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Rangers rookie Neal Pionk continues to impress since his call-up from AHL

New York Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk skates with

New York Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk skates with the puck against the Buffalo Sabres in the second period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, March 24, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Rangers have seven games remaining, with five of the last six on the road, so time is running short for the only thing left for fans to do: Get to know — and evaluate — young players who might make a difference next season and beyond.

Take rookie defenseman Neal Pionk, who in a 5-1 victory over the Sabres on Saturday scored his first NHL goal, ran his streak of games with at least one assist to seven, led the team with 23:24 of ice time and tacked on a warm-and-cuddly coda by saying he would place the puck from that first goal in his father’s office back home in Minnesota.

The 22-year-old now has 13 points in his last 12 games, confirming what coach Alain Vigneault had been told about him in advance of his signing last spring and his being called up from Hartford on Feb. 8.

“That’s what I heard, from our scouts to Gort [GM Jeff Gorton], everybody had talked about this young man being an offensive-minded [defenseman] who could see the ice and understood the game well,” Vigneault said.

“He’s lived up to what we expected and to some extent, him playing all these games right now definitely helps him out for next year coming up.”

“Next year” are the operative words around everything the Rangers are doing, and it would appear that Pionk is a big part of that conversation, which is all one can ask for at this stage.

Pionk said after Saturday’s game he is comfortable assuming more and more responsibility on the ice.

“I’ve handled that before in past seasons with previous teams,” he said. “So when I get more responsibility, it’s about easing into it, not trying to be too complicated.”

Fair enough, but it also is fair to point out his previous teams included the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL, the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. This is a bit of a step up.

So far, so good, though, so by all means continue getting to know young Neal, who even beyond his parents’ excellent taste in first names seems to be an interesting fellow.

A bio distributed by the Rangers says Pionk’s favorite athlete as a child was then-Twins pitcher Johan Santana, that the person he would most like to trade places with for one day is a Cardinals-era Albert Pujols, that Adam Sandler should be the actor to play him in a movie and that his father, Kevin, who owns a landscaping business, built a baseball field in the family’s front yard, a hockey rink in the side yard and a football field in the backyard.

“It was awesome,” said Pionk, who has four brothers and a golden retriever named Annie.

Also: His favorite film is “Inception,” a word defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act, process, or instance of beginning.”

Yup, that’s the idea here.

New York Sports