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Upstart Leafs aim to take down Rangers

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a lot to like about their 2016-17 season.

They appear to be ahead of schedule with their rebuild, as they are within striking distance of a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division as they come to New York to face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Friday. One year after finishing with the worst record in the league, rookie Auston Matthews has helped propel to the Leafs to postseason contender.

If there's one area that's been a consistent sore spot, it's the role of backup goaltender. Starter Frederik Andersen has been steady after arriving in a trade from Anaheim and signing a five-year deal with the Leafs in the offseason. But the backup spot has been a black hole, but the Leafs are hoping they solved it.

The Leafs claimed Curtis McElhinney off waivers from the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday. The 33-year-old went 2-1-2 with a .924 save percentage this season with the Blue Jackets and Leafs coach Mike Babcock said there's a chance he could be in net against the Rangers.

"He's a veteran," said GM Lou Lamoriello. "He has taken some pretty good minutes as a backup. He's had a pretty good year. We felt this would be a positive thing."

Andersen is on pace to start 70 games this season, which would be nearly 20 more than his career-best, so the Leafs could look to use McElhinney as often as possible over the second half to keep their starter fresh.

"We have no question he can do that, we just have to make sure how we monitor it," Lamoriello said to the Toronto Sun, adding that he hasn't seen signs of weariness in Andersen. "With Freddie's demeanor, one of his biggest assets is his coolness. I just like his composure."

Whether it's Andersen or McElhinney, the Rangers will be facing a Leafs squad that's been playing well over the past month. Their 5-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday before their bye week was the Leafs' first regulation loss since Dec. 19, a span of seven games.

The Rangers are also coming out of a bye after playing well leading into it. They have won five of six and have scored 27 goals during the stretch. After hovering about four goals per game for most of the first month of the season, the Rangers are scoring 3.48 goals per game for the season the second-best mark in the league.

The scary thing for the Leafs -- the Rangers could be even more dangerous than they have been recently when they take the ice Friday.

Rick Nash will return from an eight-game absence due to a groin injury, while rookie winger Pavel Buchnevich is done with rehabbing his back and will play for the first time since Nov. 12. Nash (20 points in 30 games) and Buchnevich (eight points in 10 games) will make the Rangers even deeper.

"It feels ready to go," Nash said to Newsday. "It was a tough practice (Thursday). There hasn't been much practice time, but that's just the way it goes. You're always nervous before a game, coming back from an injury, but I'm looking forward to get it going."

It's not all good news, as the team revealed Thursday that defenseman Marc Staal has missed the past two games because of concussion symptoms. He missed 36 games at the start of the 2011-12 season due to concussion symptoms lingering from the previous season and was out 10 more games in December 2013 because of a concussion.

Still, it's more good news than bad when it comes to the Rangers, who are getting healthier as they embark on the second half of their season.

"I think you can see we can do some special things here with this group," Ryan McDonagh said to the Daily News before the bye week. "It's only gonna get hopefully better here when we get healthy.
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