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Rangers face treacherous path after Winter Classic

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Ultimately, the 2018 Winter Classic only counts as one game from the New York Rangers’ and Buffalo Sabres’ respective 82-game seasons.

It’s something that was special for players and fans, yet it counts as it usually would: two points for the Rangers and one for the Sabres after New York won 3-2 in overtime thanks to J.T. Miller‘s power-play goal.

(Soak in some of that atmosphere here, with no need for mittens.)

With all of that acknowledged, allow an observation: when we look back at the 2017-18 season, the win might just come in awfully handy for the Rangers, particularly in a skin-tight race for positioning in the East’s brutal Metropolitan Division.

Here’s how the Metro’s top four looks after the Rangers’ win; if you want a full view of the very competitive division, check out the standings.

1. Capitals: 24-13-3, 51 points in 40 games played
2. Devils: 22-10-6, 50 pts in 38 GP
3. Rangers: 21-13-5, 47 pts in 37 GP
4. Blue Jackets: 22-15-3, 47 pts in 40 GP

Pretty remarkable stuff from the Rangers, especially since the team’s season seemed to be swirling around the sink early in 2017-18, with the team as bad as 1-5-2 on Oct. 19.

There’s a lot to celebrate here with the Rangers, but this win means something because of how imbalanced this team’s schedule has been so far. Let’s put it this way: the Rangers should be glad that the 2018 Winter Classic was considered a “road game.”

So far this season, the Rangers have played 24 games at Madison Square Garden, going 15-6-3. They’ve only played 15 games on the road, counting the Winter Classic, generating a 6-7-2 record. They now only have 17 home games and 26 road games to go during the remainder of 2017-18, so that means nine more road than home contests.

The Rangers face a tough haul from late January to early February, in particular:

Sat, Jan 20 @ Colorado
Sun, Jan 21 @ Los Angeles
Tue, Jan 23 @ Anaheim
Thu, Jan 25 @ San Jose
Thu, Feb 1 vs Toronto
Sat, Feb 3 @ Nashville
Mon, Feb 5 @ Dallas
Wed, Feb 7 vs Boston
Fri, Feb 9 vs Calgary
Sun, Feb 11 @ Winnipeg
Tue, Feb 13 @ Minnesota
Thu, Feb 15 @ NY Islanders
Sat, Feb 17 @ Ottawa

As you can see, that’s a stretch where the Rangers play 10 of 13 games on the road. The best break there is that they only face one back-to-back stretch during that span, when they begin a four-game road trip.

There are two other away-heavy runs following that: five of six games on the road (Feb. 28 – March 10) and then they close the season with a four-game road trip. The interesting wrinkle regarding that season-ending span is that all four games come against Metropolitan Division teams.

Sat, Mar 31 @ Carolina
Tue, Apr 3 @ New Jersey
Thu, Apr 5 @ NY Islanders
Sat, Apr 7 @ Philadelphia

Interesting stuff. Could we run into another situation where a shootout decides a playoff spot during the last game of the season?

With this current 6-7-2 road record in mind, a lot of games away from MSG stands as a concern. That said, the Rangers have a recent history of being a strong road team under Alain Vigneault, including a 27-12-2 record in 2016-17 (which was better than their 21-16-4 mark at home that season).

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None of these concerns bury the Rangers by any means, particularly during a season when they’ve already “cheated death” once.

Still, with things so tight in the Metro races, that schedule stands as foreboding, especially since their peers have experienced more home-road balance. For all we know, every standings point could really end up counting … so hey, maybe this Winter Classic win might mean quite a bit.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators place forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Nashville Predators have placed forward Viktor Arvidsson on injured reserve with a lower-body injury and recalled forward Frederick Gaudreau from the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals.

The Predators made the move Tuesday afternoon.

Arvidsson was helped off the ice Monday during practice, and The Tennessean reports he tested himself during Tuesday morning’s skate.

The forward ranks third on the Predators with 13 goals and fourth with 27 points. The Predators already have Filip Forsberg on injured reserve with an upper-body injury.

Gaudreau has played 18 games with the Predators with three assists. He had 14 points in 21 games with the Admirals this season.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

WATCH LIVE: Philadelphia Flyers at New York Rangers

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 season continues on Tuesday night, as the New York Rangers host the Philadelphia Flyers at 7:00 p.m. ET.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

PROJECTED LINES

Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich
Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller – Vinni Lettieri
Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey
Michael Grabner – Peter Holland – Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden
Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk
Marc StaalSteven Kampfer

Startling goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

[Flyers look to push winning streak to five games against Rangers]

Flyers

Claude GirouxSean CouturierTravis Konecny
Michael RafflValtteri FilppulaJakub Voracek
Jordan WealNolan PatrickWayne Simmonds
Taylor LeierScott LaughtonJori Lehtera

Ivan ProvorovShayne Gostisbehere
Robert HaggAndrew MacDonald
Brandon ManningRadko Gudas

Startling goalie: Brian Elliott

 

Golden Knights’ defense coming into focus with signings

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As the Vegas Golden Knights’ success gradually goes from shocking to accepted, there’s still the question of what this team might look like next season and beyond. Such questions are only natural when you consider all the key players who still need contract extensions.

