Two steps forward, one step back

After finally ending a six-game skid with a pair of big division wins earlier this week, the Devils regressed in another weekend beatdown at the hands of the Flyers, who are now 2-0 against their NJ rivals inside of a week.  Worse, neither game was really close as the Flyers outscored the Devils by a combined 8-3 in the two losses (not including Drew Stafford’s laughable consolation goal down 5-2 with under a minute remaining at the Rock last Sunday).  I was going to watch today’s afternoon matinee against the Flyers on tape delay this evening, but peeked at the score early and saw it was 3-0 in the first period and Keith Kinkaid was already pulled – due to injury as it turned out though ironically after a poor outing Kinkaid might have been given the hook anyway when he got hurt on the third goal allowed.  Needless to say I’m not going to bother watching this one over.

Allegedly the Devils played better over the final two periods without the goals to show for it, and Appelby even showed a little something in what literally turned out to be an emergency appearance with Cory Schneider laid up for a week and counting due to illness, and now Kinkaid on the shelf.  Even third-stringer Eddie Lack is on the shelf for Binghamton, so Appelby may very well draw a critical start at home Monday against the Red Wings, before the team winds up making a tough trip to Boston on a back-to-back, then comes back home Thursday to play a good Predators team.

Honestly I haven’t watched any game this week – Saturday and Thursday I was busy, while Tuesday I was too teed off at the beatdown against the Flyers Saturday extending our losing streak to six games and vowed not to watch till they got off the schneid.  And well today, what’s the point?  I will be at Monday’s game, sadly I almost forgot they had a home game since it’s the only one I’ll be able to go to this month.  I still haven’t completely got the sour taste of my last trip to the Rock out of my mouth yet (the terrible Sabre loss that commenced the losing streak).

I can’t even complain after the two wins this week as much as I’m puzzled as to why today happened.  After all on Thursday they played very well against a fine Caps team – granted one that was coming off their bye week and didn’t get a practice in – getting a 3-1 lead, then after blowing yet another two-goal lead late they still managed to win in OT in electrifying fashion when Taylor Hall caused a turnover and scored on a breakaway.  In fact three of our goals – Stafford, Hall and Miles Wood – all came on breakaways against a Caps team clearly out of sync.  Still, wins are wins and getting revenge on the Isles in Brooklyn followed by beating the division leaders at home should have been enough to power another surge.

Instead the team came out flat for the second time in a week against the Flyers, while Kinkaid after one good game and one game where the team survived him showed why he’s been a poor backup this season in spite of his W-L record allowing another poor early goal that set the tone.  He’s a good kid, his emoji recaps are fun but he just has not been a good goaltender this year.  If Lack weren’t hurt I’d be advocating giving him some games but we might literally be down to our fourth string goalie on Monday.  Appelby did actually play well by all accounts today in his NHL debut but there’s also something to be said for coming in with no pressure and knowing beforehand you’re getting your first NHL start.

In summation things aren’t great right now but they’re better than they could be all things considered given our recent struggles (2-4-3 in the last nine games), given some of the other Metro bubble teams are falling off too.  True, our eight or nine point lead on a playoff spot is down to three, but after the bye we still have multiple games in hand on our competition.  So maybe it’s closer to a six-point lead, but still this team needs to keep its foot on the gas pedal and not have letdown games like this afternoon or objects in the mirror really will be closer than they appear.

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With losing streak at three, desperate Blueshirts recall Peter Holland and send down Boo Nieves

Much has been made of Alain Vigneault’s lineups during a up and down season. With the Rangers in a slump having dropped three in a row in bad fashion, he’s now desperate enough to turn to Peter Holland.

Acquired from Montreal for Adam Cracknell, Holland is on his fifth organization. A former Anaheim first round pick in 2009, the 27-year old center was recalled from Hartford. In 16 games, he totaled five goals and nine assists. With him up, Boo Nieves was sent down. Nieves has a goal and eight assists in 29 games for the Blueshirts. He was used primarily as the fourth line center playing mostly with Paul Carey and whoever Vigneault stuck with them.

You never know what he’s thinking. Conventional wisdom went out a long time ago. In 44 games which feels like double due to all of his different line combinations and D pairs, we’ve seen everything. Pavel Buchnevich has gone from top line status to the fourth and third line. Jesper Fast went from secondary player to the first line. I can’t follow what Vigneault does anymore. Confusing isn’t even the word.

Make no mistake. This isn’t all on the coach. The players deserve plenty of blame along with the general manager. With a couple of notable exceptions including Fast, Michael Grabner, Marc Staal and both Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec, most of the roster has underperformed. So, it’s left a desperate coach with no choice.

When they host old nemesis Philadelphia tonight, they’ll do so minus Kevin Hayes and probably Ryan McDonagh, who each could will miss their second straight game with injuries. At 22-17-5 with 49 points, they find themselves one point behind the Islanders for the second wildcard. Having not won in regulation since Dec. 19 against Anaheim, they have to get out of this with a more consistent effort. If not, heads will roll and the Rangers will become sellers at the February 26 trade deadline.

All one has to do is listen to Lundqvist after each loss in the Rangers locker room. He’s running out of explanations. They all say the right thing but actions speak louder than words. Let their play do the talking.

What should be expected from a team that can’t put together a full 60 minutes and continues to allow 37 shots leaving most of the work on the goalies? They’re facing a team that’s scoring. Sean Couturier now is a breakout star with 25 goals and 45 points while linemates Claude Giroux (14-40-54) and Jake Voracek (8-45-53) have been rejuvenated. They’ll also have to account for defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. His 32 points (9-23-32) are among the league leaders for D. He is expected to return and pair up with good second-year Russian Ivan Provorov. That gives the Flyers a unique tandem. Something the Rangers lack. Don’t forget pest Wayne Simmonds, who usually scores against us in front.

Here are the Rangers lines. Subject to change at any moment.

So, J.T. Miller moves to center to fill the Hayes void. Maybe it’ll get him going. He’s been invisible lately. Interesting that Vinni Lettieri gets to play with Miller and Mats Zuccarello. Lettieri has a goal and two assists since his recall and has hit at least three goalposts. He could easily have more points. Buchnevich is back with Zibanejad while stone hands Rick Nash gets first dibs. Remember when Nash was brought in as a 40-goal man? I miss those days.

This insistence on using David Desharnais as a third line center is insane. They have no choice. I don’t like Jimmy Vesey on the third unit either. God forbid they reward him and give the kid a look with Zibanejad and Buchnevich. He won’t play enough. Carey has done what’s been asked. But that’s a weak third line. How is our leading goalscorer on the fourth line? Grabner has 19 goals and should be higher. I don’t get it. Holland gets two good players who never take shifts off in Grabner and Fast. Lucky him. But for how long?

It indicates that McDonagh was on the ice. With back spasms, you never know. He’s a game time decision. If he plays, scratch Steven Kampfer. Brendan Smith has to play and they’re not benching Kevin Shattenkirk. At some point, he’ll snap out of it. I’m most curious to see how he performs along with Brady Skjei. They were good earlier this season but have struggled mightily since being reunited. Are they together or apart? I have no idea.

That’s it in a nutshell. The Flyers are hot winning four straight. They’re scoring on the power play and playing well. They’re one point behind the Rangers with 48 having played one less game. Like every other Metro team, it’s right there for them.

