, the offseason acquisition from Calgary who has scored seven times in the first four games - already equaling his season 2018-19 total in 63 games as a Flame.

"I know he's a good player, I know he has a great shot," Lundqvist said. "He will definitely be one of the players we have to pay attention to on their power play" - on which Neal has scored five of his seven goals.

"We've been working hard; physically and technically I think we've been doing everything we can to stay sharp," Lundqvist said. "Now it's just preparation for (Saturday).

"But we look forward to it. Enough practice, now we just want to play."


PROJECTED LINEUP

10 Panarin - 93 Zibanejad - 89 Buchnevich
20 Kreider - 16 Strome - 24 Kakko
48 Lemieux - 21 Howden - 17 Fast
14 McKegg - 28 Andersson - 42 Smith

18 Staal - 77 DeAngelo
25 Hajek - 8 Trouba
76 Skjei - 23 Fox

30 Lundqvist
40 Georgiev


NUMBERS GAME

The sample size is tiny, but both sides' special teams are off to promising starts this season:
RANGERS
Power Play: 3-for-5 (60%, 1st)
Penalty Kill: 9-for-10 (90%, T-6th … two SHG)
OILERS
Power Play: 6-for-15 (40%, 4th)
Penalty Kill: 12-for-13 (92.3%, T-4th)

The Rangers are 5-1-1 in their last seven games against the Oilers.

Only the Blueshirts (two) and the Golden Knights (three in four games) have multiple shorthanded goals so far this season. It has been 36 years since the Rangers had multiple shorthanded goals two games into a season; in the 1983-84 season opener at the Garden, Don Maloney scored twice shorthanded and Mike Rogers once in a 6-2 victory over the Devils.

The Rangers are seeking their first 3-0 start in four years, while Edmonton is 4-0 for the first time since 2008-09. The Oilers' last 5-0 start came when they were two-time defending Stanley Cup champs in 1985-86.

This is just the third time in the Rangers' 93 seasons that they have opened with three games against Canadian teams (at Edmonton, at Vancouver, vs. Ottawa in 1999-2000; at Montreal Maroons, at Toronto, vs. Toronto in 1932-33).

James Neal has seven goals on 15 shots this season, a shooting percentage of 46.7. Last season he had seven goals on 141 shots (5.0%)


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Brendan Lemieux played four games against the Oilers last season - three for the Jets, one as a Ranger - and had four points (3-1--4), including a goal and an assist in the Blueshirts' comeback from two goals down to force overtime on March 11 in Edmonton. Lemieux's second-period tussle with Jujhar Khaira that night rounded out his Gordie Howe hat trick. 

Last season Leon Draisaitl doubled his goal output from the year before, from 25 to 50, making him the first Oiler to reach 50 goals since Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri both did so in 1986-87. Draisaitl's overtime winner against the Rangers on March 11 was his first goal against the Blueshirts in 10 career games.

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