Golden Knights management is chipping away at those questions regarding their defense in 2018-19, particularly this week.

On Monday, the Golden Knights signed local favorite and rugged defenseman Deryk Engelland to a one-year extension worth $1.5 million. (That deal includes $1M in potential performance bonuses, according to Cap Friendly.)

One day later, the team announced a two-year extension for Jon Merrill (pictured). The deal is for $2.75M overall, so it will make for a $1.375M cap hit in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

The Golden Knights now have five defensemen on their current roster who are signed through 2018-19, if not longer: Engelland, Merrill, Nate Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Brad Hunt. McNabb is locked up the longest, with a $2.5M cap hit kicking in next season and expiring after 2020-21.

The most interesting remaining defensemen to sort out are Colin Miller and Shea Theodore, both pending RFAs. The Golden Knights have been buying up blueliners at bargain rates, but Theodore and Miller could be tougher nuts to crack contracts-wise. (Two UFA defensemen Luca Sbisa and Clayton Stoner on IR.)

Quick look at Engelland and Merrill

Engelland, 35, has been one of the Golden Knights’ ice time leaders with 19:39 per night, collecting 13 points while limiting his time in the penalty box (16 PIM in 41 games) compared to his usual numbers. He’s not perfect, but it’s conceivable that he’ll be worth that minimal cost to Vegas, especially since he’s an ambassador for the still-new franchise.

While Vegas hopes Engelland can bring that veteran presence for another year, they’re likely banking on Merrill to be more effective at a cheap rate.

The 25-year-old has been dealing with injuries and other issues, limiting him to 14 games played.

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These defensive signings aren’t as important as locking up Jonathan Marchessault, nor is it as crucial as making the right call with the likes of James Neal and David Perron. With Malcolm Subban and Marc-Andre Fleury seeing their deals expire after 2018-19, management will need to make some goaltending decisions not that long from now.

A little bit of greed can inspire players to go that extra mile and stay that much hungrier, yet it’s also comforting to sometimes have some answers. After this week, there’s some clarity on the blueline, even if some decisions still need to be made.

And, hey, the Golden Knights haven’t really locked themselves into bad contracts yet. Old teams could probably learn a thing or two from these new kids.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Johnny Gaudreau is playing best hockey of NHL career

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Maybe it’s because Johnny Gaudreau has been a productive scorer since day one. Almost literally.

Gaudreau scored a goal in his first NHL game with the Calgary Flames, his only appearance in 2013-14. The slick, undersized forward then generated 24 goals and 64 points as a rookie in 2014-15, and really hasn’t missed a beat.

While there were plenty of questions heading into 2017-18 for Calgary – goaltending, Jaromir Jagr, depth on defense and offense – everyone just assumed Gaudreau would keep scoring. So perhaps that explains why people aren’t making much of a deal about Gaudreau scoring even more than usual.

As of Tuesday, Gaudreau is in a four-way tie for second in NHL scoring with 54 points.

After scoring two goals and six assists for eight points in four games, the Flames forward was named NHL’s first star of the week, ahead of teammate Mike Smith (also red-hot). His point streak actually extends into 2017, a stretch of seven games, five of which were multi-point (two goals, 11 assists for 13 points).

Gaudreau set career-highs in goals (30) and points (78) in 79 games back in 2015-16. While he’s at a solid goal-scoring clip of 15 so far this season, his playmaking is what might make this his best work. Gaudreau is averaging 1.2 points-per game, a pace of about 98 points during an 82-game season.

Upon hearing about Gaudreau’s All-Star nod about a week ago, Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan did a great job summarizing what makes him so effective.

“I think he gets the best looks in the National Hockey League,” Gulutzan said, via the Calgary Sun. “He puts himself into position every game to create and shoot. Just the way he navigates himself on the ice and can handle the puck, it’s pretty amazing. For not a big guy, he can strip guys of pucks and get those kind of opportunities, too. It’s a combination of speed, agility and high hockey I.Q. that allows him to do it. He’s our engine for generating offense.”

This goal Gaudreau scored against the Stars on Nov. 24 is a great example of his ability to “strip guys of pucks,” and why he’s such a nightmare to defend.

Gaudreau and the Flames are currently resting up on a bye week, and hopefully not getting too rusty, as Calgary owns the longest active winning streak in the NHL at seven games. Beginning on Saturday, the Flames will play six of their next seven games at home, so there’s a solid chance that they’ll keep their strong play going.

If so, the Flames – and Gaudreau – will be difficult to ignore.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.