A Week Later: Rangers puzzling decision over Pride Night doesn’t make sense, overshadowed win before extended break, All-Star Weekend in Florida, trade options

In what was the final game last Friday before the extended All-Star break that gave them over a week off before returning to action on February 6 against Calgary, the Rangers went out on the right foot by defeating the Golden Knights 4-1 at MSG.

The important part is they responded to a tough overtime loss at Toronto by grabbing two points against a quality opponent on home ice. Even if Vegas slumped due to a lack of offense, the Rangers did what they needed to to stay in third place in the Metro Division.

At 27-14-8, they have 62 points through 49 games. That’s two mote than the fourth place Capitals, who have 60 in 53. They’ve played four more games. The Penguins sit in fifth with 57 points over 49. A point up on the Sabres and two ahead of the Islanders for the final wildcard.

The Rangers trail the Devils by six for second and are 14 behind the first place Hurricanes, who used third period comebacks to extend their winning streak to seven prior to All-Star Weekend. That commences in Florida with the Skills Competition tonight at 7 EST. It’ll be showed on ESPN, ESPN Plus and Sportsnet. The game is tomorrow at 3 PM on ABC/ESPN+, CBC and Sportsnet.

Three Rangers will represent the team in the sunshine state. Adam Fox, Artemi Panarin and Igor Shesterkin. Jack Hughes is the lone representative for the Devils, who probably deserved more. Such is how the ridiculous three-on-three format works. There are more players snubbed. Jesper Bratt, Dougie Hamilton and Vitek Vanecek all could’ve gone. Mika Zibanejad could’ve been there as well for the Rangers.

I’ll be blunt. I enjoyed the old format more. Whether it was East versus West or North America vs The World, it worked better than having a four roster three-on-three winner take all tournament. Though it is fun which is what today’s players enjoy.

Adding different skills that are hard to understand makes it confusing. At least from my vantage point. The shooting competition they had out by the water in Vegas was an interesting concept last year. Now, they’ve added more stuff. If I watch, I’ll probably wonder what the heck is going on. Here are the scheduled seven events:

Player assignments for all seven events of the 2023 NHL All-Star Skills™ presented by DraftKings Sportsbook are listed below.

  • Upper Deck NHL Fastest Skater™
  • Great Clips NHL Breakaway Challenge™
  • Discover NHL Tendy Tandem™
  • Enterprise NHL Splash Shot™
  • Honda NHL Accuracy Shooting™
  • Chipotle NHL Pitch ‘n Puck™
  • GEICO NHL Hardest Shot™

As for the two semifinals and championship game, I have little interest. I have never been a big fan of three-on-three. There’s too many resets in the current overtime format. It’s pond hockey determining valuable extra points. If they didn’t reset so much, it would work better. I’ve seen some people suggest making a change to the rules. That I’m in agreement with.

Of course, each division is represented for the tournament. I’m just wondering who’s gonna beat the Pacific led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. While that division isn’t as strong, boasting the game’s most dominant force along with his sidekick should make them tough to beat. McDavid has a shot at 70 goals and 150 points. Figures we haven’t seen since ’95-96 when Mario Lemieux scored 69 goals and paced the league with 161 points while teaming with Jaromir Jagr (149).

It definitely will be exciting for the game to see what McDavid winds up with. There’s also Devils superstar Jack Hughes, who’s on pace for 50/50 in Year Four. He leads them in scoring with 33 goals and 31 assists for 64 points in 49 games. Hughes will garner MVP votes. Even if it’s McDavid’s award to lose, the young 21-year old American phenom with the cool personality is hard to ignore. That’s who the league should market the game around. Market. A foreign concept for the NHL who’s seen TV ratings slip on both major networks due to blackout restrictions and not enough hype.

As far as the Rangers go, too much of the focus last week was on what they didn’t do before winning the game against the Golden Knights. That’s their own fault. The organization never even had an explanation for what they did on Pride Night which celebrates the LGBTQ community.

In a puzzling decision prior to the game, the Rangers didn’t wear the rainbow themed jerseys or tape up their sticks during warm-ups to honor the very people who spent money for this advertised event. I say that with sincerity. Past events have gone on without a problem. I still have a rainbow colored Pride towel from March 5, 2020. A night better known for Mika Zibanejad tying a team record by scoring five goals in a memorable 6-5 win that included the overtime winner. Who knew life would change shortly after due to the pandemic.

Instead of donning the traditional rainbow themed colors for warm-ups, the Blueshirts wore their hideous knockoff Liberty reverse retro jerseys. According to a couple of players who the media spoke with including veteran New York Post columnist Larry Brooks, they were just hanging in the locker room. Neither could explain why they didn’t wear the rainbow themed jerseys or taped sticks which are usually auctioned off.

From the look of it, it felt like an organizational decision that came from the top. This also took place on the same day Garden CEO James Dolan decided to go public for a rare interview on Good Day New York to speak out against having the MSG alcohol license revoked by the New York State Liquor Authority due to a public battle with lawyers who he’s not allowing into Garden events stemming from an investigation over the controversial facial recognition they’ve used since 2018. An owner who has been sober for 29 years, Dolan seems unfazed by the threat to ban alcohol sales.

“We’re going to pick a night, maybe a Rangers game, and we’re going to shut down all the liquor and alcohol in the building,” he said in an article that appeared in the New York Times.

He also had high praise for the Rangers who he feels are on the right track to winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1994. The last time he went public and praised our team, it came in ’11-12 when John Tortorella had the team in first place thanks to Henrik Lundqvist’s best season where he won the Vezina. Tortorella didn’t take kindly to the praise choosing to put the focus on continuing to win games.

They finished first in the Eastern Conference. After hard fought seven-game series victories over Ottawa and Washington in the first two rounds, they lost to the Hudson rival Devils in a gut wrenching six-game series best known for Adam Henrique getting the series clincher in overtime of Game Six.

I’d prefer not to discuss what Dolan said. He’s the reason the rebuild was cut short. That lack of patience could wind up costing the team in the future. Especially when pertaining to the cap. With Vitaly Kravtsov on the outs and AHL All-Star Zac Jones blocked by Ben Harpur, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, they both could be ticketed elsewhere for a high risk rental along with draft picks. That’ll depend on Chris Drury.

