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.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.