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GAME DAY: Shesterkin Leads Blueshirts Into Second Half

Faces High-Powered Avs in NHL Debut as Rangers Start Huge Stretch on Home Ice

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS vs. AVALANCHE, 7:30 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
NBCSN, 1050 AM

GAME DAY
The season's second half begins on Tuesday night, and the Rangers are coming home to Broadway to get it started: 10 of their next 13 games will come at Madison Square Garden. There are seven of those games remaining before the All-Star break, and while Mika Zibanejad doesn't yet know where he'll be spending that midseason breather -- the NHL's Last Men In voting continues through Jan. 10, with the Blueshirts' star center on the Metropolitan Division ballot -- he knows very well what his Rangers need to do leading up to it.

"We really have got to take advantage of it," Zibanejad said. "We don't have to worry about the travel, we don't have to worry about anything in between games. Just dial in."

That begins on Tuesday night, with the Rangers finally back on Garden ice for their first home game of 2020, which will be the first NHL game for Igor Shesterkin when he starts in goal against the Colorado Avalanche and the League's No. 1-ranked attack -- a team that brings in the bitter taste of being shut out by a former teammate just 24 hours before on Long Island.

Shesterkin -- the Rangers' fourth-round Draft pick in 2014 and an AHL All-Star this season with a GAA under 2 and a save percentage over .930 -- will become the first Russian-born goaltender ever to play for the Blueshirts. The 24-year-old rookie "has played his way into this opportunity," David Quinn said on Monday, and he will try to backstop the Rangers to their third straight win at home. They last played on Garden ice on Dec. 27, when Henrik Lundqvist made 39 saves to beat the Hurricanes.

The more fresh memory for the Rangers is the finale of their Western Canada trip and a late loss to the Vancouver Canucks at the end of a third period that the Rangers had dominated. Quinn called Saturday's performance, in spite of the result, "a huge step in the right direction.

"Now the challenge is," the Head Coach said, "is that who we are going to be moving forward?"

"Ultimately, if we keep going like that I think we have a good chance of winning a lot of games," Zibanejad said on Monday. "That's by playing to your strengths, and playing within the structure -- but also, you know, we have a lot of creative guys. We can score goals; we know that too."

They had scored 18 of them in the four games leading up to Saturday's 2-1 loss to Jacob Markstrom and the Canucks, four of those 18 goals coming from Zibanejad. In a game on Saturday in which the Rangers had four lines playing well, his line still stood out, and combined on the Rangers' goal when Chris Kreider stole a puck in a dangerous area and deftly fed Pavel Buchnevich.

"I think we worked really hard keeping the puck, but also in the moments of actually getting the puck back -- on the forecheck, and coming back to our own zone, I thought we did a good job," Zibanejad said. "How badly do you want the puck back? We wanted it back, and we did a good job not being one-and-done."

Kreider's assist to Buchnevich was his 13th point in the last 13 games. Zibanejad, meanwhile, remains on better than a point-per-game pace, 31 points in 28 games (1.11 per, 17th in the NHL).

Near the top of that scoring list is Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, who came into Nassau Coliseum on Monday with eight points in the previous three games, and skated off at the end with his head in his hands. Ex-Av Semyon Varlamov made seven of his 32 saves on MacKinnon, was held scoreless for just the eighth time this season, and who fired wide on a clean look from the left circle in the final second of a 1-0 game.

But the Avalanche, who went all of November with both Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog injured, get scoring from elsewhere in the lineup, too, and had scored 29 goals in a six-game stretch before being shut out Monday; they had a 5-2 win in Newark behind a Rantanen hat trick to kick off their three-game NYC-area trip that concludes at the Garden on Tuesday. After Tuesday, the Avs don't play another road game until February.

MacKinnon, who will play his 500th NHL game on Tuesday, is third in the League in scoring, with 64 points (25 goals) and easily on pace to surpass 100 points for the first time in his career, after 99 last season and 97 the year before, when he finished a narrow second to Taylor Hall in the Hart Trophy voting. He began Monday's game with Joonas Donskoi on his right wing but played the second half of it with Rantanen in that spot.

After Pavel Francouz started Monday on Long Island, the Avs will turn back to their No. 1 netminder, Philipp Grubauer, to oppose Shesterkin on Tuesday. Grubauer is 4-2-1 with a 1.64 GAA and .948 save percentage in his career against the Blueshirts.


PROJECTED LINEUPS

RANGERS
10 Panarin -- 16 Strome -- 17 Fast
20 Kreider -- 93 Zibanejad -- 89 Buchnevich
21 Howden -- 72 Chytil -- 24 Kakko
42 Smith -- 14 McKegg -- 29 Fogarty

76 Skjei -- 8 Trouba
55 Lindgren -- 23 Fox
18 Staal -- 77 DeAngelo

31 Shesterkin
30 Lundqvist

AVALANCHE
92 Landeskog -- 29 MacKinnon -- 72 Donskoi
95 Burakovsky -- 37 Compher -- 96 Rantanen
11 Calvert -- 91 Kadri -- 13 Nichushkin
17 Jost -- 41 Bellemare -- 83 Nieto

27 Graves -- 8 Makar
49 Girard -- 6 Johnson
28 Cole -- 16 Zadorov

31 Grubauer
39 Francouz


NUMBERS GAME

Igor Shesterkin's AHL numbers and ranks this season: 1.93 GAA (1st); .932 save percentage (2nd); 15 wins (2nd); three shutouts (T-3rd); 1,334 minutes (T-5th).

Shesterkin will become the 15th player to make his NHL debut for the Rangers over the last three seasons.

Eight Rangers have played in all 41 games through the first half of 2019-20: Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, Chris Kreider, Tony DeAngelo, Pavel Buchnevich, Jacob Trouba, Brett Howden, and rookie Adam Fox.

Colorado has seven players with at least 10 goals, and 10 players with at least 20 points, both tied for the League lead.

Nathan MacKinnon has gone back-to-back games without a point just once this season, and not since Nov. 2 and 5.

Colorado has drawn 190 penalties this season, most in the NHL; the Rangers have drawn 173, tied for fifth.

The Avs have scored 49 goals in first periods (1st in NHL), 60 goals in second periods (1st), and 44 goals in third periods (T-17th).

Ryan Graves, a 2013 Rangers draft pick, is the NHL leader at plus-30.

MacKinnon leads the NHL in shots on goal with 201, just ahead of Alex Ovechkin's 200. Since 2005-06, only four different players have led the League in shots: MacKinnon (last season), Brent Burns (2016-17), Evgeni Malkin (2011-12) and Ovechkin (11 times).


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jacob Trouba has put 12 shots on goal on 21 attempts over the last two games. The Rangers' ice-time leader has topped 24 minutes in each of the last three games. He has faced the Avalanche more than any other NHL opponent, 25 times, with 13 points in those games.

Three days after the Rangers faced Vancouver's Quinn Hughes, who is second in scoring among rookie defensemen, they get their first look at Colorado's Cale Makar, the leader, with 32 points in 35 games. Those are the only rookie blueliners with more than Adam Fox's 22 points this season.

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