With Bo Horvat off the market due to a surprising move from Lou Lamoriello who acquired the two-way scoring center from the directionless Canucks for a package that included Anthony Beauvillier, Aatu Raty and a top 12 protected first round conditional pick (could become a 2024 first instead), the Islanders are hoping the 31-goal scorer can provide the spark to help them reach the playoffs. It’s a gamble with him still having to sign an extension by the summer.

The biggest names teams are connected to are Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko and Timo Meier with the latter supposedly high on the Rangers list. I just wonder what the cost would be for the 26-year old scoring right wing. He’s younger than the other two and would need to sign an extension to avoid the $10 million qualifier he’s guaranteed for ’23-24. Given the cap issues, it’s hard to see Drury being able to outbid the Hurricanes, who can use the LTIR to free necessary room with Max Pacioretty done for the year with another torn ACL. Sad. That could be his career.

Having covered a wide range of topics that occurred over the last week, I want to clarify where I stand on all the league initiatives that feel very dishonest. Truth be told, these nights are nothing more than a money grab. While it can be seen as good public relations, I fail to see how it’s helping following last Friday’s debacle. Someone in the Rangers organization made a decision to scrap part of Pride Night. While they still honored the gay, lesbian and Trans community by lighting up the Garden in rainbow colors and having a giveaway for fans who attended, it felt disingenuous.

I’m not one to get too much into politics. When it comes to sports, I’m of the mindset that the two should be separate. There’s a time and a place for it. I don’t think it’s helpful to have it in sports. That’s my personal opinion. It can create more harm than good. Something we saw play out over the outrage to what the Rangers did. Even if Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly released a vanilla statement which felt like an excuse for teams to do what they want.

Look no further than Ivan Provorov who decided not to participate in warm-ups for the Flyers during their Pride Night. I feel like this topic has been covered too much recently. Some in the media have had very skewed takes that cross the line. I won’t get specific because I’m not too comfortable discussing it. Let’s put it this way. You shouldn’t be burned at the stake for choosing not to participate in a politically charged event. I have more of a problem with how the Rangers went about it than one player who made a choice not to partake.

As for why the Rangers, who advertised this game as Pride Night which celebrates those who are LGBTQ, I couldn’t really explain why they opted not to wear the rainbow themed colors prior to the game. New York Post beat writer Mollie Walker had a blurb about it that she posted. There wasn’t anything specific on why they didn’t rock the rainbow colors or use the rainbow themed tape for warm-ups.

One player told The Post that he just saw the regular Lady Liberty jersey hanging in his locker and he did not know why the Rangers did not wear the originally planned warm-ups, which they have worn in the past “in solidarity with those who continue to advocate for inclusivity.”

Not much communication from an organization run under MSG that keeps things airtight. That’s how the operation is run. It’s unbelievable.

That this a story is a sign of the times. It shouldn’t be. By now, the NHL motto that Hockey Is For Everyone is well known. Though when even much worse controversial issues have come to the surface such as what happened behind the scenes with the Blackhawks and in Vancouver, it makes you wonder what’s going on at the top.

League initiatives are fine. But everyone is allowed to make a choice. That’s why not even Larry Brooks took issue with Provorov for using his religious beliefs for why he didn’t partake in warm-ups last week. Maybe there’s too much emphasis put on such polarizing topics. It takes away from the game we all enjoy.

Is she wrong here? I think not. This is a money grab. That’s all it is. If anyone who represents the gay community purchased tickets to this publicized event, they have every right to be upset. It’s false advertising. Only the higher ups know the truth. And we know they’ll remain silent.

I’ve covered this hard topic enough. How to go from that to going over an important victory that put more smiles on most faces who root for this team.

In looking back at the 4-1 victory, the Rangers did exactly what they had to. They beat a slumping Vegas team that can’t put the puck in the ocean without oft-injured star Mark Stone. Jack Eichel was hardly noticeable except for one good scoring chance that surprise starter Jaro Halak stopped.

Halak was in due to his perfect career record versus the Golden Knights. He didn’t disappoint making 33 saves on 34 shots to earn First Star honors. He remained a thorn in the side of Vegas. In fact, he’s now won five straight decisions and six of seven since starting the season 0-5-1.

During his five-game winning streak, Halak has posted a 1.80 GAA with a .938 save percentage. If you go back to a 34 save outing on Nov. 30 in a win at Ottawa, he’s 6-1-0 with a 2.01 GAA and .925 save percentage. A splendid turnaround for the 37-year old from Bratislava.

While Halak took care of his end, Chris Kreider reminded fans how critical he is to the team. He scored a puck luck goal for number 20. Vincent Trocheck threw the puck towards the net and it banked off Kreider to give him his eighth season of scoring at least 20 goals as a Ranger. He was in the right place at the right time.

For all the ridiculous criticism he received after looking off in his first three games back, the 31-year old power forward continues to provide consistent scoring in Manhattan. Since being taken at number 19 in the first round of the ’09 Draft, Kreider continues to produce. He’s moving up the all-time franchise list in goals. His 249 place him eighth, trailing Mark Messier by only one goal to move into a tie for seventh. Once he passes the Captain, Kreider can chase down Camille Henry (256) and Vic Hadfield (262) to move into the top five.

The new line that had Kreider and Barclay Goodrow with Trocheck were instrumental in getting the win over Vegas. Trocheck would tally from Goodrow a few minutes later for a big goal in the final minute of the first period. It was his first goal since Jan. 1. Despite not fitting with Artemi Panarin, Trocheck has 34 points (14-20-34) and a team best 56.5 face-off percentage (439-and-338) with 115 hits. He is better suited for Kreider and Goodrow or Jimmy Vesey because they play a North American style.

Phil Kessel tallied for the Golden Knights less than five minutes into the second. It shouldn’t have counted. William Carrier got away with taking down Alexis Lafreniere. Instead of there being a call, play continued. That allowed Kessel to take a pass from Carrier and sneak a shot from a sharp angle by Halak on the near post. A bad goal. But considering how well he played, we’ll let it slide.