How will the Rangers respond to getting outscored 12-4 over the weekend? If they don’t, MSG could get very ugly. I’m sure the “Fire AV” chants are getting warmed up. We’ll see.

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Greiss makes 52 saves to lift Islanders over Canadiens into second wildcard

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John Tavares puts in his own rebound past Carey Price to give the Islanders a 5-4 overtime win at Montreal. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy CTV News Montreal. 

Great goaltending can sometimes be enough to steal games. The Islanders can thank backup goalie Thomas Greiss for their 5-4 overtime win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre on Martin Luther King Day. His 52 saves were enough along with John Tavares’ second goal of the night to move the Isles ahead of the idle Rangers into the second wildcard. They’re up to 50 points in 45 games after winning a third straight time.

The Islanders were able to beat Carey Price five times on only 24 shots to get a wild road win up north. Tavares scored twice and red hot rookie Mathew Barzal continued his torrid pace with three more points (16th goal, two assists) to give him eight in the last two games. He recorded five in a blowout 7-2 win at New York.

They won due to Greiss, who stood on his head throughout to give the Isles a chance. Twice, they blew two-goal leads in the game. But were able to overcome a dominant Habs attack which fired shots from everywhere on Greiss. For the little used backup, he did a great job given the circumstances. With it being the second game in three days with a third in four Tuesday night at home against the Devils, Greiss was needed to rest starter Jaro Halak.

Before the game was seven minutes old, Barzal had set up Anthony Beauvillier for a goal 1:24 in and beat Price high glove at 6:29 for a 2-0 lead. The emerging leading candidate for the Calder is up to 47 points in 45 games. He is ahead of Canucks sniper Brock Boeser and Boston defenseman Charlie McAvoy.

But before the first period was out, the Habs came back to tie it on goals from Nicolas Deslauriers and Paul Byron 4:09 apart. The Habs outshot the Isles 13-7 in the period.

The second saw the Islanders get only six shots. However, they made the most of their opportunities thanks to goals from Adam Pelech and a shorthanded one from Tavares to once again take a two goal lead.

However, the Canadiens dominated the rest of the period. Using their speed in the neutral zone, they feasted on Islander turnovers to quickly transition. They peppered Greiss with 22 shots in a lopsided stanza except on the scoreboard. It took some extra effort from struggling center Jonathan Drouin to beat Greiss when he put home a rebound at 19:16 from Alex Galchenyuk and Jakub Jerabek. That made it a one goal deficit after two.

With injuries hurting them, the Isles were down to five defensemen in the third with Scott Mayfield exiting the game. Already without regulars Josh Bailey, Johnny Boychuk and Casey Cizikas, a exhausted Islanders team held on in the third as best they can.

Montreal continued to dictate play by outshooting the Isles 19-7. A Pelech holding minor allowed the Canadiens to tie the game up. A failed clear from Tavares led directly to some nice passing from Montreal. Finally, Galchenyuk fed Jeff Petry for a one-timer that went through a Brendan Gallagher screen for a power play goal that made it 4-4 with 6:59 left in regulation. The goal was later credited to Max Pacioretty. The much maligned Montreal captain drew another penalty when Ryan Puloch tripped him up . But the Isles were able to kill the crucial penalty with under three minutes remaining.

In the final minute, Barzal nearly set up the winner with Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle coming close. That line has been one of the hottest since it was put together by coach Doug Weight.

The game went to overtime. In it, it was some determination by Tavares that got it done. After being robbed by Price, he took a Thomas Hickey feed in front and put home his own rebound for his team-leading 24th at 1:51. A great play by a top player.

The Islanders now are streaking at the right time. With three wins in a row, they can keep it going against the Devils at Barclays Center tonight. The Devs have cooled considerably. They’re locked into third place in the Metro Division with 52 points in just 42 games. The games in hand could be a factor. It should be a interesting match.

In another game of curiosity, the slumping Rangers are hosting the Flyers. Four total points separate third place New Jersey from sixth in the division.

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The Rangers are a lost cause

rangers-penguins-hockey

Henrik Lundqvist is all by himself way too often following another Rangers loss. He faced 46 shots and stopped 42 in a 5-2 defeat to the Penguins. It’s time for the organization to consider radical changes putting the future first ahead of the middling present. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Daily News.

It took a lot of games to reach this point. Since a poor start, the Rangers picked themselves up and played their way back into playoff contention. Even without Mika Zibanejad for a period, they did well enough to make one believe the season could be a good one when you consider how much parity there is.

However, the most recent stretch in which they’ve failed to win a game in regulation since Dec. 19 has changed my mind. When the 18 skaters Alain Vigneault puts out there along with tinkered lineups due to what he’s been given to work with give less than their best effort on a consistent basis, it begs the question what the organization is doing.

Henrik Lundqvist has played his best hockey since winning the Vezina under the better defensive oriented ‘11-12 roster coached by former taskmaster John Tortorella. At 35, he’s given everything while facing a heavier workload with backup Ondrej Pavelec not playing as much. When he has, he’s also been under siege. Until a 7-2 drubbing in which the poor backup was chased by the arch rival Islanders for five goals in a Mathew Barzal Calder showcase, Pavelec had played extremely well over the previous five starts.

When you are allowing between 37 to 38 shots since the second week of November, you’re asking a lot of your netminders. They’ve more than made up for inconsistent defense and awful coverage that have put both Lundqvist and Pavelec as the last line of defense. How many breakaways and odd man rushes can they ask them to stop? It’s ridiculous.

Embarrassing was how we’d describe their performance or lack there of against the blood rival Islanders, who humiliated them at angry MSG where deserved boos rained down. This wasn’t Pavelec’s fault that Barzal’s line with Anthony Beauvillier and Jordan Eberle skated circles around them combining for a jaw dropping 13 points while matched against Vigneault’s top line of J.T. Miller, Zibanejad and Mats Zuccarello. Barzal did whatever he wanted putting up two goals and three assists for his second five-point game to take the lead in rookie scoring over Brock Boeser. Eberle had four helpers and Beauvillier added two goals and two assists.

It wasn’t only the forwards who couldn’t be bothered to cover. But the struggling pair of Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk. Both were minus-four and badly victimized. Skjei has been a disappointment in his second year. At times, he shows the potential with bursts of speed shifting from defense to offense. During others, he gets undressed like partner Shattenkirk, who wasn’t brought in for his defense. His offense has been underwhelming since mid-November. No wonder the power play has gone from one of the league’s best to a middling puzzling unit that at last check was ranked a disappointing 18th.

Puzzling are these Blueshirts. Rick Nash with only nine goals and none in way too long entering Sunday’s match at Pittsburgh. Even Zuccarello with eight who leads the team with 32 points, hasn’t been consistent enough. We’ll excuse Zibanejad, whose 14 markers and 25 points are good considering the chunk of time he missed due to a concussion. The minus-11 not withstanding.

Since Chris Kreider went down with a blood clot in which he had part of his rib removed that should keep him out the remainder of the season, the offense has struggled big time. It’s only been six games with yet another lopsided defeat- this time 5-2 to the Pens that made it three consecutive losses since struggling to beat the Coyotes in a shootout. Minus the imposing Kreider, who adds the size and net front presence to his dynamic speed and skill that aids the Rangers transition, they’re finding it tough to generate a consistent forecheck at five-on-five. Seemingly outshot every game with the world class Pens recording a jaw dropping 47 with four of the first 46 beating a poor Lundqvist, the team has no answer.

