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Preview: Rangers Host Lightning in First Game After Trade Deadline

by Michael Obernauer / NYRangers.com

LIGHTNING at RANGERS, 7:30 p.m.
NBCSN, 98.7 FM

It was just after the conclusion of the Rangers' game in Washington on Sunday, when they had spent their afternoon going toe-to-toe with the defending champs, and David Quinn was discussing how he had just seen his team play with a snarl that he didn't mind a bit.

"It's only 200 by 85 out there. There's not a lot of space, and there's a lot of confrontation," Quinn said. "If you're playing the right way, you're going to piss people off."

In that regard, Jeff Gorton just delivered his head coach a guy who plays the right way.

Or in any event, the family way. "Closest player to the way I play would probably be my dad," said Brendan Lemieux, the 22-year-old son of Claude Lemieux, the longtime Devils antagonist and four-time Cup winner with three different teams. "That's kind of the way I grew up, always trying to imitate what he did, and that's kind of how it's worked out for me so far."

Brendan Lemieux will be at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night to make his Rangers debut when the Blueshirts drop the puck on a three-game homestand with their final meeting of the regular season with the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. Lemieux joined his teammates for practice in Westchester on Tuesday, a day after being acquired along with a pair of draft picks from the Winnipeg Jets.

Claude Lemieux will be on Broadway too, taking in his son's first career game at Madison Square Garden, skating for the team against whom Claude played 50 games in the regular season, and 19 more in the playoffs. Brendan came into town with the Jets earlier this season, a healthy scratch on Dec. 2 against the Rangers. The trip told him everything he needed to know about his new home.

"It's New York. Original Six team," Brendan said. "I'm just really looking forward to it. It's a dream come true."

Over the course of his two-decade career, Claude Lemieux amassed 1,777 penalty minutes; his son leads all rookies this season with 64. But that is hardly the sum total of Brendan's contributions in his limited ice time with the Jets this year: Lemieux described himself as "a hard-nosed two-way forward that can score some goals" - nine of them in 44 games during his rookie season, despite seeing an average of only 7:25 on ice for the Central Division-leading Jets.

Lemieux, in fact, ranks first among all rookies who have played at least 10 games in goals per 60 minutes, with 1.66 - eclipsing even Vancouver's Elias Pettersson, the runaway Calder Trophy favorite who has scored 26 goals. Lemieux (22 years old) will skate in Wednesday's game on a line centered by fellow rookie Lias Andersson (20), with third-year winger Pavel Buchnevich (23) on the right, and he will see time on the Rangers' second power-play unit.

But to hear Lemieux tell it, scoring is just a byproduct that comes when he is on his game, and when he is on his game, opponents are off of theirs.

"It is a big part of my DNA and who I am as a player, and why I was probably sought after," Lemieux said. "But that's the part that comes natural, I don't really have to think too much about that, it's just instinctual. I don't have to try to play gritty, or think about getting under people's skin; it just happens naturally.

"I've said it before: Naturally I have a better tendency of making people upset than I do making them smile, especially the other team. So the idea is just to try to get a good laugh in the room from the guys and then piss off the other team as much as possible. Luckily it just comes natural. So that part I don't have to think about whatsoever, it just comes."

"I think he's going to fit in fine with that aspect of his game," Quinn said, smiling.

Jeff Gorton, the Rangers' General Manager who swung the deals that brought in Lemieux along with six draft picks over the three days leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline, has tracked Lemieux for years, including when he ranked among the OHL's leading goal-scorers for the Barrie Colts, and called him "somebody who did not back down to anybody."

"That's I think what we want around here," the GM said. "I think that's what our fans want. I think it's the kind of player that we haven't had a lot of around here."

At the conclusion of a trying and emotional week for Gorton and the rest of the Rangers, Brady Skjei said the feeling in practice on Tuesday was "almost like a deep breath." Quinn said immediately after Sunday's game that he saw some areas of his team's defensive-zone coverage that he wanted to patch up, and so the coach said he gave his team "a little bit of a refresher on what we needed to do coming back in our own end and stopping and being patient, and not panicking when someone looks like they might be beat in a situation 1-on-1," he said. "Give somebody a chance to recover, protect from the middle out."

A defensive refresher is never a bad idea when the next opponent is the Lightning, who lead the NHL in any number of categories: goals per game (3.84), power play (29.7 percent), penalty kill (85.7 percent). The Rangers may pay particular interest to that power-play number: In the teams' first meeting this season, on Dec. 10 in Tampa, the visitors went shorthanded four times in the first period alone, and six times overall in a 6-3 loss.

That victory was part of an eight-game winning streak for the Lightning, followed quickly thereafter by a seven-game winning streak. On Wednesday, they have a chance to set a franchise record with their 10th straight win.

"We know how good they are and how elite their skill is up front, and on the back end. We have to defend the puck really well, and another huge thing is staying out of the box against those guys," Skjei said. "A lot of communication - you've got to know when to switch off of guys and when to stay man-on-man."

Alexandar Georgiev will be the last line of defense, seeking his fifth win in his last six outings. This will be his first career start against the Lightning, though he came on in relief last March 8 in Tampa and stopped 13 of 14 shots.

"We've got 20 games to go here, we've got to make the most of this. It's an important stretch for this group," said Henrik Lundqvist. "It's an opportunity to grow as a group, as a team."

PROJECTED LINEUP

20 Kreider - 93 Zibanejad - 26 Vesey
90 Namestnikov - 16 Strome - 17 Fast
48 Lemieux - 50 Andersson - 89 Buchnevich
42 Smith - 24 Nieves - 23 Brickley

18 Staal - 77 DeAngelo
76 Skjei - 44 Pionk
33 Claesson - 22 Shattenkirk

40 Georgiev
30 Lundqvist

NUMBERS GAME

Since Jan. 10, the Rangers are 8-0-1 following a loss.

In 80 games since the 2018 trade deadline, Mika Zibanejad has 78 points (32-46--78). In 62 games this season he has already set career highs in assists (36) and points (62), and his next goal would match his career-best 27 from a season ago.

Alexandar Georgiev is 6-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average and .938 save percentage at Madison Square Garden this season.

Three of the NHL's top 10 scorers play for the Lightning: Nikita Kucherov (first, 101 points), Brayden Point (T-sixth, 79 points) and Steven Stamkos (T-ninth, 75 points).

Tampa Bay is 11-0-2 in February. With two games remaining, they are looking to finish a month without a regulation loss for only the second time in team history. The first came in December (13-0-1).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jimmy Vesey has a career-high 32 points this season; four of them (2-2--4) have come in the two games since he joined a line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL this season with 101 points (30-71--101). Since the start of the 2015-16 season, Kucherov has scored 139 goals, trailing only Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane. Zero of those have come against the Rangers, against whom he has not scored in 12 games, since Nov. 26, 2014.

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