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Preview: Rangers Go Back on the Road to Face Sabres

by Michael Obernauer / NYRangers.com

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

Mika Zibanejad said that lately, if he sees a lane to shoot the puck, he is going to shoot the puck. When it's going like it's going for the Rangers' top center, why shouldn't he?

Zibanejad has been the NHL's hottest goal-scorer for a full month now, a torrid streak he continued with a pair of goals on Tuesday night in Winnipeg and one he believes is unlike anything he has experienced as an NHL player.

"Probably - I can't remember anything like this before in my career," Zibanejad said on Thursday. "Nice to see them go in but I'd rather them going in for a win."

Zibanejad will take it back to the road on Friday night in Buffalo as the Rangers restart their road trip following a brief return for a special event - the Blueshirts dusted off their tuxes on Wednesday for the annual Casino Night back home in Manhattan, benefitting the Garden of Dreams Foundation.

Looking back, though, David Quinn thought his team was looking pretty sharp for much of Tuesday night, too. That was when they spotted the Central Division-leading Jets a 2-0 lead in a lackluster first period, but then pushed back and took a third-period lead before falling.

Video: Quinn speaks before Rangers head to Buffalo

"I told our guys, I was really proud with the way we pushed past the first period and played the way we did in the second and third," Quinn said following what he called "as energetic a practice as we've had in a long time." "And if we can take those characteristics which I thought we displayed and apply them to the last 26 games we have left, we'll be in a good position. In order to have success at any level you need more than talent, you need a bunch of other characteristics to have success, and I think we've shown them throughout the last month and a half."

"I think we've shown during the year that we can compete against those guys," Zibanejad said. "I think this year has been I think very different from last year - I feel like we're in every game. We might not play our best, but we're trusting our system, we're trusting each other. And we show that we can compete against any team in the league."

Video: Zibanejad talks about his scoring streak

Zibanejad's keenness to shoot from anywhere admittedly made him the beneficiary of some friendly bounces off of Jets on Tuesday when he scored in the opening minute of each period, leaving him with 25 goals on the season. Since the All-Star break, Zibanejad has put in eight goals in the Rangers' eight games, and has scored 13 times in his last 11 games overall, dating to Jan. 15. He is the league's leading goal-scorer over that month's span, over which he has 19 points - entering Thursday night's games, only Boston's Brad Marchand had more (5-15-20). Zibanejad's linemate, Mats Zuccarello, was tied for fourth in that category with 16 points (2-14-16).

Zibanejad is one of only three Rangers in the last 30 seasons to rack up 13 goals over an 11-game stretch: Adam Graves did it when he scored 52 goals in 1993-94, and Jaromir Jagr when he broke Graves' franchise record with 54 goals in 2005-06.

"I'm definitely trying not to pass up any shot opportunities I have. They're going in right now, so I don't see a reason not to shoot," said Zibanejad, who leads the Rangers this season with 165 shots. "I'm getting great looks from those two" - linemates Zuccarello and Chris Kreider - "last game was obviously very lucky, but the other goals, I have Zucc to thank for all of them. I'm just trying to be in the right spot right now - the puck is finding me, they're finding me."

Quinn has spoken at length about how Zibanejad's numbers from the early part of the year weren't reflective of how well the centerman was playing, so when Zibanejad's name came up on Thursday, it raised a subject the coach had discussed plenty recently but one he certainly hasn't tired of.

"Keep asking," he said. "If he keeps scoring, keep asking."

Are you marveling at the numbers he's been putting up?

"No, because I think we've talked about what happened earlier in the year when he was playing really well and he wasn't getting rewarded statistically, so I think it all evens out," Quinn said. "I think he's probably got the points he should have based on his season, where he was playing really well early and wasn't getting rewarded statistically, whereas now he continues to play well - and probably elevated his game - and he's getting rewarded statistically in crazy numbers."

It was impossible not to marvel, though, at Alexandar Georgiev's most recent outing, when he set a Madison Square Garden record for saves by a Ranger goaltender with 55 stops against the Maple Leafs on Sunday. It also may not be surprising that Georgiev earned himself another start, and quickly: He'll start in goal on Friday for the third time in five games.

"You want to get him back in, and every decision is based on what's best for both of them, not just one guy," Quinn said of Georgiev and Henrik Lundqvist. "Georgie's playing well, he's a young kid that we want to continue to see what he can do and develop, continue to prove himself at this level. And I also think Georgie playing a little bit more down the last stretch here will make Hank better. I think they both will benefit from that."

Those goaltenders saw some shots in practice on Thursday afternoon from one new face: Connor Brickley, who was called up from Hartford in the morning. Brickley, acquired from Nashville on Jan. 14, has 67 NHL games under his belt with the Florida Panthers; he skated on a line Thursday with Boo Nieves and Filip Chytil. "Guys felt like he was playing well down there, he gives us a little bit of an energy and kind of what we were looking for," Quinn said. "So we'll give him an opportunity."

This is the Rangers' third and final meeting with the Sabres, after the first two were decided by 3-1 scores, and by the goaltenders. In Game 2 of the season, back on Oct. 6, Carter Hutton stopped 43 of 44 shots to steal one from the Rangers and earn Buffalo its first win of the year. One month later Lundqvist returned the favor at the Garden, turning out 39 of 40 Sabre shots while Jimmy Vesey scored twice.

Georgiev, in fact, got in on that action last season, on March 24, when he made 43 saves on 44 shots for a 5-1 win in his ninth career start, his only career appearance against the Sabres. Hutton's 19-save Nov. 4 loss at the Garden was the first in his career against the Blueshirts; he is 4-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and .953 save percentage against them

While the Rangers play game No. 2 of this four-game road stretch, Buffalo will be wrapping up a seven-game homestand in which they alternated a loss followed by a win over the first six. Last time out, they put an end to the Islanders' three-game winning streak; the Sabres - who immediately after that Nov. 4 loss on Broadway began a franchise-record-tying 10-game winning streak - have not won back-to-back games since mid-December.

PROJECTED LINEUP

20 Kreider - 93 Zibanejad - 36 Zuccarello
26 Vesey - 13 Hayes - 89 Buchnevich
90 Namestnikov - 16 Strome - 17 Fast
72 Chytil - 24 Nieves - 23 Brickley

18 Staal - 44 Pionk
76 Skjei - 54 McQuaid
42 Smith - 22 Shattenkirk

40 Georgiev
30 Lundqvist

NUMBERS GAME

The Rangers have won 14 of their last 18 games against the Sabres (14-4-0). Their Oct. 6 loss snapped a five-game winning streak in Buffalo.

Of Mika Zibanejad's 13 goals in the last 11 games, four have been game-winners.

The Rangers (15-7-8) and Sabres (15-7-7) are part of a tie for the league's second-most wins in one-goal games this season.

The Sabres stand four points behind Pittsburgh for the East's second wild card; with 63 points, it took them only 56 games to surpass last season's point total of 62, when they finished 25-45-12.

Buffalo has 11 wins in 31 games (11-15-5) since its 10-game winning streak.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jimmy Vesey has four goals, plus an assist, in his last three games against Buffalo, two of them game-winners.

Jeff Skinner, who joined the Sabres in an Aug. 2 trade from Carolina, is second in the league with 34 goals and, entering Thursday's games, tied for first at even strength with 27.

WHADDYA SAY?

"I loved our energy today, I loved our mood today, loved our work ethic, balanced with having fun - that's probably as energetic a practice as we've had in a long time. Considering we get home at 6 in the morning one day, and had an event last night, that's good to see." - David Quinn after Thursday's practice

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