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GAME DAY: Streaking Rangers Host Red-Hot Blue Jackets

Blueshirts Seek 6th Straight Garden Win; Shesterkin Gets Nod as Rookies Square Off in Goal

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS vs. BLUE JACKETS, 7 p.m.
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 FM

GAME DAY
There are the three games in nine days against the Islanders, and there is an eight-day midseason break on the other side of that. Situated at the center of it all is the Rangers against the Blue Jackets on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, and this is what that one means to the Blueshirts:

"In a lot of ways this is bigger than anything we've done up to this point -- this game is as big as anything we've played, if not bigger," said David Quinn. "This is a four-point game.

"There's a lot of teams in this League right now that are playing playoff hockey, based on the standings and the schedule. And we're one of them."

Against that backdrop the Blueshirts and the Blue Jackets will meet for the second time this season, and for the first time on Broadway since the Rangers' home finale last year, a game that was won by Columbus on a shootout goal by Artemi Panarin.

Panarin is set to play his second game as a Ranger against his former team -- in spite of a curtailed practice on Saturday so he could go easy on a minor upper-body ailment -- looking to build on his team-best 68 points, tied for fourth in the NHL, and to help his team build on a five-game Garden winning streak and a 4-1 record in their last five games overall.

His former team, meanwhile -- in spite of a laundry list of injuries -- is looking to build on the NHL's best record over the last six weeks, an eye-popping 14-2-4 mark since Dec. 9.

"They are a hot team, and everyone in this room knows how big this game is," said Brady Skjei. "It's a huge game here."

For that huge game, the matchup in goal could feature a pair of rookies with a combined 20 NHL starts under their belts. Igor Shesterkin will get the nod for the Rangers to take his third career start, after the 24-year-old won his first two with 75 saves on 81 shots (.926) against the powerful Avalanche and the rival Devils. He's likely to be opposed by 25-year-old Elvis Merzlikins, who has played every single minute for the Blue Jackets since replacing the injured Joonas Korpisalo in the middle of a shootout on Dec. 29 against Chicago -- 10 straight starts for Merzlikins over which he has been dazzling: 8-2 with a .955 save percentage.

The Blue Jackets have played four games in the last week; Merzlikins has posted shutouts in three of them.

He will be tasked with stopping a Ranger team that has not been held under five goals since Dec. 20, outscoring opponents 27-12 during their five-game Garden streak. Their most recent win came about 30 miles away from home and "the ending was special," Skjei said, when Chris Kreider won a taut game at Nassau Coliseum on a power-play goal 24.6 seconds from the end.

With more games like that likely on the horizon, Brendan Lemieux is closing in on a return. A fractured hand has kept Lemieux out since Dec. 27, but he skated in full for a second straight practice on Saturday and said he is ready to go when he gets the call, which appeared possible but unlikely on Sunday.

The 23-year-old Lemieux worked in during practice with the Rangers' kid line -- Fil Chytil centering Brett Howden and Kaapo Kakko -- and Quinn said that fitting Lemieux back in presents "a good dilemma."

"Those three guys are playing well together; it's a good line, there's good chemistry there," Quinn said. "It's going to be a good problem to have."

Lemieux scored the Rangers' first goal when these teams met back on Dec. 5 in Columbus; Panarin scored their last one to win it, two points that came with more than a little help from Alexandar Georgiev's season-high 45 saves.

Ten of those stops were on Oliver Bjorkstrand, who now six weeks later has a rib injury and is on injured reserve; so is Korpisalo (knee), Ryan Murray (lower body), Alexandre Texier (back), Brandon Dubinsky (wrist) … their list goes on, although Cam Atkinson (ankle) returned this week after a month out and has five points in his two games back.

The Blue Jackets' Dec. 5 loss to the Blueshirts was part of a four-game skid that had them at 11-14-4, and 11 points out of playoff position, on the morning of Dec. 8. In their 20 games since, they have gone 14-2-4 to catapult into the top Wild Card spot entering Sunday night's Garden match, Columbus' 50th of the season.

Their latest win was in a way emblematic of how they have put together this run: New Jersey controlled play for large portions of the game but never could solve Merzlikins, and the Blue Jackets had four different scorers build a five-goal lead before second intermission. The Devils finished with 41 shots on goal and 69 attempts to the Jackets' 31 and 48 -- Columbus has been outshot for eight consecutive games and has won six of them.

"That score at the end of the second period could have been lopsided the other way," Columbus Head Coach John Tortorella said afterward. "We had one guy play."


PROJECTED LINEUPS

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

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

31 Shesterkin
30 Lundqvist

BLUE JACKETS
14 Nyquist -- 18 Dubois -- 52 Bemstrom
24 Gerbe -- 10 Wennberg -- 13 Atkinson
50 Robinson -- 20 Nash -- 71 Foligno
15 Lilja -- 38 Jenner -- 11 Stenlund

8 Werenski -- 3 Jones
44 Gavrikov -- 58 Savard
4 Harrington -- 65 Nutivaara

90 Merzlikins
80 Kivlenieks


NUMBERS GAME

The Rangers are 10-1 in their last 11 games against Metropolitan Division teams, and 6-0 in the division this season at Madison Square Garden. Columbus has points in eight straight (6-0-2) vs. the Metropolitan -- their last regulation loss within the division came on Dec. 5 against the Rangers.

On Monday, Artemi Panarin became the second Ranger in franchise history to post three or more points in four consecutive home games, along with Andy Bathgate in November of 1961. Panarin has 14 points (5-9--14) in those four games.

Overall, Panarin has 13 points (4-9--13) during his five-game point streak, and 23 points in his last 10 games.

Igor Shesterkin has stopped 75 of 81 shots (.926) in the first two games of his NHL career. Shesterkin is one of only seven Rangers goaltenders ever to earn a win in each of his first two NHL appearances (Lorne Chabot, Jim Henry, Marcel Paille, John Vanbiesbrouck, Dan Cloutier, Mackenzie Skapski).

The Rangers are 16-for-17 on penalty kills during their five-game home winning streak. Since the start of 2020, the Rangers have had the League's No. 2-ranked PK, at 91.3 percent.

Elvis Merzlikins' last four games: 4-0, 0.50 GAA, .985 save percentage, three shutouts.

Merzlikins is the seventh rookie goaltender in the modern era (since 1943-44) to post three shutouts in a span of four starts. The others: Steve Mason, Tony Esposito, Roger Crozier, Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuk.

Pierre-Luc Dubois leads the Blue Jackets with 34 points, the lowest team-leading total among teams currently in playoff position, and exactly half the total -- in three more games -- of Artemi Panarin's Rangers-leading 68 points.

Columbus' 757 blocked shots are second-most in the League (Islanders, 817).

The Blue Jackets have been outshot in each of their last eight games -- 274-203 in total, while outscoring opponents 25-13.


PLAYERS TO WATCH

Chris Kreider, who scored the game-winning PPG with 24.6 seconds left on Thursday at Nassau Coliseum, is the Rangers' all-time leader in goals against the Blue Jackets, with 10. Overall, Kreider has scored eight goals in the last 12 games, and in that stretch the Rangers are 6-1 when he has scored.

After missing a month to an ankle injury, Cam Atkinson made his return on Thursday against Carolina and has three goals and two assists in his first two games back. Atkinson has three goals in his last five games against the Rangers, including the opening score in the teams' first meeting on Dec. 5.

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