At one point, they led the game 2-1 after a period of action on goals from Michael Grabner (team best 19th) and Brendan Smith. Following the first period, shots were dead even at 13 apiece. The problem isn’t always the starts even though they usually fall behind early before recovering. Pittsburgh struck first.

The bigger issue is the lack of sustainability. A dismal second period followed with the Pens scoring twice while outshooting the Rangers 18-7. It was every bit as bad as Saturday’s atrocity against the Islanders. They took two early penalties to give Pittsburgh momentum. Even though they didn’t score on them, they took control with Dominik Simon getting his first career NHL goal and Phil Kessel sniping his 20th as Rangers just stood around. A common theme throughout the first 44 games.

Think about this. After playing the Pens to a stand-off in shots at 13-13, the Rangers were outshot 34-15 the rest of the match. Not coincidentally, the Pens outscored them 4-zip including Sidney Crosby being given too much room by four stationary players in white to beat Lundqvist with a good shot stickside. The four all on one side. Another issue plaguing this team. Adding further insult, Carl Hagelin scored the empty netter as soon as former teammate Lundqvist was pulled for his first goal in 18 games. It was also his first two-point game of the season.

How bad is it? Not only have they dropped three straight in regulation. They’ve been outscored 14-5 including 13-5 over a lost weekend. Astonishingly, they’re still clinging onto the second wildcard stuck on 49 points. The Pens are up to 51 having won four in a row to move into the first wildcard. Even in a overrated division where teams continue to alternate wins and losses, the stumbling Blueshirts are still in playoff position. One ahead of the Isles with the suddenly slumping Hurricanes at 48 and confusing Flyers also at 48.

One could argue that with both the Blue Jackets and Devils coming back to the pack, it’s right there for the Rangers. But if you’re watching these games, they’re not close. The 2-1 loss at Vegas last week wasn’t that competitive. While entertaining, it was a matter of time before the Golden Knights found the one goal they needed to win in a game they controlled most of before a late Rangers push.

The bottom line is the roster GM Jeff Gorton put together isn’t good enough. Forget the fact Kevin Hayes and Ryan McDonagh (back spasms) were out last night. You can’t rely on David Desharnais to be a third line player with rookie Boo Nieves learning as the fourth line center. Hayes has done admirably as the new match-up second line pivot in place of Derek Stepan but his overall production has suffered. With 10 goals and eight assists in 43 games, that’s not enough from a skilled player who’s admitted he must shoot more rather than pass in Year 4. It would be nice if he got rewarded more for his hard work.

J.T. Miller has been underwhelming. Sure. The 27 points rank second on the team trailing only Zuccarello. But just eight goals on 68 shots is pathetic for a player with a good shot capable of much more. Along with puzzling turnovers on the Rangers overpassing syndrome and even some defensive deficiencies showing, what is Miller at this point? Is he worth investing in as a RFA this summer with Hayes? Don’t forget Skjei is due for a raise off his ELC.

There aren’t many Rangers earning their keep. Say for Pavel Buchnevich, whose 11-15-26 in 43 contests is a nice improvement in Year 2. As far as how he’s been handled, I don’t agree with Vigneault. While I understand part of why he goes from using the gifted Russian on the top line to either the third or fourth line, the Miller treatment might not be the best approach with the club’s most talented skater with a language barrier. Whether he’s playing with Kreider and Zibanejad or Desharnais, Nieves or Jimmy Vesey- another young player who isn’t used enough despite a strong work ethic- credit Buchnevich for continuing to play the same way driving possession and generating scoring chances. If there is a area he must improve, it’s hitting the net more. He’s missed on a number of open one-timers and hasn’t thought shot enough. He’s totaled 11 goals on 88 shots with plenty of power play time to do more damage. His passing is top notch as is his skating. He has a Alexei Kovalev quality to him. It’s the subtleties which includes failing to clear the zone. He’s far from alone in this area.

If there’s a legit gripe from the Rangers community, it’s a double standard with a coach who can be stubborn when it comes to young players. Just ask Miller, who’s been moved around like a volleyball from wing to center back to wing along with duties on each line. Is it a recipe for success? At some point, there needs to be line familiarity.

Vigneault prefers checkers Grabner and Jesper Fast, who both give honest efforts on both sides of the puck. He’s rewarded both with increased roles. Grabner continuing to be one of the team’s best signings. His 19 goals this year following 27 last season give him a combined 46 which leads all Rangers over a two-year stretch. Kreider paced them with 28 in ‘16-17 and his 11 gives him 39 before the blood clot was discovered.

Fast has done a great job with seven goals and 10 assists in 35 contests. You can’t argue his contribution with underperforming players such as Nash (9 goals on 135 shots). However, this business with having Fast on the first line with Zibanejad is puzzling. He’s better suited in a secondary role. Move Buchnevich back up with Zibanejad and try Vesey, who has been one of the better performers recently. Nash hasn’t done enough to merit top line status. Zuccarello doesn’t fit either. He’s a minus-nine in the last five games. Let’s see what the kids can do.

The defense remains in limbo. With McDonagh’s game slipping despite not having a adequate partner (Nick Holden), it’s hard for there to be any chemistry. When Marc Staal has rebounded to be your most consistent defenseman, that’s a problem. Staal deserves tons of credit for how he’s played. But it underlines the point that McDonagh, Skjei and especially Shattenkirk haven’t been good enough. Smith has been a huge disappointment following re-upping for four years at over $4 million AAV.

What’s the solution? Call up reinforcements. Tony DeAngelo has been in Hartford all winter since failing to establish himself as a regular. The jury is out on the Stepan deal that also sent Antti Raanta to Arizona with Lias Andersson drafted seventh overall. After his recent showing in Buffalo at the World Junior Championship where he scored six times for runner-up Sweden while showing frustration at losing to Canada by tossing his silver medal to a lucky fan before getting it back, the future is bright. The Rangers need more players who hate losing as much as this kid. Way too critiqued by hypocritical Canadians with Ray Ferraro starting the whole thing. Like Canada enjoyed being second fiddle to Team USA last year. Holy moly!

As long as the organization remains patient with centers Andersson (Frolunda) and 2017 first round pick Filip Chytil (Hartford), they should have a good plan moving forward.

They have some difficult choices ahead with the Feb. 26 trade deadline getting closer by the day. With the current roster allowing almost 40 shots regularly and having not won in regulation since a 4-1 win on 12/19 over Anaheim, it’s hard to justify keeping the team intact. The very thought that they’re listening to offers for prospective unrestricted’s Nash, Grabner, Holden while possibly deciding on future 2019 UFA’s McDonagh and Zuccarello is the right thing to explore. They must find out what they can get. While Nash’s value has to be down, he could still bring back a second or third round pick while needing a scenery change. Grabner has increased his value so much. He’s a great fit under Vigneault with his game breaking speed and defensive acumen perfect for the transition game the vet coach likes. But if they can get a second back for him, you do it. Grabner could always re-sign if Vigneault survives. There’s no guarantee.

As hard as it is to admit with Lundqvist getting older, this isn’t a good team. It’s mediocre at best and has benefited from teams losing. If the Atlantic wasn’t so bad, the decision would be easy. As Mortimer would say from Trading Places, “Sell! Sell!!! Sell!!!!!”

Is it really worth it to hang onto some distant hope that’s there’s still a chance? I don’t think so. We’ve seen enough now to know better. With 38 games left, they can either stand pat and do nothing or make the necessary changes moving forward which can benefit them long-term.

