TODAY'S PAPER
Overcast 53° Good Afternoon
Overcast 53° Good Afternoon
SportsColumnistsSteve Zipay

Who will be odd-man out when Kevin Hayes returns to Rangers lineup?

New York Rangers center Kevin Hayes skates after

New York Rangers center Kevin Hayes skates after he scores in a shootout in overtime against the New Jersey Devils during an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Dec.18, 2016. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

When it comes to the lower tier of Rangers forwards, push is coming to shove.

Center Kevin Hayes, who has 13 goals and 35 points in 47 games, but is sidelined with a left leg injury, skated for 45 minutes on Saturday, and is very close to returning, presumably this week, when the Blueshirts have three home games after today’s matinee against the Calgary Flames.

That will leave 14 healthy forwards. In a tough call, one will be either waived or traded. The candidates are Brandon Pirri, Matt Puempel and Oscar Lindberg, with Pirri perhaps the odd-man out.

In 214 NHL games with four teams, Pirri has 57 goals and 96 points, with 18 goals and 32 of those points on the power play. So Pirri, 25, who has eight goals and 16 points in 48 games — might have the most value on the trade market, which general manager Jeff Gorton has been exploring.

A restricted free agent whose $1.1 million contract only has a third of the season remaining, Pirri might not clear waivers. Gorton might be trying to land a defenseman or a prospect rather than lose Pirri for nothing. Any of the league’s bottom teams in power-play goals: Colorado, Vancouver, Buffalo, Florida, Ottawa, the Devils or the Islanders might take a low-cost flyer on Pirri.

Recently, the touch and accuracy haven’t been there (two goals in the last 18 games) for Pirri. Although he has been working hard, coach Alain Vigneault has pointed out, some defensive holes have surfaced, and Pirri will be a healthy scratch for the second straight game on Sunday.

Signed as free agent in August, Pirri who didn’t argue with the coach’s assessment, is a natural winger who has spent time at center and on this team, is seen as a power-play specialist. He has five goals — three came in the first 17 games — in that role.

Puempel, a first-round draft pick in 2011 who was claimed off waivers from Ottawa on Nov. 21, would have to clear waivers, along with Lindberg. Puempel, 24, is 6-1-7 in 30 games, is earning $900,000 but has suffered two concussions this season.

Lindberg, 25, is a homegrown, pure center who missed 14 of the first 23 games in the aftermath of offseason hip surgery, and earns $650,000. Both are restricted free agents as well.

So unless there’s an injury, it appears either Pirri, Puempel or Lindberg will be waived or traded.

Lundqvist to start again

Henrik Lundqvist, coming off a splendid 36-save performance in Thursday’s 2-1 win in Buffalo, will start Sunday against Calgary (27-24-3), which beat the Devils, 4-3, in overtime in Newark on Friday for its third straight victory. (The Flames, by the way, practiced on Lasker Rink in Central Park on Saturday.)

But Vigneault said that backup Antti Raanta, who became a father on Thursday with the birth of daughter Evelyn, would play against either Anaheim, Nashville or Colorado this week. “That I can be upfront with,” he said. Asked if Lundqvist would be playing the brunt of the remaining regular-season games, Vigneault hedged: “We’re going on a one-game basis,” said Vigneault. “But I do have an idea.”

The Blueshirts won, 4-1, at the Saddledome on Nov. 12 to open a three-game Western Canada sweep, with Michael Grabner, Derek Stepan, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich scoring and Lundqvist stopping 35 shots. The Rangers are 4-0-1 in their last five against Calgary.

But the Rangers have been wobbly (14-11-1) at Madison Square Garden, losing six of the last eight and being outscored 35-24.

“We’re aware of our home record,” Vigneault said. “Since I’ve been here, I feel we’ve been very good at home, we’re going through a small little stretch that’s been challenging for us, but I feel we’re real close.”

Lundqvist practiced in, and will wear, the NHL-mandated streamlined pants for the first time. “Doesn’t feel much different,” he said. “Looks redder.”

According to TSN/ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, a violation results in a two-game suspension, a $25,000 fine to the team and a $1,000 fine to the equipment manager.

Super coincidence?

In the last 10 seasons, the Rangers have played twice on Super Bowl Sunday. They beat the Canadiens, 5-3, in Montreal on Feb. 3, 2008, and the Flyers, 5-2, at home on Feb. 5, 2012. On each date, the Giants beat the Patriots. If the Rangers beat the Flames Sunday afternoon, should Bill Belichick be even more wary?

***

Here’s some of the Rangers picks---some quite humorous---for today’s Super Bowl.

Unabashed Patriots fan Kevin Hayes: New England, 38-3

Boston-born Jimmy Vesey: New England, 31-24

Mika Zibanejad: Atlanta, 37-33

Matt Puempel: New England, 27-11,

Brady Skjei: New England 35-31

Russian rookie Pavel Buchnevich: “England”

Pittsburgh-area native J.T. Miller: “Anybody but Brady.”

Quebec-born coach Alain Vigneault: “I’ve got enough to worry about with my own sport.”

New York Sports