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The Rangers have saved a tough test for last.
The Blueshirts wrap up their longest homestand of the season on Sunday night when the Maple Leafs come rolling into Madison Square Garden. This was a five-game Garden stay that began with a visit from Eastern Conference-leading Tampa Bay, and now finishes with a Broadway stop from Eastern Conference runners-up Toronto, which has won four in a row and is looking to match its longest winning streak this season.
Coming out of Friday night's shutout loss to Carolina, the Rangers will return to the 11-forward, seven-defensemen alignment that has become less and less of a rarity. It will be the third time in the seven games since the All-Star break that David Quinn has dressed 11 and seven.
And it means that Neal Pionk is back in action after a two-game absence. The second-year blueliner is the Rangers' leader in ice time per game at 22:14, and leads the team's defense in scoring with 20 points (5-15-20). But he was fighting a lower-body injury that he tried to play through after having to sit out four games prior to the All-Star break, and Quinn said he could see the injury and the time off still taking its toll when Pionk returned to the ice.
Pionk had a goal and an assist the Rangers' first meeting with the Maple Leafs, on Dec. 22 in Toronto.
"Getting more comfortable with it for sure," Quinn repeated about the 11F-7D setup, which will mean Vinni Lettieri, called up last week from Hartford, will be the Rangers' healthy scratch. "Again, you've just got to put your best lineup out there regardless of positions. I prefer not to do it, but I am getting more comfortable with it, and I think our guys are getting more comfortable with it too.
"At the end of the day," he said, "real players can play with anybody."
In back of those skaters, the Rangers will go with the birthday boy, Alexander Georgiev, in goal for the second time in the last three games, and the second time in two games so far this season against Toronto. In his last start, Georgiev made 27 saves in regulation and overtime against Boston, keeping the Bruins at bay while his teammates mounted a third-period comeback, then shut them down in the shootout to improve to a career 3-0 in those. Quinn said Henrik Lundqvist would take the start when the Rangers open a four-game road in Winnipeg on Tuesday.
Georgiev will get his 25th career start on his 23rd birthday.
Asked about his goalies specifically, Quinn said: "Georgie played well last game. I thought Hank played real well the other night" - and something similar could be said about his team as a whole. The Rangers have taken points out of two of the four games on the homestand but won only the Boston game - while at the same time, as the coach said, "We've actually played pretty well during the stretch."
"During the first two periods against Carolina it was up and down, it was a good hockey game, and then we really had a disappointing third period," Quinn continued. "But I think we've played well during the homestand. It's frustrating to not be rewarded for that, but we've just got to keep moving forward and be dialed in about the Toronto Maple Leafs."
"I think we've played some good hockey, but we've got to find a way to play 60-minute games - that's what we've talked about," said Jimmy Vesey, who for Friday's game against Carolina was moved up to the left-wing slot beside Kevin Hayes and Pavel Buchnevich, and figures to start Sunday's game in the same spot. "A lot of the games we've been in it, and a small stretch of the game is costing us big-time. We've got to stick with our game plan even when we're not getting rewarded with pucks going in the net, just keep playing the same way."
Vesey was referring most specifically to the stretch of 4:34 during Wednesday's game in which the Bruins scored three times to erase the advantage Mika Zibanejad had given the Blueshirts in the first period. The Rangers would come back to tie in the third on goals by Hayes and Filip Chytil, before Tony DeAngelo and Georgiev teamed up in the shootout - but Quinn has been focusing in film sessions on managing the opposing team's push.
"I think the challenge is mentally, when you go through a tough stretch - we've talked about this as group and I know I've mentioned this here - a potential eight-minute bad stretch, let's cut it down to four," the coach said. "You're going to have moments, it's the National Hockey League, the other team has really good players too, and they're going to make a push. And If you can manage those storms by the other team and minimize them, you get a much better chance to have success. We didn't do a great job of it against the Bruins, we didn't do a great job of it against Tampa, Carolina gets one goal so we did minimize that, we just weren't able to get one ourselves."
While the Rangers finish up their longest homestand of 2018-19, the Maple Leafs are on an early stop in their longest road trip of the season. Their six-game journey began on Saturday night with an overtime win in Montreal, and after New York will take them out west for the next week.
John Tavares scored the goal to beat the Canadiens, his 12th career overtime winner and his 33rd goal this season, which is tied for second in the NHL and is five shy of the ex-Islander's career high, set in 2014-15. Since last seeing the Rangers, the Leafs have added a contract extension for Auston Matthews as well a new blueliner for the stretch run, with the acquisition of Jake Muzzin from Los Angeles. Muzzin has been playing as part of Toronto's top pair with Morgan Rielly, the NHL's second-leading scorer among defensemen with 55 points (14-41-55), though coach Mike Babcock has considered spreading the two out.
After Frederik Andersen stopped 35 shots in Saturday's win, Garrett Sparks is expected to get his 12th start this season and first in his career against the Rangers.
"Obviously they're a very high-skilled team - they score goals pretty much whenever they want, it seems," said Ryan Strome. "In Toronto we really pushed them, but we can still be better than we were. It's about defending and playing hard - we know they've got a lot of skill, so we've got to play a rugged style and keep it simple and see what happens. I think we're going to get our chances, we've just got to be patient and play good defense."
20 Kreider - 93 Zibanejad - 36 Zuccarello
26 Vesey - 13 Hayes - 89 Buchnevich
72 Chytil - 16 Strome - 90 Namestnikov 24 Nieves - 17 Fast
18 Staal - 77 DeAngelo
76 Skjei - 54 McQuaid
42 Smith/22 Shattenkirk/44 Pionk
The Rangers have gone shorthanded only seven times in the last four games, and have surrendered only one power-play goal over that stretch. Meanwhile, the Rangers have at least one power-play goal in three of their last five games.
The Rangers have earned at least one point in 11 of their last 16 home games. Eleven of those 16 games have been decided by one goal; three others included an empty-net goal in the final score.
Toronto is fourth in the NHL in scoring with 194 goals, 3.59 per game.
John Tavares had the OT winner and an assist on Saturday night in Montreal; the Leafs are 17-1-0 this season when Tavares has multiple points, including a 5-3 win over the Rangers on Dec. 22 in Toronto. Of Tavares' 33 goals, 27 have come at even strength, tied with Alex Ovechkin for most in the league.
Saturday's win lifted the Maple Leafs back to .500 in overtime games in their history (186-186-180).
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Mats Zuccarello has 19 points (9-10-19) over his last 12 games vs. Toronto. Zuccarello saw his streak of nine consecutive games with a point snapped on Friday; prior to that game, he had an even or plus rating in 11 consecutive matches stretching over more than a month.
Tavares has a goal and assist in each of the last three games, and has 40 points (14-26-40) in 44 career games against the Rangers, only one of which has come as a Maple Leaf.