NEW YORK — After playing eight of their last nine games against sides not currently in the playoffs, the Blues return to the high-rent district Wednesday against top-flight New York Rangers.
If nothing else, this will be a benchmark in early March for a Blues team stuck on a seven-game points streak (6-0-1).
“They are a good team. They played well,” said Blues defender Justin Faulk. “You certainly have a lot of high-end talent on this team. I don’t know what’s different than maybe last year. I know they got a new coach (Gerard Gallant) and a few new players, but they’ve developed a lot of skills up front. It will be a tough test.”
Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are all elite forwards. On defense, Adam Fox is the reigning Norris Trophy winner.
“I always challenge our team to pull themselves together for a game like this,” said coach Craig Berube. “I think these guys have lost back-to-back and they’re going to be a very hungry hockey team. And if we’re not immediately competitive in the game, we’ll be chasing each other and we don’t need that.”
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The last thing Berube wants against Rangers is a track meet game.
“We have to play a working game tonight, we have to examine it thoroughly,” he said. “We need to go to their D-Corps and force turnovers. If we want to play a rush game and a back and forth game we might get in trouble because they have some real high end players who are very good off rush.”
This is the expected matchup. New Yorker Igor Shesterkin is level with the NHL in goals-against average (1.95) and leads the league in saves (0.941).
“He’s definitely very athletic,” Berube said of Shesterkin. “And he looks very calm and cool to me when I watch tapes. He moves back and forth so well and he’s big. And he has a great glove hand.
The Blues’ Ville Husso ranks third in GAA (2.03) and second in Save Percentage (0.935).
On his use of goalkeepers, Berube said: “We’ve talked about these two months coming up here that you need both goalkeepers and there will be a lot of rotation because of the games. I think that’s the right way.”
Dakota Joshua is in the fourth row against Rangers on Wednesday; Klim Kostin is out. This is only the third time all season that Kostin will be a healthy scratch. He’s committed some unwise penalties lately, including an offensive zone hooking penalty on Friday against Buffalo that led to a game-defining power-play goal by Tage Thompson.
“The penalties are certainly (a problem),” said Berube. “I mean, these are unnecessary punishments at the wrong time and not corporal punishment.”
Otherwise, Berube wants to see the following from Kostin: “Just more assertiveness. I’m not sure
all the time exactly what we’ll get. He just needs to be more predictable. And I just want to see him
be a tougher player to play against. Forecheck and physical game. go online. stuff like this.
“Nevertheless, he did some good things. Do not get me wrong. He has come far. I think tonight I just went with Dak. It wasn’t what Kostin did last game or anything. I went with Dak tonight, that’s all.”
After missing Sunday’s game in Chicago due to a bruised bone and some issues with scar tissue in his surgically repaired knee, Oskar Sundqvist is back in the lineup against Rangers.
“It’s better now,” Sundqvist. “It’s a small setback but it’s good to be back.
“We’re not sure what really triggered it. We think it was from a previous game, we think it was mostly from the Ottawa game (February 15) and then it just took.
During his off-ice warm-up routine before the Chicago game, Sundqvist said he had no strength in that leg. “Then it’s not worth going out there and basically running with one leg,” Sundqvist said.
Goalie Will Cranley, a sixth-round draft pick by the Blues in 2020, has signed a three-year entry-level deal with the team.
Cranley currently plays juniors in the Ontario Hockey League for the Ottawa 67’s and will finish the season with them. His numbers aren’t good: 11-19-2 with a record 3.84 clean sheets and an .872 save percentage. But Cranley, who turned 20 last week, plays for a team that isn’t that good.
“He’s not on a very good team, but at the same time it means he’s getting more shots and getting a lot of rubber in the games,” Blues director of player development Tim Taylor said earlier this season. “Which is obviously better for a goalkeeper. One would like to see that.
“The thing is, when you get that many shots and you lose (almost) every night, you become mentally strong as a goalkeeper. I think that will really help him to further his development.”
(Saad traded with Barbashev during Wednesday morning’s skating session.)