Not only blaming the coach. But the players as well. Who do you think put it together? It’s time for radical change in thinking and philosophy.

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Devils facing first crisis of the season

So far things have been the good ship lollipop for the most part in Newark with the Devils surprising the league through their first 35 games, younger players producing and everyone getting along (except fans with each other, but what do you expect from the internet?).  However the last two games have revealed a team that’s in crisis mode for the first time, as the Devils dropped their sixth straight game last night in Newark, losing to the lowly – albeit only by Metro standards – Flyers 5-3 coming out of the long bye week.  While you could fairly say at the start of the losing streak the Devils were playing well and not catching breaks, the last two games they flat out blew against division rivals that if you’re a legit playoff team you need to win.  Especially with the schedule not getting any easier now that we’re finally starting to play other Metro teams more consistently.

I almost – almost – felt bad for Derek last night because it’s really our fault that the Isles got going last weekend when we blew a 4-2 third period lead to a reeling rival from Brooklyn and eventually lost in a shootout.  As I feared, that game let them off the hook in the middle of their own losing streak and did get them going again. Ironically, the Rangers were the carnage in the storm yesterday in their brutal Saturday afternoon loss to the Brooklyn team.  Of course with six straight losses I don’t have room to feel bad for anyone else right now.  Granted, the Devils are still in good playoff position but there’s still too much season left, this team’s gotta snap out of it soon and not return to its recent losing ways.  Another of my fears all season was that the team had thrived on the scrappy underdog role but once there started to be expectations, that’s when the team would get tight.  To a degree that might be happening now.

Aside from that, this losing streak has brought to light even more the problems we’ve had on defense all season.  With the offense and goalie Cory Schneider playing well they were able to gloss over the defensive woes in the first thirty-five games, but once both started to sag even a little bit, the defensive woes have been that much more magnified.  For a team that supposedly has defensive depth now, and will have to make more ‘tough’ lineup decisions when Mirco Mueller comes back – they really don’t have any true top pairing defensemen, and forcefeeding guys like Steven Santini and skitzo Sami Vatanen into top-pairing roles has had a negative trickle down effect.  For at least two of the three years under John Hynes, the answer to the defensive issues seems to be have Andy Greene and someone else play the rope-a-dope mode (this year Santini, two years ago Adam Larsson) and just absorb shot after shot providing no offensive threat of their own while hopefully keeping those shots out of the high-danger areas.  However that only works if your top pairing is semi-competent defensively like Greene and Larsson were as a pairing back in 2015-16.

Greene has aged too quickly for this defense to absorb the blow, Santini as an essential rookie really isn’t ready for the role he’s been thrust into, and Vatanen – well goodness gracious, sometimes he’s been a force offensively and a trainwreck defensively, other times he’s been decent defensively and invisible-bad offensively.  Although he’s shown flashes at both ends of the player he used to be in Anaheim a couple years ago, he’s been way too inconsistent at both ends to have a true positive impact.  And those are our ‘best’ defensemen although if you believe the Corsi darlings it’s Damon Severson – who’s again found himself in Hynes’ chateau bow wow after a series of recent scratches, and for all the talk around shot-based stats he hasn’t actually produced enough offensively to offset his defensive airhead moments.

At the moment, it’s hard to see where any answers are coming from within.  While John Moore and Ben Lovejoy have actually been better in bottom-pairing roles this season, we’ve seen them get more minutes and it isn’t pretty.  Will Butcher isn’t ready physically to take on more of a role than the quasi-one dimensional back pairing guy he is.  And Mueller, while he was playing well the few games before he got hurt, his collarbone injury really set his progress back and it’ll be harder finding playing time for him now that we again have eight bodies on D.  It’s especially hard to see how this D gets better if Cory continues making more mistakes of his own and regressing to last year’s rotted corpse version of goaltending, rather than the version of previous years who resembeled a top ten goalie in the NHL.  Never mind backup Keith Kinkaid who’s been mostly awful this year, save a pair of decent-good games against the Rangers and Stars.

I wish I could offer even more of a recap on last night but as luck would have it I had other commitments (going to a friend’s dinner party).  I joked to another friend that I wasn’t sure what would be more contentious, the dinner party or the game.  Turned out the drama stayed under the surface at the party but is only starting to multiply now with the team.  On the other hand at least the party saved me from going to what turned out to be a trainwreck last night.  Our bye week was supposed to be a chance to reset after five straight losses including the brutal blown game Sunday at Brooklyn but losing to the Flyers at home – and losing two leads in the process – only multiplied the inner doubts that have to be creeping in to a team that’s mostly too young to have ever played a real role on winning teams save Greene, Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle.

Of course you can look at our spot in the standings and say we’re still in good position given our games in hand despite the losing streak but between our defensive woes, our headcase goaltending and having an offense built around rookies who probably have to hit the proverbial rookie wall eventually, this team can’t afford to bleep around with games like last night if they want to actually make a mark this year.  Amazingly enough, last night was the first meeting between top two overall picks Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick (above).  So far Hischier’s had the better year both in terms of individual play and team success but it was Patrick’s team who laughed last at the final buzzer.  With another meeting in Brooklyn looming on Tuesday and facing the Caps at home next Thursday things aren’t going to get any easier, and this team needs to buck up and buckle down.

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Duclair dealt to Blackhawks

Anthony Duclair

Anthony Duclair is on the move again headed to Chicago. 

File this one under former Blueshirts. Anthony Duclair finally got his wish. He was dealt to the Blackhawks earlier in a four player deal involving another one time Ranger Adam Clendening. Going to the Coyotes are Richard Panik and Laurent Dauphin.

The story here is simple. Chicago needed to unload some salary. So, they save $1.6 million for now by acquiring former Rangers top prospect Duclair, who earns $1.2 million until he turns restricted this summer.

Origjnally a 2013 third round pick taken 80th overall in the same NHL Draft the Rangers selected Russian Pavel Buchnevich at number 75, Duke made a good debut as a 19-year old making the club in ‘14-15. He picked up his first career NHL goal with six assists over 18 games. But Alain Vigneault soured on him.

Eventually, Duclair was packaged to the Coyotes with John Moore, a 2015 second round pick and 2016 first for Keith Yandle, Chris Summers and a 2016 fourth round pick on March 1, 2015.

It was a rental for the Rangers, who got the superb passing offensive defenseman in Yandle for a year and a half. Even though he was misused on the third pair, he performed well helping the team to within a game of returning to the Stanley Cup. Yandle spent the entire ‘15-16 season on Broadway leading all Blueshirts in assists (42) while his 47 points paced all their defensemen. But after a first round disappointment, GM Jeff Gorton couldn’t re-sign him. He traded Yandle’s negotiating rights to the Panthers acquiring two picks. Yandle stayed in Florida where he currently is on the top pair on a underachieving team out of the playoffs.

Many fans and bloggers were divided on that trade. In one sense, the Rangers went for it. Glen Sather rolled the dice one last time before turning over general manager duties to Gorton. They came so close. Who knows if Mats Zuccarello would’ve made the difference against Tampa Bay. We’ll never know.

On the other hand, Slats parted with another young prospect with a bright future and overpaid for a rental. But it was the right move. They didn’t win the Cup. It happens. I would’ve done the same thing.

