PREVIEW: Busy Pittsburgh Penguins set to welcome surging New York Rangers

Mar 2, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers left wing Alexis Lafreniere (13) (second from left) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Buffalo Sabres at 2:13 of the first period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Bennett-POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Once unsightly, the New York Rangers are trending in the right direction going into their game Sunday against the Penguins in Pittsburgh.

The optics are far better than they were early in the season when New York won just once over its first six games.

The Rangers have now won three consecutive games, four of five and six of eight after downing the New Jersey Devils 6-3 on the road Saturday.

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New York looks to be separating itself from the bottom two teams in the East, New Jersey and Buffalo. The Rangers are four points behind the fifth-place Penguins with a game in hand.

Ryan Strome, who had two goals Saturday against the Devils, sees a young team maturing.

“When we get contributions from all over the lineup at both ends of the ice … that’s a good sign for us and a good sign moving forward,” Strome said. “Lately we’re finding a way.”

Although the Rangers have been sitting near the bottom of the East standings pretty much all season, one bright spot coinciding their improved play lately has been the recent emergence of rookie Alexis Lafreniere.

After a slow start when he seemed a bit overwhelmed, the top pick in the 2020 NHL draft has been promoted to New York’s top line. He is has blossomed despite behind held without a point Saturday, ending his five-game point streak.

“At the start of the season, you always want to produce offensively as an offensive player,” the 19-year-old Lafreniere said. “But I was trying to keep my composure, and I knew it was going to come. I wasn’t playing my best hockey the first couple of games, but as the season, the games, started going, I was better, I think.”

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He’s now sitting at four goals, seven points.

“For sure, the game is getting a little bit slower, and (I am) getting used to the pace a little bit,” Lafreniere said. “I still have things to improve and work on in practice and in games.”

For Pittsburgh, it seems possible that backup goaltender Casey DeSmith could get the start. Tristan Jarry, who has re-established himself as the No. 1 goaltender after a shaky start to the season, has started 10 of the past 11 games for Pittsburgh.

That includes Saturday afternoon, when he made 19 saves as the Penguins beat Philadelphia 4-3 to win what amounted to a three-game miniseries against the Flyers. Pittsburgh also won 5-2 on Tuesday, before the Flyers won 4-3 on Thursday. All three games were at Pittsburgh.

Not only is Pittsburgh playing on back-to-back days, but it has 16 games scheduled for March.

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“I would anticipate using both guys,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of his goaltenders. “We’re going to go through a stretch where we’re playing a lot of games in a short period of time. We’ll rely on both guys. We trust that both of these guys give us a chance to win. We’ll make those decisions on a game-by-game basis.”

The Penguins might have exorcized some demons with Saturday’s win, which came after they blew an early 3-0 lead in Thursday’s loss to the Flyers.

“I was happy for the players because I thought their response was really strong,” Sullivan said.

–Field Level Media