Game of the Week preview: Rangers try to avoid repeating nightmare finish

You’ll have to excuse Rangers fans if they’re starting to look a little more pale and they’re not eating normally they way the did earlier this year. They’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach and it’s one they’re a bit too familiar with. In case you’d forgotten, and if you’re a Rangers fan you’re punching your computer screen upon reading this, the Rangers lost out on a playoff spot on the last game of the season last year, losing to Philadelphia in a shootout. With the win, the Flyers made the playoffs and the Rangers were out. Philly, of course, went on to the Stanley Cup final where they lost to Chicago.

Rangers fans and perhaps some players as well thought “that could have been us” when seeing the Flyers roar through the Eastern Conference playoffs on the way to a shot at the Stanley Cup. With that sort of motivation you’d think the Rangers would be doing everything in their abilities to make sure they don’t miss out on the party again.

Things had been looking positive for the Rangers on that quest to make the postseason until recently. The Rangers have lost three of their last four games and as we’ve seen elsewhere in playoff races any cold streak like that hurts. For the Rangers it’s knocked them down into a points tie with the Sabres, but the Rangers hang on to the eighth spot thanks to tiebreakers going in Buffalo’s favor.

When tomorrow’s game drops the puck in Philadelphia, the Rangers could see the Sabres ahead of them by one or two points and the Hurricanes hot on their heels trailing them by one or two points. Three teams vying for two spots in the playoffs makes playing the regular season feel like the playoffs because every game from here on out is huge. To the Rangers credit, they’re still very confident in themselves. Andrew Gross of Rangers Rants has this to add from coach John Tortorella.

Though coach John Tortorella certainly expressed things he did not like about Thursday’s 6-2 loss to the Islanders and Wednesday’s 1-0 loss at Buffalo, he also told his team he and his coaching staff believed in the players and had their backs during the team meeting. And the players certainly believe, with four regular season games remaining, that controlling their destiny is key.

“We’re not in the 13th or 14th spot,” Tortorella said. “We’re right in the middle of it. We’ll respond the right way. I have full faith in them.”

Confidence is a big thing to have, and for the Rangers that all starts with Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist has been other-worldly this season with 11 shutouts and standing out as a potential Vezina Trophy finalist. When the offense has gone through the motions and the injuries to their top players like Brandon Dubinsky, Marian Gaborik, and Ryan Callahan it’s been Lundqvist that’s held it all together for the Rangers.

It’s a familiar juxtaposition considering that last season’s playoff chances went by the wayside thanks to the Flyers beating Lundqvist in the shootout and this year it’ll all fall on his shoulders again to keep the team locked in place for the playoffs. As King Henrik goes, so do the Rangers. We’re sure he’d love to see the Rangers drop another seven spot on Philly tomorrow to send the message that they won’t be going away quietly.

Then again, if you’re thinking things will be that easy for New York, you haven’t been watching them much this season. After the game against Philly, the Rangers wrap the season with games at home against Boston, Atlanta, and New Jersey. Boston still is fighting for a better seeding atop the East while Atlanta and New Jersey (especially) will be looking to spoil their plans. If the Rangers playoff hopes come down to that game against the Devils, Rangers fans might want to find a safe place to hide out for the night lest the nightmares of last year come roaring back all over again.

Goalie nods: Andersen back for Leafs

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Curtis McElhinney held up his end of the bargain.

Now, it’s back to Frederik Andersen.

After missing the last game (well, one-and-a-half games) to an upper-body injury, Andersen will resume his regular No. 1 duties when the Leafs take on the Preds in Nashville this evening.

Andersen was initially hurt Saturday in Buffalo, then sat out Tuesday’s big win over Florida — one that McElhinney called the biggest start of his career, and responded to by stopping 25 of 27 shots.

It’ll be interesting to see how Andersen fares in his first game back, and if he continue his strong month of March (6-1-2 in his last 10 games, with a .936 save percentage). The Preds have played well of late, winning seven of their last nine, and haven’t lost at Bridgestone since Mar. 4.

For the Preds, Pekka Rinne starts in goal.

Elsewhere…

Thomas Greiss, who’s lost his last two starts, gets another shot as the desperate Isles take on the Flyers. Philly will counter with Steve Mason, who’s riding a personal three-game winning streak.

Eddie Lack remains out with a neck injury, so Cam Ward starts when the ‘Canes host the Jackets. No word yet on a Columbus starter, but Sergei Bobrovsky has played three straight, including Tuesday’s win over Buffalo.

— The B’s are desperate for wins, so no surprise they’re riding Tuukka Rask into tonight’s tilt against Dallas. The visiting Stars have yet to name a starter, but Antti Niemi is likely.

James Reimer and Roberto Luongo are both out injured, so Reto Berra starts for the Panthers while newly recalled Adam Wilcox backs up. For the host Habs, it’ll be Carey Price.

— Another team desperate for points? The Bolts, who will go with Andrei Vasilevskiy after he was hooked from — then returned to — Monday’s wild comeback victory against Chicago. Petr Mrazek goes for the visiting Red Wings.