The other highlight was rookie Will Cuylle accepting Keegan Kolesar’s challenge at the start of the second period. Two seconds in, they battled to an entertaining draw at center ice. The crowd certainly loved it. Cuylle has that in his game. He’s got size, strength and toughness. Not a bad way to make your Garden debut.

The fourth line didn’t play a lot. Cuylle, Julien Gauthier and Jake Leschyshyn didn’t get too many shifts. Gauthier was under six minutes while Cuylle came in at 6:31. Leschyshyn saw over nine minutes including some penalty killing duty. They nearly got burned early in the third. Cuylle was pushed off the puck in his end, leading to a good chance that Halak made a key stop on.

Halak’s best save came when he dove across to deny Kolesar, who was all set up. The kind of big stop the veteran backup was brought in for. They’re gonna need him when they return for the final 33 games. There are eight sets of back-to-backs.

When they did get a power play, the Rangers couldn’t cash in. The top unit continues to struggle. They’re way too predictable. Opponents sit on that Mika Zibanejad one-timer from the left circle and are well schooled on the play down low for Kreider, who’s had tough luck connecting on the five-on-four.

I would make one switch, moving Filip Chytil onto it and shifting Trocheck to the second unit. That would provide the first unit with another lefty shot. It’s very right centered due to Fox, Panarin, Zibanejad and Trocheck with just Kreider working in front. Chytil has excellent chemistry with Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko on PP2. But he deserves to be moved up.

The second unit would get a better face-off man in Trocheck who has a nose for the net. I like the decision to play K’Andre Miller on the left point. He can get his shot through and makes good reads. Jacob Trouba has a heavy shot. But would be better off utilized at five-on-five and the penalty kill. Braden Schneider feels like a better option. He has five goals and is a good skater.

Speaking of Chytil, he stayed hot by scoring a huge insurance goal with 5:40 left in regulation to help put the punched Knights away. After getting a Schneider pass, he made a great solo effort by first attempting one shot and then doing a spin around backhand that took a carom off a Vegas defenseman past Adin Hill.

It was brilliant. Chytil showed off his speed and extra effort to net his fourth goal over the last three games. He’s up to 29 points for the season. The 16 goals rank third on the team behind Zibanejad (22) and Kreider (20). Thirteen of the sixteen have come at even strength. That trails only Kreider (14) for the most on the team. It’s well deserved for a more mature player who has raised his value. He should cost between $4.5 to 5 million as a restricted free agent this off-season.

Jimmy Vesey would add his ninth into a vacated net to put the finishing touches on the victory. It’s been a good return for the veteran forward. He’s trusted to play in a checking role and kill penalties. I still don’t love having him play on the new first line with Zibanejad and Panarin, who so far are like oil and water. Can Panarin play with anyone not named Ryan Strome? A lot of people were wrong about Strome. He complimented Panarin’s game well.

At this point, it looks like Vitaly Kravtsov will be traded. It isn’t his fault that Gallant doesn’t like him. He needs a fresh start. My guess he’ll get packaged in a deal as they draw nearer to the trade deadline. Hopefully, they hang onto Zac Jones. I think it would be a mistake to give up on him. He’s already played in the NHL and remains close.

Does any other team damage the value of former first round picks like the Rangers? When it comes to the forwards, it certainly applies. Lafreniere had a strong game with Chytil and Kakko. He seems to have more confidence when he plays with them. It’s more instinctive because they know where each other are. Keep them together.

As for upgrading the roster, I’d look at improving the fourth line. Jake Leschyshyn isn’t a long-term fix. How is a waiver wire pick-up playing over a former first round pick? Don’t answer that. Gauthier also has seen his shifts dwindle since returning. Some reward for a player who surprised many by scoring six goals in the first half.

As much as they would love to fill a void on right wing to maybe help Panarin, the Rangers might be better off adding depth pieces to solidify the bottom line and the blue line. Tyler Motte is available. Not saying I want a return. But he’s a good fit on the fourth line. Plus he can kill penalties. In a perfect world, you’d have Goodrow between Cuylle and a grinder like Motte.

I still believe Tarasenko would come cheaper than an aging Kane or Meier. San Jose will have plenty of suitors including the Devils, who can offer Alex Holtz as part of a package. But it all depends on what the cost is and how much salary is picked up.

The Rangers have some room to work with. But is one player really going to put them over the top? Can they win with Panarin, who’s in decline despite pacing the club in scoring with 50 points (12-38-50). He’s a minus player due to being a turnover machine.

What about the potential for former first round pick Brennan Othmann to come over from the OHL to the NHL? It depends what Peterborough does in the playoffs. Othmann turned 20 on Jan. 5. He might need some pro experience with Hartford before debuting. There’s also the likelihood the Peterborough Petes go far. Othmann probably won’t be an option.

The better question is where would he play. The Rangers lack scoring right wings. Kakko leads all RW with nine goals and 23 points in Year Four. Vesey and Goodrow can play the right side. But neither are consistent scorers. Goodrow is on pace to surpass last year’s career best total of 33 points. He’s 9-14-23 thus far. The versatile forward can play anywhere. Vesey has been used similarly with success.

Scoring remains an issue at five-on-five. That’s where most playoff games are played. It’s a battle of attrition. If the special teams were better for the Blueshirts, whose power play ranks in the middle of the pack, that would help. There are questions as to what moves Drury should make.

They have Igor Shesterkin in net and Adam Fox anchoring the back end. Two elite players. Unless Panarin can raise his level, it’s hard to see this team going far. Currently, they are locked into a 2/3 match-up against the rival Devils. Even with the better goalie and the game’s best defenseman, it wouldn’t be easy.

Not with the game-breaking speed and skill the Devils possess led by Hughes. If the series were to happen, he’s the best player. Their team speed and skill have given the Rangers fits. Of course, it’s much different in a best of seven series. Grit and experience usually factor in. The Rangers have that edge. If I had to guess, a Battle Of Hudson first round series would go at least six games.

We’re still a long way off from that. So much can happen. Both teams are chasing the Hurricanes in the standings. Each trying to guarantee themselves a top six spot to avoid the wildcard. Whoever winds up in the final spot will see the Bruins. A terrific team that doesn’t look to have any weaknesses. They also are looking to upgrade.

