Preview: Coyotes vs. Rangers, 5:30 p.m., FOX Sports Arizona
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The New York Rangers and Arizona Coyotes want to make sure they don’t take a break before they go on their break.
The Rangers and Coyotes could be excused for looking ahead to the bye week that begins Sunday for Arizona and Monday for New York. But players and coaches for both teams said the key is to not do it.
They could certainly use the time off — the Rangers to rest up following all the increased attention that comes with playing in the NHL’s Winter Classic, the Coyotes to get a much-needed break after being an NHL-worst 9-27-5 record during the first half of the season.
But back-to-back games at Arizona and Vegas, on Sunday, are important for the Rangers as they try to forge an identity, and play their way into the playoffs, during the second half of the season. They already know they’ll be without center Chris Kreider (11 goals, 22 points) indefinitely after he undergoes upcoming rib surgery.
The Rangers weren’t happy with their first game following their 3-2 outdoor game win Monday over the Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field, a 5-2 loss Wednesday to the Chicago Blackhawks. As a result, coach Alain Vigneault put his team through a demanding 40-minute practice Friday; the team couldn’t fly to Phoenix as expected Thursday due to the heavy snow in New York.
“After the last game, we needed one of those (practices),” forward Michael Grabner said of the Rangers, who have lost four of six. “We need to play our game (Saturday). Teams at home usually come out strong and we’ve got to put up the same fight and desperation. Points are very valuable for us and we’ve got to come out strong Saturday.”
Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said much the same thing after his players rallied late in the third period behind Nick Cousins’ tying goal to beat the Nashville Predators 3-2 Thursday, with rookie Christian Fischer scoring his second game-winning overtime goal. Tocchet and goaltender Antti Raanta (37 saves) liked how the team began the second half of what so far has been a dismal season in the desert.
“It was a great way to kick it off. We’ve lost a lot of games in the last five or 10 minutes and (this time) we came back in the last two minutes,” Raanta said.
“We didn’t crumble (late), and that was great to see,” Tocchet said.
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Tocchet calls the Rangers’ game “a maturity thing for us” because he wants to see how the players respond to success rather than adversity — and whether his very young roster looks ahead prematurely to its upcoming five-day break. After Saturday, the Coyotes don’t play again until they meet Edmonton at home on Jan. 12.
“We’ve got one more game (to play), and this is a maturity thing for me,” Tocchet said. “I want to see us come out and play a solid game, so this is a maturity game for me.”
Raanta (6-11-2, 2.82 goals-against average) is expected to be back in net and oppose Henrik Lundqvist (18-10-4, 2.58 GAA), who has played 34 of 40 games to date. However, Rangers backup Ondrej Pavelec (3-4-1, 2.21 GAA) could get one of the two weekend games in a back-to-back situation.
Vigneault made one line change during practice, putting left winger J.T. Miller, center Mika Zibanejad and right winger Pavel Buchnevich (0 goals in nine games) together on the Kreider-less top line.
“Like any team, we need our top guys to play at a top level,” Vigneault said.
The Coyotes added center Freddie Hamilton on waivers from Calgary after the Predators game– he practiced Friday — and could get back injured defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who hasn’t played since Nov. 28, and center Brad Richardson.