Due to circumstances which don’t need to be explained here, the Chicago Blackhawks will make their first trip to Madison Square Garden in nearly three years on Saturday when they face the New York Rangers in an Original Six meeting.
That game was on Jan. 17, 2019, a 4-3 Rangers win during mostly forgettable seasons for each team. New York drafted No. 2 overall that summer — taking forward Kaapo Kakko — and moved up to No. 1 in 2020, selecting Alexis Lafreniere. While both of those pieces are still around in The Big Apple, neither is exactly flourishing so far in their careers. But that hasn’t stopped the Rangers from soaring up the standings through the first few months of the 2021-22 season, with new coach Gerard Gallant guiding NY to a 15-4-3 start that’s good for second in the Metropolitan Division.
New York’s leading scorer is old friend Artemi Panarin, who cashed in duringfree agency in the summer of 2019 with a massive 7-year, $81 million contract. Panarin has been over a point-per-game each season and is at that rate again with 23 points (6 G, 17 A) in 22 games in this season — he’s still every bit of the star he shined as during his brief Chicago stint. On the blue line, young Adam Fox is emerging as one of the game’s top defenseman, notching a similar 23 points (4 G, 19 A) as Panarin. The 2016 third-round pick (66th overall) should be in Norris Trophy consideration again by season’s end. Elsewhere, forward Chris Kreider has a team-high 16 goals while Mika Zibanejad (4 G, 14 A) and Dylan’s brother Ryan Strome (4 G, 11 A) provide an additional offensive punch.
The Rangers have been red-hot of late, winning nine of their last 10 games, including a 1-0 shutout of the San Jose Sharks on Friday night. Despite the names above, New York doesn’t score a ton of goals — their success has been predicated on preventing goals against. The Rangers have allowed just 2.50 goals per game, the fourth-best mark in the league. Goaltender Igor Shesterkin has been key in that with a 13-3-2 record, .937 save percentage and 2.05 goals-against average. According to MoneyPuck.com, Shesterkin is the No. 2 goalie in the league in terms of goals saved above expected at 14.9, which means that the Rangers are vastly outperforming expectations because of how well their goalie is playing.
New York is also No. 3 in the league with a POD of 1.017 and down near the bottom of the league with the Hawks in multiple other possession-based metrics. It all suggests that perhaps the Rangers’ success is heavily reliant upon the goaltending and any regression in net could lead to a team-wide fall down the standings. And here’s where we’ll mention that Shesterkin was injured on Friday night against San Jose and is not expected to play against Chicago on Saturday.
Igor Shesterkin’s injury is not as bad as it looked, Gerard Gallant said. The Rangers coach said he was told not to worry too much. More on Shesterkin tomorrow. But for now that from the coach has to be seen as good news for the Rangers.— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) December 4, 2021
With Shesterkin out, expect Alexandar Georgiev (2-1-1, 3.89, .867) to man the net.
As for the Blackhawks, Saturday started with the news that Ian Mitchell had been recalled from Rockford, a move likely necessitated by Thursday’s injury to Connor Murphy, who remains in concussion protocol. Along with Murphy’s absence, Friday’s news also confirmed that Tyler Johnson will be out for the foreseeable future while Jujhar Khaira was sidelined with a non-COVID illness.
With no morning skate, though, the lineup will remain a bit of a mystery:
No Blackhawks morning skate today because of the Knicks-Nuggets game occupying MSG.— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) December 4, 2021
We'll find out around 4:30 CT about the Hawks' lineup tonight.
The estimation here is that Mitchell won’t quite be ready for the game which means that Murphy’s spot will go to either Riley Stillman or Calvin de Haan. Stillman was a gametime decision on Thursday and did not play while de Haan was also held out but was reportedly hoping to play in one of the other games this weekend.
No matter what happens, a similar effort to Thursday’s strong road performance will be required, when Chicago was able to take two points from the team atop the Metropolitan Division standings. It’ll take something similar against its current runner-up, although facing the Rangers without the goalie that has been so vital to their success moves this game closer to the “winnable” category than it may have been at first glance.
Chicago has done some work to get out of the crater it dug for itself in October but more work remains to narrow the significant gap that formed between the Blackhawks and the top six teams in the Central.
Blackhawks — Statistic — Rangers
45.74% (30th) — 5-on-5 Corsi For — 45.61% (31st)
42.71% (32nd) — 5-on-5 Expected goals for — 47.69% (25th)
2.14 (30th) — Goals per game — 2.91 (15th)
3.18 (24th) — Goals against per game — 2.50 (4th)
48.1% (28th) — Faceoffs — 45.3% (32nd)
17.1% (21st) — Power play — 21.9% (9th)
85.0% (8th) — Penalty kill — 82.1% (16th)
Projected lineups (subject to change)
Hagel — Toews — Kane
DeBrincat — Dach — Strome
Kubalik — Borgstrom — Khaira
Hardman — Slavin — Carpenter
Gustafsson — S. Jones
McCabe — Stillman / de Haan
Kalynuk — C. Jones
Kreider — Zibanejad — Kakko
Panarin — Strome — Hunt
Lafreniere — Chytil — Gauthier
Rooney — Goodrow — Reaves
Lindgren — Fox
Miller — Trouba
Nemeth — Lunkvist
How to watch
When: 7 p.m. CT
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
TV: NBC Sports Chicago