It’s already been a week since the Blueshirts played hockey. A long layoff that makes as much sense as the current NHL playoff format. Good on Sidney Crosby for saying what we’re all thinking. It should be 1-8.

Until next time. If there’s any other news, I’ll return this weekend.

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Devils’ first half a smashing success

In a first half of the season where basically everything that you could have hoped went right for the Devils did, and then some…their come from behind win in Dallas last night to head into a nine-day break was a fitting coda before the All-Star break. Technically, the Devils already passed the ‘first half’ eight games ago – now being 49 games into an 82-game regular season – but there should be at least a few more playoff games so it’s closer to halfway through the season this year. In most recent seasons, the Devils’ season was already over in terms of having any playoff meaning so already this season has exceeded expectations, which were to hopefully challenge for a playoff spot.

After a 3-8-2 stretch from early December into early January, the Devils’ emotional comeback win over the Rangers at the Rock got them back to their winning ways and they head into the break on an 8-1-1 roll in their last ten games, with many of them insanely dramatic wins. During this stretch, the team had three separate two-goal comebacks – the aforementioned Rangers game, as well as in Carolina the game after along with last night – plus late game-tying goals against the Sharks and Vegas as well as the OT thriller over the Penguins. All of that provided more than enough excitement for a normal January month of hockey and likely a preview over what to expect in April.

It’s almost like we’ve experienced three or four seasons already – the 0-2 start where the team was getting booed and the coach was getting ‘Fire Lindy!’ chants already seems like a distant memory but even with those first two games included, the Devils’ 21-2-1 stretch immediately after still ensured an insanely good 21-4-1 record after a third of the season. Our growing pains in December gave way to some growing up in January, as an organization that has been finding ways to lose for years is now finding ways to win. Now just two points back of the first-place Hurricanes and thirteen points up on the ninth-seeded Sabres, the question is more about what happens when we get to the playoffs, as opposed to if.

Our position in the standings certainly will influence what GM Tom Fitzgerald does at the deadline. Being on the playoff bubble with a young team would make it nearly impossible to justify going all-in, but challenging for the division lead and a 100+ point season, with solid players everywhere and a guy who’s going to get Hart votes in Jack Hughes suggests this team could be more ready than originally thought. Considering there are no real behemoth teams in either conference this year other than Boston – who the Devils likely wouldn’t face until the Eastern Conference Finals – that also makes it a bit more tempting to try and accelerate our timetable even more. And why not…eventually all contenders are going to need a big move or two to help put it over the top no matter how many home-grown players you have.

It’s also fairly easy to pinpoint where this team needs help – another legit top six winger, and some more depth up front and on the blueline. At least health isn’t an issue for the moment, although defenseman John Marino’s been out over a month with a reported shoulder injury, word is he should come back after the break and after the return of wingers Nathan Bastian and Ondrej Palat earlier this month they should be icing their optimum lineup by early February. Despite the team’s recent winning, they clearly miss Marino on the back end with both Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotyuk showing they’re not really ready for primetime, and veteran Brendan Smith being asked to do too much. Still, it’s not likely the Devils make a major move for a defenseman – especially since it’s all but certain Luke Hughes will get at least a few games with the big club after his college season ends, which could provide an opportunity for important minutes in April.

Conversely, with the team’s playoff position they likely won’t be trading UFA defensemen to be Damon Severson or Ryan Graves. Nor do they seem to be in a hurry to extend either, given that Hughes and #2 overall pick Simon Nemec both aren’t far from contributing at the NHL level. New Jersey is uniquely set up well for both the near term and the long term on the blueline, adding Hughes and Nemec to a set group of Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler and Marino…what a change for when we were counting on a home-grown D of Severson, Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill and Steven Santini! Although Larsson’s having a nice second season in Seattle after his stint in Edmonton, Severson turned out the best of the bunch and even he’s only a top second-pair defenseman at most.

It also doesn’t seem likely they’ll make a move in goal this year, thankfully. Vitek Vanecek has given the Devils arguably their best goaltending since Martin Brodeur was still playing at a relatively high level in the team’s 2012 playoff run, and he heads into the break on a personal nine-game winning streak, the most in Devils history by any goaltender not named Brodeur. If it wasn’t for Hughes (or even Hamilton, who’s put up an impressive 47 points in 49 games from the blueline – including a lot of heroics this week), Vanecek would get some serious consideration for team MVP. It’s far less of a stretch to say he was the most important acquisition this offseason, even including Marino in the mix after he’s broken out to be a legit top-pairing defenseman.

After the Devils’ goaltending woes last year, Vanecek has provided much-needed stability to the revolving door in net with a 21-5-2 record, a 2.29 GAA, .917 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. Even backup Mackenzie Blackwood and rookie Akira Schimid have both had highlight moments this year but clearly Vanecek’s been the man in net and should be for the foreseeable future. My only concern with him is the workload – his high in starts for any season (AHL or NHL) was 39 last year, and he’s already at 29 this year, so he should clear 50 easily – starting at least twenty-one games out of thirty-five remaining is a fair estimate – before we even get to the playoffs. Thankfully it seems like Blackwood’s at least healthy enough to play this year although most of his starts have been high-event as the team – and his shoddy rebound control – have allowed a lot of extra shots, and goals. Still, with the team not in any realistic danger of missing the postseason, coach Lindy Ruff can deploy his goalies how he sees fit with a long-term view.

Now we get to the forwards, and it really shouldn’t have been this long in the blog before I discuss Hughes possibly having the best season by any Devil skater ever, and that includes Taylor Hall in his MVP year, Patrik Elias in his 96-point season and whoever else you want to throw in – maybe Brian Gionta’s 48-goal, 89-point season after the lockout or some other Devils of an earlier era like John MacLean and his multiple 40-goal seasons. Even in a live(lier) puck era, Hughes having 64 points in 49 games is beyond eye-opening, including 33-goals, which puts him in prime position to smash both Gionta’s goals record for a season and Elias’s points record…and he’ll still be 21 years old for the rest of the regular season. After being shelved through the All-Star break last year, Hughes will get to take his talents to South Beach for the celebrity classic this year.