As it turned out, Duclair hasn’t been as good as advertised. After recording 20 goals and 24 assists in his first full season during ‘15-16, he struggled last year producing only five goals and 10 helpers in 58 contests before being sent down. His third season has been inconsistent. Losing ice time to Calder hopeful Clayton Keller and a impressive young nucleus that includes Christian Fischer, Christian Dvorak and Brendan Perlini with Dylan Strome and Lawson Crouse rated ahead of him, Duclair requested a trade.

It made sense for him to move on. He was never gonna get ideal playing time in Arizona. He did return to the lineup and scored a goal versus his former team in a shootout loss last week. A game Duclair was superb in creating chances. In 33 games, he has nine goals and six assists for 15 points.

Now, at age 22, the Duke gets a fresh start in Chicago with a much better team. The Hawks are fighting to make the playoffs in a very deep Central Division. They’ve been playing better hockey recently having blown the doors off the disappointing Senators 7-2 on Tuesday. A game Patrick Kane recorded a career high five points in with Nick Schmaltz and Jonathan Toews each scoring twice.

It’s a good opportunity for a talented young player to make his mark. If anyone can turn him into a better player, it’s the Hawks. Their championship pedigree should rub off on Duclair, who probably needs a kick in the ass from fiery coach John Quenneville. He healthy scratched veteran Brent Seabrook for the first time in his career. That’s how desperate the situation is.

It’ll be interesting to see how Duclair does. We’ll see if he fits in.

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Rangers lose big in Vegas

Rangers Golden Knights Hockey

David Desharnais goes for a loose puck in front of Marc-Andre Fleury during the Rangers’ 2-1 loss to the Golden Knights. AP Photo via Getty Images 

Plenty of fans made the trip to the sunset strip to cheer on their favorite team in Vegas. A destination I could be soon visiting in a month. The Rangers let down a lot of fans with another disjointed performance in a 2-1 loss that wasn’t as close as the score indicated to the astonishing expansion best in the West Golden Knights.

If they were looking to hit the five day bye week in style, they lost big in Vegas. I’m not referring to the scoreboard. Rather center Kevin Hayes, who left the contest in the first period with a “lower body” injury stemming from a heavy hit he took. The week off comes at a good time for a team clearly struggling to string together consistent efforts. They aren’t scoring much since losing Chris Kreider, who appears to be the glue that held together the KZB line that’s now divided.

Pavel Buchnevich was a healthy scratch for the first time all season. The gifted 22-year old Russian having cooled off considerably. Since a hot start that saw him tally 20 points (9-11-20) in the first 25 games including a big November, he’s been out of sync. In 16 games since Dec. 1, he’s totaled six points (2-4-6). Despite creating offensive chances, the production is down. So, Alain Vigneault played his card which I predicted when Mats Zuccarello dressed. He wouldn’t give a straight answer as to why he benched the team’s third leading scorer.

Many complained over it. Maybe so. But I can’t tell why Buchnevich sat. I’m not a mind reader. However, Vinni Lettieri stayed in the lineup a second straight game. I think Vigneault likes Lettieri’s straight ahead North American style. He plays a simpler effective game with a shoot first mentality while being defensively responsible. He always looked like he belonged in camp. I believe he’s here to stay. Especially if Hayes is out for a extended period.

Lettieri was one of the few skaters who was effective throughout against a superior Vegas team that looks like it could contend in its inaugural year. They play so well under coach Gerard Gallant that it’s not far fetched to see a cohesive roster making a deep run this Spring. A smart attacking and defensively sound club, they come at you with tons of speed in transition and shoot whenever there’s a opening. The polar opposite of what’s going on with the Rangers.

It’s a sharp contrast. The Golden Knights held a 34-29 edge in shots and out-attempted the Blueshirt 64-51. It was more lopsided until they fell behind on William Karlsson’s game-winning goal that came with 11:02 remaining in regulation. A play indicative of what plagues the Rangers. They quickly moved the puck up ice with no resistance. A Jonathan Marchesseault touch pass to Reilly Smith saw the former Panther catch four Rangers napping before dishing across for Karlsson’s 22nd past a blameless Ondrej Pavelec.

It was humiliating. You had four guys in white sweaters on one side watching Smith as the trailer Karlsson snuck in for a easy one-timer. Brady Skjei was lost in no man’s land and rookie Boo Nieves also was out of position. That one was really on Skjei, who along with a self-critical Ryan McDonagh, had a miserable night.

When asked about it afterwards in the locker room, the Rangers captain pointed directly at himself indicating that the team’s best players weren’t and it started with him. He said he needs to lead by example and will try to when play resumes with a whale of a rivalry game against the Islanders at MSG this Saturday at 1 PM.

To a man, they knew they let each other down. Particularly Pavelec, who Vigneault told last Monday he would be getting the second end of a back to back. He was fantastic making 32 saves with several sparklers. Without him and his team blocking 22 shots, they would’ve been blown out of the building in craps style. He couldn’t have done more if he tried.

Brendan Smith also took a seat upstairs following some more poor play. Steven Kampfer made his first appearance in a while. Paired with Marc Staal, he was fine. More than I can say for the top two pairs with McDonagh and Skjei having nightmares with the relentless Golden Knights. McDonagh blew his assignment on James Neal’s tying goal late in the first. It was too bad because Vigneault’s odd reconstructed lines were working before Hayes went down.

Mika Zibanejad sniped his 13th past Marc-Andre Fleury on a well executed play where all five Ranger skaters touched the puck. Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk started it in their end making a seamless transition to Lettieri, who fed Michael Grabner. Grabner then passed across for Zibanejad, who used a Vegas defenseman as a screen to surprise Fleury with a accurate shot high glove for a 1-0 lead.

But in a period where they actually led in shots 11-10 forcing Fleury into some difficult saves, they couldn’t hold it. A Paul Carey turnover and McDonagh being caught out of position allowed Neal to get free in the slot and fire home his 18th from David Perron at 17:23.

Once the goal was scored, the Golden Knights turned up the heat. They had 12 attempts blocked speaking to the volume and pace they play with.

The second was uncompetitive. Pavelec bailed out his teammates a lot. He stopped all 13 Vegas shots to keep the game tied despite the Golden Knights spending plenty of time buzzing around his net. It was mind numbing. Not having Hayes hurt. It forced Vigneault to mix and match.

Most frustrating was their refusal to shoot the puck. While Vegas came at Pavelec in waves getting four odd-man rushes with McDonagh guilty of bad pinches twice on the same shift, it was amazing that the score didn’t change. Nick Holden at least got back and took the pass away allowing Pavelec to take the shooter and come up large. There was another ugly turnover where Skjei didn’t prevent the pass but Pavelec made a miraculous save. It was that bad.

Playing for a second consecutive night, the Rangers ran out of gas in the third. Following a encouraging start that saw them get five of the first seven shots, they got tired. The most effective players were their grinders. While Zibanejad made low percentage plays by failing to shoot when open for poor passes that had no chance, the fourth line of Nieves, Grabner and Lettieri nearly scored. But Grabner was denied by a sliding Fleury, who played well. When Lettieri is out there, he makes things happen. He has to play.

Then the David Desharnais unit followed up with a strong shift. They cycled well and forced Fleury into another big save robbing Carey. The thing is it can’t always be the supporting cast generating the best chances. At some point, your best players have to be your best. When you have J.T. Miller giving up completely on a two on one by not bothering to backcheck, that’s inexcusable. It was embarrassing. He didn’t even hide it. I would’ve benched him. But he never missed a shift getting over 20 minutes.

