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Pionk Gaining Confidence As Offensive Numbers Pile Up

Georgiev to start vs. Blues; Pavelec Update

by Matt Calamia @MattCalamia / NYRangers.com

Points don't always equate to confidence, but sometimes they do, and that's been the case for defenseman Neal Pionk, who has been red-hot as of late following his recall to New York last month.

The 22-year-old has five points - all assists - in his last three games, including three in Wednesday's comeback win over the Penguins at Madison Square Garden. Since joining the club on Feb. 9, no rookie defenseman has more points than Pionk's nine in 17 contests.

"My confidence has been growing since the first game," Pionk told NYRangers.com on Friday. "Honestly, I'm just throwing pucks at the net and giving them to the forwards and they're doing their thing."

It's as simple as that, according to Pionk, who signed as an undrafted college free agent last year. 

"That's our job. Get the puck to the forwards and they're going to do their thing," he said. "We've got a skilled group of forwards here, a fast group, so as long as we can make tape-to-tape passes and get pucks through, they're going to do their thing."

There's certainly a bit of modesty there from Pionk, who was showing his offensive touch down the stretch with Hartford prior to his assignment with the Rangers. The blueliner had eight points in his last 12 games with the Wolf Pack before joining the Rangers. That came after he scored seven goals and 27 assists in 42 games last season at the University of Minnesota - Duluth.

It may sound simple, but teammate John Gilmour said there's more to it than that.

"He's just really consistent," Gilmour said of Pionk. "He's been making those same plays down in the minors. Maybe he wasn't getting as many bounces down there, but he's getting some good ones right now. He's making the right plays. He makes really crisp passes and he can shoot the puck. He's been playing like that all year, and it's about time he's flourishing and getting some success." 

Gilmour pointed to Pionk's awareness in Monday's 6-3 over the Hurricanes, when in the first period Pionk fired a shot wide off the end boards, which Mats Zuccarello scooped up and pocketed for a goal. 

It's play like that, according to Gilmour, that set Pionk apart from others.

"Little plays like that make a big difference in a game," he said. "He finds a lane, and even if it's not directly on net, he'll get it down there. It's just about not getting it blocked, but creating something for our forwards."

Pionk's history as an offensive defenseman has coach Alain Vigneault excited about what Pionk can bring to the Rangers as he continues to mature.

"He competes hard and he's got a good skill set," Vigneault said of Pionk. "He can make that good pass and there's no doubt that in his college and prior to that, he was considered an offensive defenseman. He'd join the rush and was good on the power play, so there is some upside there with him. We need to continue to work at his game and continue to improve it."

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Vigneault said Alexandar Georgiev will make his third consecutive start tomorrow night against the Blues in St. Louis.

"I'm coming back with Alex," he said. "I want to find out about this young goaltender and that's why we decided to put him back in."

The 22-year-old is 3-2-0 with a 2.75 GAA and a .929 SV% in six games with the Rangers.

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Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec continues to rehab his injured knee, and practiced lightly with the team at the end of practice. He said he's feeling healthy, but there's still work to be done before he's back in the lineup, though he knows there's not much schedule remaining.

"It feels good. I've been skating and trying to get back in game shape and get healthy," he said. "Not many games left, so we'll see what happens."

Pavelec said the timing of the injury in early February wasn't good, as he knew the rehab would eat up a good chunk of the stretch run on the season. But he's glad to be back around his teammates and said being away is the hardest part.

"Being injured, it's miserable," he said. "You don't feel like you're part of the team. It's great to be back, be in the locker room and be around the guys. If you get hurt, there's nothing you can do about it. Just focus on getting healthy and be back as soon as you can. Don't rush anything and just let it heal and get back. That's all you can do." 

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