There really is nothing left to say about Hughes at this point, we’re all lucky to have him – and locked up long-term to boot – and he’s certainly lived up to a #1 overall pick expectations. Just like the Devils as a team went into the break on a fitting high, so did Hughes individually as his two goals once again led the team to victory in a tough game at Dallas. Although Hughes has deserved all the accolades, Nico and Jesper Bratt haven’t exactly been slouches this year with Nico adding in 21 goals and 46 points in 48 games, while Bratt has 19 goals and 50 points in 49 games.

Certainly, the Devils could use a little more help for the big three though. Palat returning after a long injury absence helps but still, do the Devils really expect Hughes to continue to be a one-man show when the playoffs start and he’s got Erik Haula (four goals in 49 games) stapled to his line because of faceoffs? Hughes’s best winger so far has basically been Hamilton, who he’s combined with on a lot of heroics – specifically the game-ending assist against the Penguins a few days ago.

Given that Fitz publicly tried to acquire both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Thachuk this offseason, he knows the team could still use one more legit threat in the top six – hence the Timo Meier rumors which are heating up. Meier would be perfect, especially being a Swiss compatriot to Nico and Siegenthaler, but it’s unlikely that we’d acquire him without a long-term agreement in place. Whether the player wants to sign – and whether the Sharks find a deal from us worth taking – is another story.

If the Devils made any truly big move this deadline it’d be in that ilk for a top six forward. Otherwise it’ll probably be similar to 2018 and just do some depth hunting. There certainly shouldn’t be a coaching change at this point, as Lindy Ruff has more than earned the chance to ride it out with this team. Even if he’s still on a lame-duck contract with no talks of an extension yet.

In any case, this group has earned their long break – well all but Hughes who’s certainly earned his time in the spotlight and then some. Hopefully rest and health will have this team firing on all cylinders after they get back on the ice. For all the team’s winning lately, there’ve been holes in the overall performance that have been covered up with goaltending, heart and stars giving star performance but with a healthy lineup maybe the Devils can even step their play up another notch closer to the level they were at during the season-defining thirteen-game winning streak.

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Back-to-back dramatic OT wins keep Devils rolling at home

I was really tempted to do an instant recap for once after Tuesday’s wild rally against the Golden Knights, but given that the ESPN+ mandated start time of 7:30 ensured I got home closer to 11 on a weeknight, I passed. So instead, this will be a distant recap of a Devils sweep in their mini-homestand of two games – although that outcome could easily have gone the other way, which would have left me shaking my head given the team’s long home losing streak in December and early January coupled with their dominance on the road. However, this team just continues to show their resilience in every way possible…from the road record to all of the dramatic comebacks and late wins this season, punctuated by back-to-back OT winners at the Rock by Dougie Hamilton the last two games.

There isn’t much to say about the big picture at this point, the Devils have long since allayed any fears of crashing below the playoff bubble, building their lead on the last playoff spot back up to thirteen points, with thirty-five games left in the regular season. Right now it’s about maintaining the stars’ performance, improving the depth and augmenting for the playoffs, which alone is a triumph for this year’s team. Even in 2018, when the Devils were dragged to the postseason by Taylor Hall heroics and Keith Kinkaid’s career half-season with a dramatic late-season surge, you knew that there was really no shot of a deep playoff run, and two mid-level trades for Michael Grabner and Pat Maroon were more about just trying to get the team to the playoffs and ideally take the next step after that. At least the first part of that was successful (i.e. making the playoffs) but it’s taken another five years – and a lot of hockey played in the wilderness – before we can even think about taking a step beyond just making the postseason.

Before looking ahead though, we look back. First, to Sunday afternoon against the Penguins which you knew would be an electric atmosphere as the team got a well-deserved hero’s welcome back to the Rock after a nearly spotless road trip. Clearly, a sellout crowd was expected for a Sunday afternoon game against a division rival.

What probably wasn’t expected (at least for some of the people coming in) were the really long lines at both towers to get in. If you’ve ever been to the Rock you know there are two main entrances with the first tower being next to the big team store and the other one being next to the practice rink and having the Martin Brodeur statue outside of it. There’s also a lesser known third entrance – which isn’t a tower – hidden right next to the big parking garage just off of Broad Street, that’s the one I usually go in and it tends to be far less crowded than either tower even on days like Sunday. I got in like a half hour before the 2 PM start time and just shook my head when I saw fifteen minutes later from above how long the line was to get in the main tower.

While getting in wasn’t a concern for me, the inevitable first day letdown after a long road trip was. You wouldn’t know it by the electric start though, when Jack Hughes’ goal in the first minute of the game kept the crowd rocking early. That lead wouldn’t last too long unfortunately as Sidney Crosby’s seeing-eye shot tied the game at 6:25. There really wasn’t much else in terms of highlights in regulation though, other than (as usual) a few spectacular Vitek Vanecek saves which helped the Devils survive a heavy-legged game after an illusory two-day break following their final game of the road trip in Seattle on Thursday.

Illusory after you factor in a late night Thursday game followed by a cross-country trip and an early Sunday afternoon game, that makes it a bit less of a layover than the 2.5 days says it is on the surface. Plus, it needs to be said the Penguins are playing for their playoff lives – as they’re a lot closer to the bubble than we are at the moment. Facing teams more desperate than us in the latter part of the season is a first-world problem we’re going to have to deal with, in this next phase of learning how to win as a franchise. Fortunately, they passed that test Sunday never letting the game get away from them despite obvious fatigue. Getting to OT was the first step, but given the fact the team only had one home win in their last six weeks, another win (at least) was necessary in this two-game mini-homestand.

