KINGS at RANGERS, 7 p.m.
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The coach is starting to warm to it. When David Quinn's Blueshirts continue their five-game homestand on Monday night with a visit from the Los Angeles Kings, the home team will go back to the unconventional lineup that Quinn has in the past said "I don't love."
On Monday morning, the coach cracked a smile and said, "I'm liking it more and more."
Quinn will dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen on Monday night, and he's liking it more and more because it has gone more and more smoothly along the way. And in addition to wanting to get Tony DeAngelo back into the lineup after two games out, the coach seems to be increasingly comfortable with the option of moving Brendan Smith off the blue line and giving him some spot shifts up front.
It is the fourth time this season the Rangers will go with that alignment, and the second time in four games, the most recent coming six days ago against the Flyers.
"I just think that's our best lineup tonight," Quinn said following the Rangers' morning skate at the Garden. "I am getting more comfortable with the seven D. If we do want to have a four-line rotation we can put Smitty up front, he's comfortable doing that. Matter of fact he's played forward through his youth hockey for a period of time - not that this is youth hockey, but he's got a familiarity with playing the position, he's comfortable doing it. So if we do need a four-line rotation to give our guys a little bit of a breather, we'll do that, but it seems like our forwards are a little more effective, have been lately, when they get the ice time they've been getting."
In their lone Garden meeting with the Kings this season, the Rangers - winners of four of their last six games - will be out to avenge a 4-3 defeat in L.A. on Oct. 28 in which Alec Martinez scored the game-winning goal with less than a minute to play - which at the time was a dispiriting loss for the Rangers, but also immediately preceded a 9-1-1 run.
DeAngelo scored a goal and an assist in that Oct. 28 game. Quinn said the righty blueliner would return on Monday to the right side of Marc Staal, where he had been playing before sitting out, though with seven available "we'll do some mixing and matching."
"Tony's played well, so to me, it's dressing your best 18," the coach said. "Ideally it's 12 forwards and six D, but sometimes that's not the case."
Behind DeAngelo and Co., Henrik Lundqvist will be back in goal for his third straight start, and now in their fourth game coming out of the All-Star break, it's not as if the Rangers feel their game needs an overhaul, only the results: they are 1-2 since the break but sense the outcomes have not reflected the run of play.
"It's more frustrating when you play like this and your record is 1-2," said Kevin Shattenkirk. "I think with the Tampa game (a 3-2 loss on Saturday night), we have a lull, and we talk about correcting those … I get a good chance in the first, we have really a heck of a first period, and we come out of it without anything to show. You start to maybe go away from your game a little bit, try to change something to go get a goal."
Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes wound up with the Ranger goals in that game, giving Zuccarello points in each of his last seven games (5-8-13), with Mika Zibanejad assisting on each, making it 15 points for the Rangers' top center in his last eight games (8-7-15). Overall, the Rangers' top line of Chris Kreider, Zibanejad and Zuccarello have combined on 29 points (12-17-29) over the last five games with all three in action. As for the ice time Quinn alluded to, both Kreider and Zuccarello set career highs on Saturday night and Zibanejad was within a half-minute of doing the same.
Trailing 1-0 after a strong first period on Saturday night against the league-leading Lightning, the Rangers after the game pointed to a lull in their play that put them in a three-goal hole to open the second period - the period of the long change and a time to which Shattenkirk wants attention paid. The Rangers have allowed more goals (60) in second periods than in the others.
"I think that like the other night, a lot of that is happening to us in second periods," said Shattenkirk, whose 23:36 on Saturday was 24 seconds off his season high. "It's harder to get the changes, harder to get your D-men off, and that's definitely where we have to do more damage control. We have to make sure pucks get all the way in, maybe even sit back for a little bit and make sure we get some fresh guys on the ice, and when we can't get fresh guys on the ice we can't make bad changes and play that into their hands.
"We just have to manage second periods a little better too, because that's the period where teams can start to kind of pile on you, they can get a line change in on a full shift, and keep you out there and extend you."
The Kings are on their third head coach in 22 months, with Darryl Sutter giving way in April 2017 to John Stevens, who was replaced himself after 13 games this season by Willie Desjardins on an interim basis. Desjardins' group comes off a 4-2 loss on Long Island Saturday night, their first game in 12 days turning into their seventh loss in 11 games. L.A. has not strung together consecutive wins since Christmas.
Many familiar names remain on the Kings' roster, including Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, who will start in the visiting nets at the Garden. But the franchise has signaled a shift recently, which included trading Jake Muzzin to Toronto four games shy of his 500th in a Kings sweater.
"They're a heavy team every year," Hayes said of the Kings. "We only see them twice a year. They've got some high-end players, they've still got elite players, they've still got their core group when they won the Cup twice. It'll be a good game."
20 Kreider - 93 Zibanejad - 36 Zuccarello
89 Buchnevich - 13 Hayes - 17 Fast
72 Chytil - 16 Strome - 90 Namestnikov
26 Vesey - 24 Nieves
18 Staal - 77 DeAngelo
76 Skjei - 54 McQuaid
42 Smith - 22 Shattenkirk - 44 Pionk
Since the start of the 2015-16 season, the Rangers are 22-4-3 when a Pacific Division team visits the Garden, including a 2-0-1 record against L.A.
Anze Kopitar leads the Kings with 36 points (15-21-36). Only Arizona and Anaheim have a leading scorer with a lower point total. The Kings rank last in the league with 115 goals, 2.25 per game.
Connecticut-born Jonathan Quick's most recent victory, on Jan. 21 vs. St. Louis heading into the Kings' break, was career win No. 302, passing his childhood idol Mike Richter into fourth all-time among American goaltenders.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Kevin Hayes, in his fourth game back from a nine-game absence preceding the All-Star break, has points in back-to-back games (1-2-3) and has scored in each of his three career Garden games against L.A.
Ilya Kovalchuk has three goals in five games after going 10 straight without one. He put up three points (1-2-3) in the teams' Oct. 28 meeting to make it 45 points (22-23-45) in 49 career games against the Blueshirts.