Jason Brough

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Rangers bolster much-maligned blue line with college free agent

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It’s not hard to see the opportunity for a young defenseman in New York.

That’s why it should come as no real shock that 21-year-old Neal Pionk has decided to sign with the Rangers.

An undrafted college free agent, Pionk just finished up his second season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He had seven goals and 27 assists in 42 games before deciding to turn pro. A number of other NHL teams were hoping to sign him, including the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Rangers’ blue line has been much-maligned for a while now. Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Marc Staal are all on the wrong side of 30, with banged-up bodies and games in decline. Brendan Smith is a pending unrestricted free agent who can test the market July 1.

And then there’s Adam Clendening, the right-shot d-man who’s been a healthy scratch in all eight playoff games. He’s a restricted free agent with an uncertain future.

Another defenseman, Nick Holden, wore the goat horns in Saturday’s 6-5 OT loss to Ottawa. Holden made an ill-advised pinch that led to a Senators 2-on-1. Seconds later, Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored his fourth goal of the game and the Rangers went down, 2-0, in the series.

“If you’re going to pinch and go down, you have to have a high F3 there, unless you’re sure you’re going to get the puck,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, per the New York Times. “They were able to get the chip and get 2-on-1 there. It was obviously not the right decision at that time.”

Last month, the Rangers signed KHL d-man Alexei Bereglazov.

They may also pursue Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency.

Fleury could be good option for Flames … or even Flyers

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Marc-Andre Fleury is 6-1 with a .936 save percentage in these playoffs. The 32-year-old goalie is proving he can still play at a high level. He outperformed Sergei Bobrovsky in the first round, and now he’s outperforming Braden Holtby.

But the reality remains — the Penguins can only protect one goalie in the expansion draft, and Matt Murray is the future in Pittsburgh.

In other words, Fleury is still likely to be traded this offseason, no matter how well he’s playing right now. He only has two years left on his contract, with a cap hit of $5.75 million.

And that lack of term may actually be attractive to some suitors.

Take a team like Calgary. The Flames have some young goalies in the system, but nobody under contract to bridge the gap. They could always go out and sign Ben Bishop on July 1, but they’d probably have to give him big money and term. And then, what if Bishop doesn’t work out? Brian Elliott didn’t work out, and Bishop is not coming off the best season.

Or — and wouldn’t this be interesting — take a team like Philadelphia. The Flyers are in a similar predicament to Calgary. They have some good, young goalies in the organization, led by 23-year-old Anthony Stolarz. But are they willing to go into next season with a tandem of Stolarz and Michal Neuvirth? The former is still pretty inexperienced, and the latter had an .891 save percentage in 2016-17.

If you think about it, getting Fleury out of Pittsburgh would be sort of like the Flyers getting Valtteri Filppula out of Tampa Bay.

Filppula is only signed through next season.

“On July 1, you don’t get a player like this on a one-year deal,” GM Ron Hextall said of Filppula. “The money, you won’t get this type of player on a one-year deal, which was attractive to us.”

Which begs the question — could you get a goalie like Fleury on a two-year deal?

Anyway, just something to think about. The Penguins and their fans probably aren’t too focused on the offseason right now, but other teams — and let’s not forget about Dallas — certainly are.

Related: Scott Darling trade ‘worth the risk’ for Hurricanes

Productive during the regular season, the Caps’ third line has gone quiet

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It’s an under-the-radar storyline, overshadowed by the struggles of Braden Holtby and Kevin Shattenkirk.

But the Washington Capitals’ third line has not been producing in the playoffs, and that’s partly why the Caps trail the Penguins, 2-0, in the second round.

The Caps, you may recall, made it a point to rebuild their third line over the summer. They brought in Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, and those two enjoyed great success with Andre Burakovsky for much of the regular season.

“You’re getting guys who’ve got double-digit goals on that line,” head coach Barry Trotz said in February. “We didn’t have that on that third line last year. We do now. We’re getting scoring from the third line, no question. We’re getting scoring from all lines. That’s good for us. It makes us a hard team to play.”

It’s a very different story now. Not one of the trio has a goal in these playoffs. In fact, Connolly has been replaced on the line by Tom Wilson, and Connolly was replaced in the lineup on Saturday by AHL journeyman Paul Carey.

So while much of the focus in Game 3 will be on Holtby, keep an eye on that third line as well. It needs to do more than possess the puck. It needs to start putting the puck in the net.

Related: Shattenkirk having a tough postseason

MacArthur ‘feeling much better,’ and that’s a relief

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There was a real sense of worry when Clarke MacArthur left Saturday’s game in Ottawa and didn’t return.

MacArthur, after all, was playing just his 12th game since making a surprise return from a concussion. Had he suffered another one?

Fortunately, the answer was no. It was an upper-body injury, but not a concussion. On Sunday, Senators coach Guy Boucher said MacArthur was “feeling much better” and may be able to play Game 3 Tuesday in New York. 

This morning, MacArthur was back skating with the Sens, who lead the Rangers, 2-0, in their second-round series.

If MacArthur still isn’t ready to go by tomorrow, expect to see Tom Pyatt make his return. Pyatt has been cleared to play after getting hurt in the first round.

“(Tommy) Wingels has been in the lineup and we’ve won three in a row with the same lineup,” Boucher said, per the Ottawa Citizen. “We might still go with the same lineup depending on Clarke. If we need to change something, (Pyatt) is ready and, of course, (Pyatt) has been an important part of our team.

“He brings speed and he was actually one of our better players against the Rangers during the season. He’s a great penalty killer, he’s really fast and he plays great with (Jean-Gabriel) Pageau and (Mike) Hoffman, so that’s a possibility. We’ll see. We just want to see what’s going on exactly with all the guys.”

Update:

Stepan: ‘I’ve stunk since the playoffs started’

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Derek Stepan knows he’s not playing very well, and he knows he’ll have to be better if the New York Rangers are going to make it past the Ottawa Senators.

With just one goal (an empty-netter) and one assist in seven playoff games, Stepan’s offensive production has fallen off a cliff after a respectable 55-point regular season, which included 38 assists.

“I’ve stunk since the playoffs started,” Stepan said, per NHL.com’s Dan Rosen. “I’ve been not very good with the puck.”

An all-situations center, Stepan is more than just an offensive type. But he’s produced in previous playoff runs, and the Rangers need him to produce now — especially against a tight-checking Sens team that boasts a 2.00 goals-against average in these playoffs.

Stepan has 45 points (18G, 27A) in 92 career playoff games.

To be fair, he’s not the only Ranger who needs to get going offensively. One of the Blueshirts’ big strengths during the regular season was their balanced scoring, with all four lines contributing — and that’s not happening right now.