Overtime proved to be very eventful after an astonishingly brazen attempt by Marcus Petterson to cheat his way into a two on one, jumping on the ice when the nearest skater was fifty feet away to turn a one-on-one into a faux two-on-one, which he appeared to score on and I was ready to walk out in a huff knowing he was a bit early and expecting another non-call in favor of the league’s golden child. Fortunately the refs did see this obvious too many men penalty (you really would have been willfully ignorant not to) and made the correct call, giving the Devils a power play. Which turned into the latest episode of what we call Doing The Dougie

The head bob makes it an insta-classic celebration and a deserved response on a legal 4-on-3 power play, after the Penguins tried to sneak in an illegal 4-on-3 to steal an OT point. On my way out of the arena I ran into my friends Nael and Katie, who admitted they were also stuck in the lines getting in and missed the Hughes goal (probably didn’t help that they literally made a last minute decision to come to the game about a half hour before it started). I told them about the alternate entrance for future reference, but I also park in a lot on Halsey Street that’s nearer to the back entrance than most of the main parking areas people who aren’t as familiar with the area look for near the Rock. At least they managed to find street parking and not pay for that, and it was worth the wait for them to finally see a goal in OT.

As if two straight OT wins at home wasn’t enough drama, the Devils went for three in a row against Vegas on Tuesday night. Against a Vegas team that should have been ripe for the picking given it was their fourth game in six nights, with injuries on its blueline and in net, again the offense struggled with Ondrej Palat’s ricochet goal less then four minutes into the game being the only shot that beat Logan Thompson for more than fifty-eight minutes.

For most of the night it looked as if a frustrating loss was on the docket from Erik Haula passing up an open net with a 1-0 lead in the second period (coupled with the team giving up two goals shortly thereafter) to Lindy Ruff coaching as if it were the late ’90’s, line matching the Miles Wood line as if it was the second coming of Holik, McKay and Arnott while using Haula as if he’s John Madden. Haula can be a useful player in the right role despite his paltry four goals on the season, but being stapled to Hughes ain’t it, unless the idea is we just aren’t even going to try to find another scoring winger for Hughes and let him be a one-man show, which has worked in the regular season at least.

And as much as I like Wood, Nate Bastian and Mike McLeod as hockey players in their proper role, they aren’t the second coming of the Crash Line. Especially with Wood mired in a dreadful one goal in over thirty game drought, and Bastian recently coming off of IR. Seeing that line come on the ice for shift after shift in the third period I really started to think maybe THIS is why we struggle at home compared to the road, because it’s easier for an old-school coach to try to match lines with personnel that really doesn’t dictate matching lines. You need to run your star players out there, especially trailing. And when they aren’t on the ice then at least put guys out who have a prayer of scoring goals more than once every couple of weeks.

Ironically when it came down to the bolts and nuts of a 6-on-5 at the end of regulation, it was the stars who saved the day again. Specifically the guy who’s been Mr. Clutch all week:

Have to admit, as agnostic as I am about exclusively streamed games for the Devils (especially since they give us later start times), the call by Wischusen was superb here, particularly foreshadowing it seconds before the goal. More justice was done in the OT after the refs – who hadn’t called a penalty on Vegas all night – finally took the whistle out of their pocket long enough to give us a deserved OT power play. In a severe case of deja vu, it was Hamilton to put the finishing touches on yet another OT 4-on-3 winner, but this goal was ninety percent about THAT ASSIST from Hughes, while being double-teamed and flat on the ice he still manages to get the puck to an open Hamilton on the blue line.

One of the familiar voices commenting in that clip was none other than P.K. Subban, part of ESPN+’s studio and admiring former teammate of Jack Hughes. Considering most of the media looks at the Devils with a combination of either disdain or ambivalence, having a popular player like PK pump our tires is somewhat adorable (for lack of a better word), even if he clearly is going to be biased toward an organization he played with just several months ago. Particularly toward his buddy Jack:

It seems kind of a shame that PK’s career ended in relative obscurity here last April after three straight seasons of missing the playoffs and declining play from a personal standpoint, but by the same token I figured it was a possibility when his contract ran out. By this juncture in his career he’d probably make as much money broadcasting as he would playing, so it was just a matter of whether he wanted to go through the grind another eight months as a depth defenseman to try and win a Cup or start a (hopefully) lucrative post-career in media.

As far as what’s ahead for the team, currently they have just two more games before a nine-day layoff due to the All-Star break and a bye week (that’s still a thing? NHL, if you’re going to rip off an NFL invention at least try and call it another name), and with only Jack going to Florida for the skills games it’ll be some well-deserved attention for a guy who’ll get Hart votes this year and well-deserved time off for everyone else. Knock on wood by the time the break ends, we should have a full lineup again although our last major injury concern – defenseman John Marino – is still in a non-contact shirt due to what was confirmed as a shoulder injury by Matt Loughlin on last night’s YouTube postgame.

Incidentally now that the Devils are off terrestrial radio, the YouTube postgame has become a nice thing to listen to on the drive home from games when there’s a happy recap involved. Sure I could try and hunt down the internet feed for Matt and Chico on the radio but you actually get more with the YouTube show imo – a full recap, a few different media interviews and some Matt and Chico time after they’re done with their radio duties anyway.

I don’t know if I’m even going to bother recapping the last two games before the break, unless something major happens like an injury or a trade. I’m not even watching right now as I missed the first half of the game, and am just now finishing a blog I started this morning. More likely I’ll have a blog at some point during the break looking back as a whole on the first half of the season, and looking forward at what’s to come.

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Rangers cost themselves due to sitting back in frustrating overtime loss to Maple Leafs, Gallant hardly plays fourth line, Cuylle debuts, top guns no show

The frustration level is high. If you’re a passionate fan of this team, it should be following a tightly contested game played against one of the league’s best up in Toronto.

Simply put, the Rangers didn’t closeout the Maple Leafs. They wasted a pair of Filip Chytil goals along with a dominant effort from Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko. Instead of banking two points by playing aggressive hockey, they foolishly sat back and let the Leafs tie it up with over four minutes left in the third period.

The end result was passengers Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and a too passive K’Andre Miller allowing Mitch Marner to cruise by and score the overtime winner at 19 seconds to give the Maple Leafs a 3-2 come from behind win at Scotiabank Arena. The losing play was best described by Jan Levine who also posts blogs on our team via Hockey Buzz.

If you blinked, you missed it. Something that happened to me. They were headed to overtime. I checked All Elite Wrestling on TBS who held a special tribute final match involving the brother of Jay Briscoe who tragically passed away due to a horrible car accident. God bless the daughters who are still recovering in the hospital. Hopefully, they will be okay. A sad tragedy for the wrestling family.