I know they were short a man. That’s understood. But Miller should know better. That’s why he gets the treatment from Vigneault. So when I see our fans say it’s only Buchnevich, it’s not true. It’ll be interesting to see what develops when they return.

Regarding Zuccarello, he was completely ineffective. It was painfully obvious he wasn’t 100 percent. No way should he have played over Buchnevich. That is undeniable.

Now, it’s a five day break. Probably the best thing for this team. They need to refuel and get ready for the retaining 40 games.

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One Win The King Deserved: Lundqvist stops 37 in Rangers 2-1 shootout win over Coyotes

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The King Gets Step: Henrik Lundqvist kicks away Derek Stepan’s slapshot in the third round of the shootout to carry the Rangers to a 2-1 win over the Coyotes. AP Photo via Getty Images

The last couple of times he went to a shootout, it hadn’t treated Henrik Lundqvist too kindly. The King made certain that didn’t happen again in a scintillating performance to carry the Rangers past the Coyotes 2-1 in Arizona.

On a night he passed Tony Esposito to move into eighth place on the all-time wins list with career victory number 424, Lundqvist made 37 saves and then stopped all three Coyotes shooters including former buddy Derek Stepan to clinch an important second point for his struggling team. Goals have been tough to come by lately. So have complete efforts with the Rangers having one more game against surprising first in the West Vegas Golden Knights later tonight in a back to back before a much needed bye week.

With points number 48 and 49, the Rangers remain in good position in the Metro Division. One behind the Devils, who visit the desperate Islanders at 1 PM Sunday while the Bills visit the Jaguars in the NFL’s second slate of wildcard games. The NHL schedule maker did them no favors. No wonder they’re leaving Brooklyn for Yonkers.

After learning that top left wing Chris Kreider had a procedure done on his arm to repair a blood clot which might finish him for the season, the Rangers didn’t exactly respond the way they should have against the lowly Coyotes. Arizona was the aggressor in a lopsided first period. At one point, they turned Lundqvist’s net into a shooting gallery. He had to deal with multiple breakaways the first couple of minutes. It looked like the Coyotes were on a extended power play.

The one goal they scored was on a actual power play even though it shouldn’t have been. It was another mind numbing call by the blind mice. Just as the refs screwed the pooch on the Blackhawks second goal where Ryan Hartman clearly shoved Marc Staal from behind into the net with the puck which somehow was missed, they ignored Anthony Duclair doing the same to Kevin Shattenkirk. Instead, he got a ridiculous delay of game minor penalty.

As fate would have it, the much rumored former Ranger scored his 10th by following up a Stepan rebound for his second consecutive game with a goal. Doesn’t it always work out that way? Well, you knew Duclair would have a big game. He was all over the Rangers net and could’ve had a hat trick if not for Lundqvist, who bailed out his sleepless teammates.

The thing about it is for as hard as the Coyotes now play under Rick Tocchet, there’s a reason they only have 10 wins and sit 31st overall with 26 points. They aren’t consistent enough to score goals. If they were, they’d win more frequently as they had in a 3-2 upset of last year’s Stanley Cup runner up Nashville a couple of nights ago.

The Rangers didn’t have many skaters going. Alain Vigneault mixed up his lines. After starting J.T. Miller with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, he saw enough to start tinkering. His favorite scapegoat Buchnevich went from the top line to the fourth line with Boo Nieves and Paul Carey while Jesper Fast got bumped up from the third line to the first line. Of course, this didn’t sit well with #NYR Twitter. The amount of complaints over Buchnevich has become annoying. Should he be on the fourth line? Of course not. Is he a top six forward with probably the most skill on the roster? Absolutely. But I’m not gonna speculate as to why he always gets the Miller treatment. Remember Vigneault has always done the same to our gritty American forward moving him around. He’s mature enough to handle it. Buchnevich is in Year 2. There are still things he can improve on despite the gripes about why he ranks so low in average even strength ice time.

The most important part is that they win. Even if it wasn’t a Picasso. Vigneault’s exact words following the game. They can’t all be. It’s bad that this team can’t even beat the Coyotes without a fight. They’re not able to string together consistent 60-minute hockey to win in regulation. The defensive flaws are well documented. So are the lack of shots from the Anti-Corsis. Ironically my fantasy team name. They rank near the bottom in the fancy stats. When you don’t shoot the puck enough and turn it over, it leads to chaotic shifts where the opponent is dictating possession and skating circles around our five man unit in the Rangers zone. So they continue to give up over 30 shots and get out-attempted. They never seem to play well in front of Lundqvist. Why is that? I have no idea. It’s probably why I suggested Ondrej Pavelec for the start giving Lundqvist just the much better Golden Knights before the break.

Let’s also give credit to Antti Raanta. Facing his former team for the first time, he was excellent throughout. Sure. He saw less rubber. But he still made some absolute dandies to keep the Rangers to only one goal in 65 minutes.

The one came from suddenly reemerging sophomore Jimmy Vesey. Remember him? The other second-year forward who’s been jerked around much worse than Buchnevich but never is discussed by the charts. Vesey isn’t as talented but gives a honest effort daily. He’s also played a lot more on the third and fourth line. But we never hear much about that. His game is coming at the right time.

With emotional leader Mats Zuccarello out due to illness, rookie Vinni Lettieri got back in the lineup for the first time since scoring in his NHL debut at Detroit. He went from the fourth line to the second with Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner. Lettieri brings a quality most Blueshirts refuse to do. An aggressive mindset by finding open space and shooting the puck without hesitation. He twice was robbed by a sliding Raanta on good set ups. It wasn’t all roses for Lettieri, who made a bad drop to no one during the three on three causing a Clayton Keller breakaway in overtime, which forced Brady Skjei into a hooking penalty. The Rangers were able to kill it off thanks to a great diving block from who else but Marc Staal. Another target who gets unfair treatment from the blind masses despite having a good bounceback season at the halfway point. He was also stoned twice by Raanta on one shift during regulation and gave a honest assessment of the team’s game and well documented struggles.

The Rangers woke up in the second period. Vesey made a nice solo effort out of the corner to move in and beat Raanta with a sweet finish for his ninth. A play MSG announcer Sam Rosen had high praise for. Sam knows good hockey when he sees it. More than once he and partner Joe Micheletti paid homage to a focused Vesey, who nearly had another on a great individual end to end rush. He came back to make a defensive play and then reset before flying around the Coyotes and in on Raanta but his stick side attempt went wide. A terrific effort from a player whose confidence is high. They’ll need him to continue performing without Kreider.

That was it for the scoring. The student versus the teacher turned into a old fashioned goalie duel. Both Lundqvist and Raanta taking turns making big saves. Lundqvist proving the doubters wrong. At 35 going on 36, he’s having his best year since he won his only Vezina in ‘11-12 under John Tortorella. In a more wide open league where his team isn’t as good defensively, he’s stood on his head most nights and performed extremely well.

He might not have the numbers that Andrei Vasilevskiy does in Tampa or even Sergei Bobrovsky or Tuukka Rask. But has anyone done more than Lundqvist for his team? Maybe Cory Schneider with the Devils. But I can’t say he’s been as consistent. Jonathan Quick is also in the mix. So should Corey Crawford with the Blackhawks not the same. It’s a fun debate for another day.

