Marian Gaborik

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.

James Neal could return to Predators lineup tonight

DENVER, CO - MARCH 05:  James Neal #18 of the Nashville Predators celebrates his goal against the Colorado Avalanche to tie the score 2-2 in the third period at Pepsi Center on March 5, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Predators defeated the Avalanche 5-2.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The Nashville Predators lineup could be getting a big lift on Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche with the possible return of winger James Neal.

Neal, who has been sidelined since Nov. 25 with an upper body injury, returned to practice on Tuesday for the team’s morning skate and has been activated from injured reserve according to Adam Vingan of the Tennessean.

The original diagnosis for Neal was to be sidelined on a week to week basis, but it appears he is on the verge of making a return to the lineup after just 10 days.

If he returns on Tuesday he is expected to skate on a line with Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher, according to the team.

Prior to the injury Neal had been on quite a scoring tear for the Predators with 10 goals and four assists over a 13-game stretch. It was during that stretch that the Predators had started to turn their season around after a slow start and were quickly climbing the Western Conference standings. They were then hit by a series of injuries that took both Neal and Ryan Ellis out of the lineup. Since Nov. 25 the Predators have now lost three out of their past four and sit in 10th place in the Western Conference, two points behind Winnipeg for the second playoff spot (the Predators, though, still have four games in hand).

Neal’s 10 goals are still tops on the team. Nobody else has scored more than seven.

Scheifele injury not long-term, but he’ll miss his third straight game tonight

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele celebrates after scoring against the Toronto Maple Leafs during first-period NHL hockey game action in Toronto, Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Darren Calabrese)
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Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg’s No. 1 center and the NHL’s eighth-leading scorer with 26 points through 26 games, will miss his third contest in a row this evening when the Jets host the Red Wings at the MTS Centre.

But fear not, Jets fans. Scheifele won’t be out much longer.

“He’s getting better,” head coach Paul Maurice said on Tuesday, per the Jets’ Twitter account. “He skated this morning and felt incrementally stronger each day. This is not a long-term injury.”

Scheifele, 23, hasn’t played since a 6-3 loss to Edmonton on Dec. 1. His absence is, quite obviously, a big one — in addition to the offensive production, Scheifele averaged over 20 minutes per night and led the team in faceoffs taken.

He’d also developed terrific chemistry with rookie sniper Patrik Laine, who sits second in the NHL in goals right now with 16.

To their credit, the Jets have done well without Scheifele in the lineup. They beat the Blues 3-2 in OT on Saturday, then followed that up with a 2-1 win in Chicago on Sunday.

Eichel is good to go against McDavid and the Oilers

ANAHEIM, CA - FEBRUARY 24:  Jack Eichel #15 of the Buffalo Sabres looks on during the second period of a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on February 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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The Buffalo Sabres played the Washington Capitals close last night, giving themselves a chance to beat one of the best teams in the NHL — on the road to boot.

Though the Caps eventually won in overtime, it was another encouraging performance by the Sabres, who’ve been a much better side since Jack Eichel returned to the lineup.

Buffalo (9-10-6) has gone 2-1-1 in the four games Eichel has played. Tonight, another big test, as Connor McDavid and the Oilers pay a visit to KeyBank Center.

“We have to try and fight our way up the standings,” Sabres winger Kyle Okposo told reporters last night. “You might have some lulls in the season, but we already had ours. We have to make sure we’re pushing forward and doing everything we can to get two points. Getting a point is OK, but we had the lead in the third.”

Eichel will indeed play tonight. He confirmed that this morning, after there was concern he’d tweaked his ankle against the Capitals.

“I’m fine. I’m good,” Eichel said, per the Buffalo News. “Going through an injury like this, you know it’s going to come back and bother you at times, but it’s fine now.”

With Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly, the Sabres have a formidable one-two punch down the middle. When Eichel was out with his ankle injury, it was a serious challenge to fill his spot, and the Sabres just couldn’t manage it very well.

Now, with Eichel back, it’s about finding that belief — a belief that the Sabres are good enough to compete, that they don’t need to go into a shell as soon as they get the lead.

That’s what seemed to happen last night in Washington, where the Caps outshot the Sabres, 16-9, in the third period and Marcus Johansson‘s goal at 13:42 sent the game to sudden death.

“I mean give them credit, they’re a good team, but I think we’re starting to sit back and they have speed, you know?” said goalie Robin Lehner. “I think we see that we can play. We’ve just got to stop changing, changing how we play.”

The Ottawa Senators are getting tested

Ottawa Senators' Erik Karlsson stands in front of his bench as the hats are cleared off the ice after a hat trick by Pittsburgh Penguins' Bryan Rust in the third period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Monday, Dec. 5, 2016. The Penguins won 8-5. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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We’ve gotten pretty good at identifying vulnerable hockey teams these past few years as the analytics movement has taken hold. The 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs were due for a regression, and regressed. Ditto for the 2013-14 Colorado Avalanche and 2014-15 Calgary Flames.

Sometimes, teams can survive an entire season while bucking the odds. Which is why the Ottawa Senators will be interesting to watch the rest of the way in 2016-17.

Under new coach Guy Boucher, the Sens are an impressive 15-9-2, good for second place in the Atlantic Division.

But the Sens also have many of the statistical markings of a vulnerable team:

— A score-adjusted Corsi that ranks 27th out of 30
— A 9-0-2 record in one-goal games
— A goal-differential of minus-3

After last night’s 8-5 loss in Pittsburgh, the Sens head to California with just one win in their last four, and without their starting goalie, Craig Anderson, who’s taken another leave to be with his wife.

Anderson has been brilliant this season, going 12-6-1 with a .924 save percentage. He’s been a huge key to their success, twice earning the NHL’s first-star-of-the-week honors.

The starting duties will now fall temporarily on Mike Condon, who’s gone 3-1-1 with a stellar .943 save percentage since coming over from Pittsburgh. The Sens’ No. 3 goalie, Andrew Hammond, has been recalled for the road trip, which starts Wednesday in San Jose, continues Saturday in Los Angeles, and wraps up Sunday in Anaheim.

“It’s a good test to see where our team is at,” forward Derick Brassard told reporters prior to last night’s defeat. “We’re going to play four of the best teams in the league. It’s good for the team to get together and battle through this.”