Before I could flip back for OT, I saw on the NHL site that it had already ended. My disbelief was, ‘How?’ How do you lose a game via three-on-three only 19 seconds in?

There it was on replay via the NHL On TNT. I wish I hadn’t bothered. It was despicable. Matador D as Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier would describe the lack of defense by the basketball team that resides at Madison Square Garden without Mitchell Robinson. If you’ve seen them lately, you know what I mean.

Here’s a better question for coach Gerard Gallant. I know he has bent over backwards for $11.65 million dollar man Artemi Panarin. Why is he even on for the start of OT? Every fan of this team can see that he’s become a defensive liability. He’s been on for other losses that cost this team valuable extra points.

I know Chris Kreider was responsible for the tying goal noted Leafs sniper Timothy Liljegren scored with 4:11 left in regulation. Of course, a whole pile of ridiculous overreaction came his way because he got to Liljegren too late on a rebound that Jacob Trouba missed. I guess these so-called experts forgot that Kreider scored 52 goals and entered second with his 19 trailing only Zibanejad (22).

It happens. Every good player has off games. Even the best in the world Crosby and McDavid can. It’s part of playing a busy schedule over a full 82. Kreider missed time. He hasn’t been particularly sharp since returning. He just missed on the power play. Unfortunately, Kreider sent the puck back into Ilya Samsonov.

The point being that while he didn’t have any chemistry whatsoever playing the off wing due to Panarin on the new first line that didn’t do much even after Gallant flipped Kreider and Jimmy Vesey. But when it’s three-on-three with that extra point up for grabs, why not use logic by reuniting Kreider with Zibanejad?

They work so well together. The chemistry has been great for a while. I wish Mollie Walker or Vince Mercogliano, or any Rangers beat reporter had dared to ask that exact question to Gallant. We know he can be dismissive and try not to call out his vets. But the top guns didn’t get it done.

It was a curious decision by the coach to keep Panarin with Zibanejad and Miller at the start of overtime. Personally, I’d rather see Zibanejad, Kreider and Adam Fox. It’s the opening shift of the OT. Only Gallant knows the reason why he made this mind-boggling decision. Then he dared to say they played real well and they’ll take the point.

Eh. I don’t agree. They should’ve won the game in regulation. But opted to sit back over the final portion of the third. If you keep back pedaling and ice the puck while over relying on your goalie [Igor Shesterkin], even one of the game’s best isn’t always going to be able to get you to the finish line.

The Leafs did what they had to do. They worked hard to get the game tied after Shesterkin made a tough save on Calle Jarnkrok a couple of minutes earlier.

Following an icing, John Tavares was able to deflect a long William Nylander shot off Shesterkin for a rebound. Trouba just missed it. That allowed Liljegren to sneak in and bust the puck past Shesterkin at 15:49. He beat Kreider to the spot.

The tweaked third line centered by Vincent Trocheck with Barclay Goodrow and Kreider were unable to get the job done. Maybe Gallant should’ve gone back to Vesey for that key shift. He’s a better defensive forward than Kreider. The eight-goal scorer played over 19 minutes. The second most among Rangers forwards only trailing Zibanejad (20:32), who plays power play and penalty kill.

If anyone cares to explain why Vesey, who has been a consistent player in his second stint- is getting that much ice time over the reunited line of Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko- be my guest. They dominated most of their shifts, but didn’t come on until the final frantic shift of regulation. On a broken play, a loose puck bounced right to Tavares, whose shot hit the crossbar as the buzzer sounded. Had it gone in, it probably would’ve counted.

At nearly 50 games in, Gallant still hasn’t figured out who Panarin should play with at five-on-five. He hasn’t clicked with Trocheck, who Team President and GM Chris Drury gave a seven-year contract to. He is being tried again with Zibanejad on the top line. They have never played together much. Both had good games the other night in a 6-2 win over the Defense Optional Panthers, who then gave up a touchdown and extra point in a wild 7-6 OT loss at the Penguins.

If you really focused on their shifts against the Leafs, there wasn’t much traction. Especially when Kreider was forced off the left wing to the right side. Each had two shots in the game. Hardly enough to merit keeping them intact. But if Kreider must play with Trocheck, then move Vesey to that line like previously. Let Goodrow play up with Panarin and Zibanejad.

At this point, it’s pretty obvious that Gallant will never give Vitaly Kravtsov a fair shake. A game after he scored his third goal and had a game high five shots in a win, he was the whipping boy who got demoted to the fourth line for Trocheck blowing two assignments on a pair of Bruins goals. Then, after playing fewer minutes than anyone including waiver pick-up Jake Leschyshyn, he came out of the lineup for rookie Will Cuylle to make his NHL debut in Toronto.

I have no problem with seeing what Cuylle can do. He leads the Wolf Pack with 13 goals and deserves a look. A gritty, more physical forward, Cuylle was fine in his debut. However, he only played 5:49 in 10 shifts finishing with four hits and a minus-one on his first shift. Not his fault Julien Gauthier and Ben Harpur couldn’t cover for Braden Schneider and let Pontus Holmberg get behind them to score.

If that’s his way of playing a kid on the bottom line, what’s the point? Cuylle actually showed more than the top guns. He made a good lead pass for Gauthier, who over stick handled and turned his scoring chance into an easy save for Samsonov. He remembered that he’s Julien Gauthier. How else do you explain it?

Leschyshyn received 11 shifts (6:36) while winning three of five face-offs. Gauthier also took 10 shifts and had two shots and four hits in 5:55. Basically, Gallant didn’t have enough confidence to roll four lines. The opposite of what’s needed to be successful. Somewhere, Ryan Reaves is probably laughing at his former coach’s expense. I bet even Kravtsov had a chuckle watching from the press box.

I think we all understand that the fourth line isn’t moving the needle. They’re not deciding too many games. However, you still should play them enough to inject energy and give your best players a breather. The lack of consistency from Gallant hasn’t helped. You don’t know who he’ll play on a game to game basis or how many shifts they’ll get.

Turk leans heavily on the veterans. So when they no show as they did last night, it makes him look bad. The amount of crying he did following the Bruins loss was ridiculous. He complained about Panarin and Trocheck, but then in the next breath said it wasn’t Kravtsov’s fault. His actions say otherwise. Always the whipping boy.