The overtime was mostly Arizona controlling the puck and keeping it away from the Rangers. It was infuriating if you root for this team. Vesey had the only good chance. So another skill competition was needed.

In it, a patient Zibanejad outwaited Raanta to make a perfect high shot glove side off the goalpost and in for the only goal. Lundqvist did the rest stopping Duclair, Keller and Stepan in succession. With Henrik knowing what he likes to do following a Buchnevich miss, Stepan tried a rare slap shot which Lundqvist calmly kicked away for the win with that bright smile lit up like Broadway.

Such a well deserved win for a great player and better man. Another victory on his march to 500.

BONY 3 Stars ✨

3rd Star ⭐️ Jimmy Vesey, NYR goal-9th of season, easily Rangers best forward

2nd Star ⭐️ Anthony Duclair, ARI goal-10th of season, has played well since returning to lineup

1st Star ⭐️ Henrik Lundqvist, NYR 37 saves including some highlight reel to move into eighth place all-time with his 424th career win

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Sweden the better team in semifinal 4-2 win over USA

In the first semifinal, it was Sweden that was the better team. There won’t be a repeat. USA fell to Sweden 4-2 at the IIHF U20 World Junior Championship at KeyBank Center in Buffalo.

Buoyed by a stellar 29 save performance from goalie Filip Gustavsson, the Swedes were able to settle in and play their game following a unimpressive first period in which the Americans outshot and outchanced them. Gustavsson (Penguins) was there to make key stops keeping it scoreless.

One of the biggest differences was special teams. Time and again, Sweden took undisciplined penalties to give USA looks. Unlike the previous games, they were unable to take advantage. The Swedes did a good job getting sticks in passing and shooting lanes. When USA got shots through, Gustavsson made the saves.

With it a tight checking contest that turned more into a neutral zone battle as it progressed, it was a USA penalty that tilted the game in Sweden’s direction. Having killed off the previous two, they were unable to be successful on number three. A nice Alexander Nylander pass across to Elias Pettersson resulted in the Canucks 2016 fifth overall pick wiring one top shelf far post by Joseph Woll (Maple Leafs). That was the lone goal through two periods.

Despite a strong pushback from USA, they were unable to get the game tied. They certainly had their chances. There was a 3-on-0 break in which the dangerous trio of Casey Mittlestadt, Brady Tkachuk and Kieffer Bellows came in on Gustavsson. But Mittlestadt decided to take the shot which Gustavsson kicked out with Bellows crashing into him for goaltender interference. It was a pivotal moment.

There was also a great shift where the Americans had sustained pressure in the Sweden zone for over a minute. But despite the opportunity, they never could beat Gustavsson, who was a brick wall. He also denied a Bellows shot point blank with a great skate save. Bellows was USA’s top scoring threat due to his combination of speed, shot and skating ability. The Islanders prospect looks like a good one.

Still trailing in the third, USA began to take risks to get the game tied. As often happens against a stingy opponent getting great goaltending, they made some costly mistakes.

A bad pinch led to a two-on-one for Sweden with Rangers 2017 first round pick Lias Andersson tapping one home for a 2-0 lead. A well executed play by a patient team who was very methodical.

They could afford to be protecting a lead. At some point, the Americans got frustrated by the Swedes. It showed in a ugly third that saw Sweden score not one but two shorthanded goals on one power play.

USA defenseman Adam Fox got caught at the Sweden blue line causing a odd man rush. On it, Oskar Steen made no mistake blowing a shorthanded goal past Woll for a 3-0 lead.

Any thoughts of a American comeback got dashed when Axel Jonsson Fjallby took advantage of soft USA play in the neutral zone. His high shot chased Woll to put Sweden comfortably up 4-0 only 38 seconds later. Jake Oettinger replaced him. It was his first appearance since the epic 4-3 shootout comeback win over Canada outdoors in the snow.

With 10 minutes left, the game was realistically over. But to their credit, USA never gave up. It’s not in their DNA.

Instead, Bellows finally tallied his tournament best seventh when he took a pass in front and beat Gustavsson with a nice move and shot top shelf to get USA on the board.

Before you knew it, Brady Tkachuk made it 4-2 when he was set up in front to suddenly make it a close contest with still over three minutes to go.

Even crazier, Sweden took a penalty to hand them a power play. Ultimately, they weren’t able to get any closer. Mittlestadt had a great opportunity in the slot but was somehow robbed by Gustavsson, who got just enough of a high labeler to keep it out.

For seemingly no reason with the game decided, Steen cheap shotted Oilers prospect Kailer Yamamoto by giving him a chop to the leg with just over four seconds left. It was despicable. Yamamoto was in real pain and needed help getting off the ice.

Steen is a Bruins draft pick. I guess it makes a little sense. He won’t win any new fans with that dirty display.

When the game concluded, they had the cool postgame ceremony on the ice. USA’s top three players were selected. To the surprise of no one, they were Bellows, Mittlestadt and Fox. A good offensive defenseman who plays similarly to Brian Rafalski. I could’ve made a case for Tkachuk, who should definitely go in the top 10 in the 2018 NHL Draft. He maybe better than older brother Matthew, who stars for the Flames.

Here is my favorite Bellows moment from this tournament. None other than a celly with him celebrating a goal while a fan is wearing his Dad’s Classic North Stars Jersey.

Sweden’s top three are Andersson, Nylander and projected top overall pick Rasmus Dahlin. Dahlin was a beast in this game with his unreal skating creating plenty of chances while playing superb defensively. He might be better than Victor Hedman. The last big name Swedish defenseman who went in the top three in the famed 2009 Draft.

Sweden will play for the gold medal tomorrow. They’ll await the winner between underdog Czech Republic and Canada. That gets underway at 8 EST on NHL Network, who again have done a outstanding job covering the top prospects.

I liked what USA Hockey coach Bob Motzko said afterwards. When discussing what went wrong with Jill Savage, he indicated that his team didn’t have the same jump. But he also was quick to point out that they have to move on because there’s another game Friday. They play for bronze. Something he wants his players to focus on making American fans proud.

Sure. It’s disappointing they won’t have the chance to repeat. A potential USA-Canada rematch for gold would’ve been priceless. But it wasn’t to be. Sometimes, you get beat.

Full credit to Sweden. They earned it. I won’t be surprised if they win gold. They’re a frustrating team to play. They should be a handful for whoever they face tomorrow night.

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A Winter Classic Hangover

The Winter Classic had the Broadway script ending on New Year’s Day with J.T. Miller playing the role of hero by doing the dirty work in front to beat the Sabres on a power play rebound from Kevin Shattenkirk at Citi Field. That was a very good game with the Rangers prevailing in overtime before freezing cold screaming fans on the backdrop of classic New York taxis and subway.

I’m sure the Buffalo fan was confused as to why our goalhorn played when it was a Sabres “home game.” To be fair, they couldn’t play it in Buffalo due to the IIHF Under 20 World Junior Championship being played there along with a memorable outdoor game on Dec. 29 won by USA over Canada in the snow at Ralph Wilson Stadium 4-3 in a shootout.

Two days later, the Rangers were back in a more familiar setting playing in front of the home crowd at MSG for the late 8 PM start on Rivalry Night over on NBCSN against the Original Six rival Blackhawks. These days, they’re not a true rival anymore due to overexpansion. Though the appeal of seeing those threads and cool logo still makes it fun, it would be nice if the start time were moved up to 7:30. But with Chicago in the central time zone, I can see why it was a 8 start on the East Coast. Now had it been say the Caps, Devils, Flyers, Islanders or Pens, it should be a half hour earlier.

