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Preview: Rangers Conclude 2018-19 Season With Matchup Against Penguins

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS at PENGUINS, 7 p.m.
MSG, 98.7 FM

PITTSBURGH -- And then there was one.

The Rangers will play the finale of their 2018-19 season on Saturday night, finishing both the marathon of an NHL campaign and this one's sprint to the finish: Game 82 will complete the Blueshirts' 11th back-to-back set this season and will be their fifth game in seven nights.

And it will give them some say in where a rival winds up in the standings. The Penguins were able to take a breather on Thursday when their 4-1 victory over the Red Wings assured them of their 13th consecutive playoff appearance; where they'll go and who they'll play remains up in the air. Pittsburgh can finish anywhere from second in the Metropolitan Division with home-ice advantage in the first round, to the top Wild Card spot, which would send them to Washington to begin the playoffs against the defending champions.

"For us to go in and try to get two points and kind of mess them up a little bit?" Brady Skjei said, "That'd be pretty nice."

To pull it off, the Rangers will have to turn this season's fortunes against this division rival: The Blueshirts will be looking to avoid only their second season sweep ever at the hands of the Penguins, and the first since dropping all three meetings in the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95.

David Quinn still had a decision to make on which goaltender he wanted to send out for the season finale. A Henrik Lundqvist start would be his 65th career game against the Penguins, while Alexandar Georgiev would play his fifth against them. For either goaltender, it would be their most games against any NHL opponent.

Georgiev was given the nod in the home finale on Friday night and made 39 saves to take the Columbus Blue Jackets to a shootout. The rookie goaltender had a shutout streak of 147:23 halted in that game; he has stopped 106 of the last 108 shots he has seen.

"He's a good goalie. He's been coming up big for us. It's good to have him," said Mika Zibanejad. "He's still young so I'm looking forward to what he can do from here."

That last part could be said of Zibanejad, who spent the past few days stockpiling team awards. Zibanejad leads the Rangers in numerous statistical categories this season, including goals (30), assists (44, after a pair on Friday) and points (74). On Wednesday night he took home the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award; on Friday, Zibanejad was named the Rangers' 2018-19 Most Valuable Player.

He gave examples of why throughout the game against the Blue Jackets, including his somewhat unorthodox but entirely effective approach to a 2-on-1 that set up Chris Kreider in the second period. That goal opened the scoring and was No. 28 on the season for Kreider - equaling his career high from two years ago when he played his last full, healthy campaign.

Quinn acknowledged that it was nice for his team to see Kreider match a personal best with one game to go, and also that the way he and his linemates (Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich) were playing, Kreider had a shot at reaching the 30-goal mark before Friday night was out.

"Yeah he did, he had some chances tonight," Quinn said after the game. "I thought that line was really good tonight, and gave us a spark - gave us a first-line feel for sure.

"Kreids is a guy that's very explosive: He can kill you at any time. At any point on any shift he's a guy that can strike. He made a heck of a play on the goal, showed some great poise. Mika obviously made a great play and he had some really great chances, too. It's good to see him feel good and get rewarded."

The Penguins are 11-4-2 since March 2, just enough to squeeze them through the playoff door in Game 81. But perhaps the best news of all for Pittsburgh was seeing the returns of Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on the same evening on Thursday.

Malkin returned after missing 16 straight games with a rib injury; he stands fourth on the Penguins with 72 points but in only 67 games. Letang, meanwhile, was back for a second time from an upper-body injury and playing in just his fourth game since Feb. 23.

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said on Friday that both players "responded fine. They both had good games and they feel strong."

Matt Murray will take his 11th straight start for the Penguins - the longest stretch of his career - looking to build on his 6-0 regular-season record against the Rangers.

NUMBERS GAME

The 2018-19 Rangers have had:

  • 28 goal-scorers
  • 9 rookies
  • 4 NHL debuts
  • 2 goalies (one of 11 NHL teams to use no more than two)
  • 22 overtime games
  • 11 shootouts
  • 41 one-goal games (second-most in the NHL, and the fifth time in team history with that many)
  • 1 hat trick (Mika Zibanejad, Jan. 31 at New Jersey)
  • 187 man-games lost to injury
  • 25.5 years average age (youngest team in the NHL at season's end)

Mika Zibanejad is the sixth player in Rangers history to receive both the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award (first awarded in 1987-88) and the Team MVP award in the same season, joining the likes of Adam Graves (twice), Mark Messier (twice), Brian Leetch, Wayne Gretzky and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Rangers are 4-1-1 in their last six season finales.

The Penguins have 99 points. If they earn one on Saturday they would reach 100 points for the fourth straight year and the 10th time in the last 12 full (non-lockout) seasons.

Sidney Crosby has 98 points. The Pittsburgh captain has reached 100 five times in his career, most recently in 2013-14.

Phil Kessel's goal and two assists gave him his seventh game this season with three or more points. His first goal held up as the game-winner, his NHL-leading 10th this season.

Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, each of whom returned from injury on Thursday, have scored three goals apiece against the Rangers this season.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Pavel Buchnevich - who scored on Opening Night back on Oct. 4, and 20 more times in 62 games since - has nine points (5-4--9) in his last nine games, and eight goals in his last 14 games.

Jake Guentzel is one goal shy of his first 40-goal season, and becoming the 20th Penguin to reach 40.

WHADDYA SAY?

"Obviously we've been on him about shooting pucks, and obviously he's shot more and his whole overall game has improved. And that comes from maturity, too; as you get older hopefully you become wiser and more mature and make better decisions and understand the game better - I think that's what's happened to Pavel. I think he's understanding the full scope of hockey and he's becoming a more well-rounded player and he's getting rewarded statistically." - David Quinn on Pavel Buchnevich

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