Alex Stalock, recalled yesterday, will bump Darcy Kuemper from the No. 2 gig in Minnesota, and make his regular season debut. He’ll be up against Craig Anderson in the Ottawa goal.

— The Ducks just keep winning with Jonathan Bernier in goal, so why rush back John Gibson? That will continue to be the plan tonight, as Anaheim visits Winnipeg. Michael Hutchinson starts for the Jets.

— It’s Martin Jones versus Cam Talbot when the Sharks take on the Oilers in Edmonton.

Pre-game reading: On Matthew Tkachuk, the NHL’s newest villain

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— Up top, Mike Milbury and Keith Jones were none too impressed with the Los Angeles Kings’ response to Matthew Tkachuk last night in Calgary. Milbury took aim at Drew Doughty for turning the other cheek, while Jones ripped Jake Muzzin for turning down a fight.

— Tkachuk is the “villain we need right now,” according to Ryan Kennedy of The Hockey News. After watching the 19-year-old’s busy night against the Kings, Kennedy writes: “The kid is mixing things up. He’s the perfect example of the guy you want on your team but hate when he’s on the other side. And he’s just getting started.” (The Hockey News)

Brock Boeser has a bright future with the Vancouver Canucks, but his journey to the NHL hasn’t been all roses. In 2010, Boeser’s dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and in 2014, one of his good friends was killed in a car accident. “When you have experiences like that,” said his mom, “you can’t help but grow as you deal with them.” (National Post)

— TSN’s Gary Lawless wants the NHL to crack down on slashing. And we bet Johnny Gaudreau agrees. Johnny Hockey got chopped on the hand again last night. This time, the referee called a penalty. But too often slashing goes unpunished, just like hooking and holding used to. (TSN)

— A Q&A with Alex Radulov, who really wants to sign a contract extension with the Montreal Canadiens. “I would love to stay here. I like it here. I love the fans. I love this [training] facility. I come here even at night time; it’s all open doors. I can come and do whatever I need to. I really enjoy it, it’s really nice. You got everything here just to make yourself better.” All that said, contract talks are on hold for now. (Sportsnet)

Braden Holtby, fashion icon? Apparently, one of the best goalies in the NHL is also quite the clotheshorse. “I’ve always had an appreciation for things that are well-made, be it art or houses or carpentry, woodworking, clothes, I find the details very impressive for people putting their work into their craft. They see visions and they see those things come out, and you can see when someone cares about what they’re making. I think fashion’s a bit along the lines of that.” (Washington Post)

Enjoy the games!

Jets’ Enstrom undergoes second knee surgery in 12 months

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There’s not much left for Winnipeg to play for — just five regular-season games left, and no playoffs on the horizon — so today’s news that Tobias Enstrom has undergone season-ending knee surgery isn’t a crippling development.

Can’t be good, though.

Enstrom’s had a difficult year health-wise and, at the time of surgery, was dealing with a concussion suffered on a Tom Sestito hit back in early March. Prior to that, he missed time while attending to a family matter in his native Sweden and, prior to that, was shut down late last season to undergo knee surgery.

It’s unclear if today’s procedure was related to the one Enstrom had last March.

It is worth noting that, at the time of last year’s surgery, head coach Paul Maurice noted the 32-year-old had been dealing with the injury for months.

“He’s been able to get through it because of blocks of days off. If he can get a two day block, he’d get a little better and it’s just getting worse,” Maurice said, per Global News. “It got to the point that he’s not recovering and he hasn’t been. He hasn’t been for almost a month now. He’s not recovering enough on his days off for the pain ever to subside.”

All told, Enstrom appeared in 60 games this year, scoring 14 points while averaging just under 22 minutes per night. Next season will be the last of a five-year, $28.75 million deal that carries a $5.75 million cap hit.

Lundqvist will start four of five remaining games

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Henrik Lundqvist has had two tough starts since returning from injury.

The 35-year-old allowed five goals in his first game back, a 6-3 loss to Anaheim Sunday, and five more in his second game, a 5-4 OT loss to San Jose Tuesday.

But Lundqvist is still the No. 1 in New York, and for that reason he’s scheduled to start four of the Rangers’ five remaining regular-season games, with the hope he’ll be able to play his way back into form in time for the postseason.

Lundqvist was not happy after Tuesday’s loss to the Sharks, even though the point the Rangers gained earned them a playoff berth.

“I’m extremely disappointed right now,” he told reporters. “I’m glad we’re in, but I want to get the job done. I want the win. We found a way to lose this one at the end.”

With the loss, Lundqvist’s save percentage fell to .911 on the season. If it finishes at that number, it would be the lowest save percentage of his NHL career.

Antti Raanta‘s save percentage, meanwhile, sits at .922. In his last start, he shut out the Kings in Los Angeles.

The Rangers host Pittsburgh tomorrow and Philadelphia Sunday. Next week, they’re in Washington Wednesday, Ottawa Saturday, and then they close out their schedule at home to Pittsburgh Sunday.

Raanta will start one of the final two games.

The Rangers are likely to face Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.