As for tonight’s game, it was a disappointing result. The Rangers were never sharp and often two steps behind the skilled Blackhawks. It ended up in a bitter 5-2 loss in home game 25. Yes, they’ve only got 16 games left at The Garden due to ridiculous award shows. So, if they want to make the playoffs, they’ll have to do well on the road. With 42 games remaining, they have to play 26 road games. The first two at Arizona and Vegas this weekend following a winter storm that’s gonna make it feel like hell froze over.

Sitting third in the Metropolitan Division with a 21-14-5 record and 47 points, this was a missed opportunity. Especially with the Islanders fading and Penguins inconsistent. Even the Blue Jackets and Devils haven’t been lighting the world on fire although the latter has run into some ridiculous bad luck due to the dopey offside challenge and other NHL absurdity.

Even though they didn’t have much time following Monday’s emotional win, it’s inexcusable to play as incomplete a game as they did. The Blueshirts teased us by again blowing scoring chances and missing too many shots against winning Chicago emergency starter Jeff Glass. If you can’t get more than two past a backup  who’s been thrust into a starting role with the Rodney Dangerfield of number one’s Corey Crawford out due to injury, you get exactly what the Rangers deserved. A ugly loss in which they gave up more shots and left too many skilled Hawks unchecked. They played a lousy third period after Mika Zibanejad tied it. All that was required was a better third than the first two when they didn’t get enough rubber on Glass. Shocking nobody.

Whatever it is, this is the norm for the Rangers. They aren’t good enough defensively to keep forcing Henrik Lundqvist to bail them out with miraculous saves facing 30-plus shots a night. He can only do so much. Even he couldn’t stop Patrick Sharp from scoring the winner at 2:24 of the third. At which point I shouted, “Of course they’d give up a goal to a guy who has one goal in his last 30!”

It may have been exaggeration. But Sharp has struggled so much that he’s now in a secondary role in his second stint with the team that made him a star and key contributor to their Stanley Cup winning teams. It was only his fourth goal.

The bottom line is the Hawks were sharper from the outset outplaying, outshooting and outskating the Rangers. They still rallied twice from one goal deficits. The first coming from Nick Holden, who two minutes following Vinnie Hinostroza’s tally, was able to beat Glass with a wrist shot through a Jesper Fast screen at 18:09 of the first. It was again strong work from the fourth line with Boo Nieves and Paul Carey combining to set up Holden’s third.

Despite only registering six shots to their opponent’s 14, they were tied after one. The second played out similarly. At one point, the Hawks took four straight minor penalties. Shortly after Nick Schmaltz took a Patrick Kane feed and was stopped by Lundqvist only to have the good fortune of the loose rebound deflecting off a falling Marc Staal and in for his eighth, Brent Seabrook and Glass took consecutive minors 1:36 apart. The Blueshirts made it work thanks to some sparkling passing. On a play started by Mats Zuccarello, Zibanejad converted a five on three power play goal thanks to blasting home a perfect Pavel Buchnevich cross ice feed for his 12th at 11:32. It was Zibanejad’s first point since returning. Earlier, he came close on another power play firing a laser off the far goalpost. Maybe that will get him going. His timing was better throughout. He was one of the few Rangers skaters with jump. He played with Zuccarello and Miller, who Alain Vigneault bumped up to the first line while sliding Rick Nash down to the Kevin Hayes-Michael Grabner unit.

On a night they didn’t play consistently, the Rangers were disciplined with Miller taking the only minor when he got nabbed for hi-sticking Connor Murphy to end the rest of a five on four. After some four on four, the Rangers killed off a abbreviated Chicago man-advantage.

The best chance to take the lead came with Jimmy Vesey on a breakaway. He came in on Glass and tried for high stickside but just missed due to some back pressure.

Vesey was tripped from behind by Lance Bouma with 1:22 left in the second. But the Rangers were unable to capitalize with the Blackhawks able to kill the remainder at the start of the third. It was a letdown due to the opprtunities they were handed. One for six isn’t good enough when you’re facing a talented team.

The Hawks were the better team five on five using their speed and forecheck to give the Rangers fits. They forced them into way too many sloppy turnovers. The Rangers had 22 giveaways.

Early in the final stanza, a good Chicago breakout led to Sharp striking off a rush. Alex DeBrincat led David Kampf in the Ranger zone. With Staal giving Sharp enough room, he took a Kampf pass and let go of a laser that beat Lundqvist high glove off the bar and in at 2:24. A great shot by a former 30 goalscorer.

The Rangers picked it up by outshooting the Blackhawks 11-9 after getting outshot 26-14 the first 40 minutes. But every time they looked on the verge of tying it, Glass made a good save or a Hawk made a good defensive play. If there was a noticeable difference, it was Chicago’s attention to detail. They blocked 17 shots and the Rangers missed another 16.

They had three good chances. One coming with Hayes passing for a cutting Grabner tip try that just missed. Another when Zibanejad was denied in tight. Fast had a point blank chance blocked. The final one came when Nash took a Brendan Smith feed off a offensive draw and couldn’t stuff the puck past a sliding Glass.

Eventually, jonathan Toews was the recipient of a empty netter on a hustling defensive play by Tommy Wingels. He intercepted a Zuccarello pass and led Brandon Saad, who got the puck over to Toews for the goal with under 54 seconds left that sealed it. Kane added a empty with five seconds left.

BONY 3 Stars ✨

3rd Star ⭐️ Jeff Glass, Blackhawks 23 saves including 11/11 in 3rd

2nd Star ⭐️ Mika Zibanejad PPG 12th to end a scoring drought, 5 SOG, 9 attempts

1st Star ⭐️ Patrick Sharp GWG 4th at 2:24 of 3rd

WJC Semifinals on NHL Network Later Today: With it being a snow day for some like myself, there’s a perfect opportunity to catch the wave of the future.

Two good match ups in Buffalo take place Thursday at KeyBank Center at the IIHF U20 WJC semifinals. The first coming at 4 EST with defending champion USA taking on Sweden.

Sabres 2017 first round pick Casey Mittlestadt has been superb along with Islanders prospect Kieffer Bellows while playing with 2018 Draft Eligible Brady Tkachuk. Actually, Devils prospect Joey Anderson rounds out the top line having scored three goals in the last two American victories. Joseph Woll (Maple Leafs) will be in net.

Sweden hasn’t lost yet and enter having won 44 straight games in Group play. They were one of the tournament favorites entering play with potential first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin highlighting a group that includes Rangers 2017 first round pick Lias Andersson. He was limited in their quarterfinal win over Slovakia due to injury.

The winner faces the winner of the second semifinal between Canada and Czech Republic. Canada has been strong throughout led by Dillon Dube, Taylor Raddysh and Carter Hart. They’re deep as usual and the only blemish was a shootout loss to USA in the snow outdoors at Ralph Wilson. They easily defeated Switzerland in the quarters 8-2.

The Czechs are a pleasant surprise making it this far for the first time in over a decade. Rangers prospect Filip Chytil is one player who has had a good tournament. They can score goals. But the question is defensively. We’ll see if they’re up to the challenge at 8 EST.

The winners advance to the gold medal game while the losers play for the bronze. NHL Network’s extensive coverage is superb. It really is terrific and gives hockey fans a lot of insight. Kudos to them and TSN.

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