It remains similar to how Colin Campbell treated the much more established Alexei Kovalev. You knew it was a mattsr of time before he escaped Broadway. It’s the same complex situation with Gallant and Kravtsov. I hope for his sake, he gets relocated to a team with a coach who’ll give him the freedom to play his game.

As good as Kakko played on Wednesday night with a wonderful set up for Chytil’s second that gave the Blueshirts the lead in a better played second period, he doesn’t exactly finish checks or consistently drive the net. At one point prior to a Chytil Mario face-off goal where he caught Samsonov by surprise, Keith Jones called out Kakko by name by pointing out that he avoided driving the net to screen the Toronto goalie. A point that was illustrated throughout a bland first period where Samsonov easily stopped all nine Rangers shots.

Kakko drives the play as a puck possession player. At times during shifts, he can look dominant at controlling play. He’ll make some good moves, but rarely finishes around the net. Nine goals in 48 games isn’t enough production. The 14 assists are solid. But they took Kakko second believing he’d become a 30-goal scorer or better. He’s 21 going on 22 in Year Four. There’s still time. He’s made some improvement. If he can’t hit 20 goals and 40 points, it would be a disappointment.

Since being put back with Chytil and Kakko, Lafreniere has looked much more confident with the puck. He’s back to skating with purpose and forechecking. His secondary assist allowed Kakko to cut in on an extended shift and set up Chytil on a two-on-one down low for a 2-1 lead. That gives him a season best three-game point streak (1-3-4).

It’s almost as if you don’t mess with the chemistry that line has had. Gallant was desperate to find a solution to his top six that he broke up the most consistent cycle line the team has. You can see the difference when the cohesive trio are together. They all know how to play off one another. Chytil, Lafreniere and Kakko should be intact for the remainder of the season.

With a home game left against the first place Golden Knights tomorrow night before the long break, it’s up to Gallant and Drury to come up with better solutions for the other two scoring lines. At this point, I’d have Vesey with Trocheck and Kreider like before. Goodrow can work with Zibanejad and Panarin, who needs a gritty forward to free up space. That’s where Goodrow comes in.

In a perfect world, Turk would try Kravtsov up with Panarin, who he seems to have some chemistry with. But Zibanejad and Panarin have never quite meshed. I prefer Zibanejad with Kreider because they work extremely well together. If Panarin can’t play the right side, he’s useless. They shouldn’t be forced to split up Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko because the Bread Man can’t make it work with Drury’s center Trocheck. If only there was a way out.

What they should do is chase after a right wing to complete the top nine. I wouldn’t go after Patrick Kane or Timo Meier due to their price tags. Meier must be qualified at $10 million as a restricted free agent if he isn’t extended. Good luck with that. The Sharks should want more for him. They could be busy at the March 5 trade deadline with Erik Karlsson also available.

If they decide to make a splash, I actually prefer Vladimir Tarasenko. He’s proven and shouldn’t cost nearly as much as the other two. The 31-year old right wing just returned to the Blues the other night. Making sure he’s healthy is the key. The cap hit ($7.5 million) would be cut in half. In 35 games, he’s 10-19-29 with a minus-14 rating. That could be a product of an inconsistent roster that is hard to explain.

Tarasenko is a proven finisher who can play top power play and bolster a stale unit that Gallant refuses to change. It’s getting to the point where I’d actually rather see the second unit featuring the three former first round picks up front with Miller patrolling it. Trocheck could play the other point in place of Trouba, who should focus primarily on key match-ups at five-on-five and penalty kill.

A lot will depend on where the Rangers are in the standings and likewise if it’s the Blues or another potential target. They could always try to upgrade the third pair by replacing the physical Harpur with a more reliable left defenseman such as potential Columbus unrestricted free agent Vladislav Gavrikov ($2.8 million).

If Gallant trusted Zac Jones who I still favor due to his skating and skill, none of this would be necessary. It’s the coach’s lack of faith in a few kids that could hurt the team’s chances. Everything is all about now and he has no time for anything else. Very close-minded when it comes to any questions that challenge his thought process.

I find what he said both understandable and not beneficial for the team going forward. If a fat cat isn’t pulling their weight, bench them for a few shifts. Even Panarin. He did it to Kreider because he can take it. It shouldn’t always be a kid that gets punished. That’s a double standard. Coach like Torts in Philadelphia. They’ve shown improvement since he made examples out of Kevin Hayes and Tony DeAngelo.

There’s one more game. We’ll see if they can go into the break with a better result that doesn’t leave the fan base losing their minds.

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Rangers take advantage of chances in uneven win over identity less Panthers, new lines work despite Gallant’s unhappiness

Sometimes, you can win a game and it’s not totally satisfactory. Even if it’s a game like last night where the final score wasn’t really an indication of how it was played.

The Rangers will take it. They defeated the identity less Panthers 6-2 at The Garden. They won’t apologize for getting two points. It was as easy as pie. Or just having the much better goalie. While the Cats went with journeyman Alex Lyon with Spencer Knight just back from a short AHL stint as the backup, the Blueshirts relied on the brilliant Igor Shesterkin.

Make no mistake about it. It was the stellar goaltending of the rating Vezina winner that allowed his team to win without a sweat. Shesterkin was called upon to make several key stops due to defensive lapses. He faced odd man rushes and did what he does. He might not have gotten a star. But anyone that watched knows just how significant the 33 saves he made were to getting the Rangers back in the win column.

The Panthers remain a puzzling disappointment. Despite having come in playing better, they proved again that they’re not the same team from last year. Those key personnel changes aren’t working. Even with Matthew Tkachuk leading the way, they are a mystery. He didn’t do much on Monday night. Neither did the defenseless Panthers, who got victimized twice on pretty goals by Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad.

Fox started the scoring by getting his 10th on a nice passing play through the neutral zone. Playing with new line mate Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad sent a quick pass up to Panarin, who made a touch pass in the Panthers zone that Fox turned into a breakaway goal at 3:03. In on Lyon, he went backhand tucking the puck into an open side.

Before they could settle in, the Rangers got caught with too many men to hand the Panthers a power play. Florida has been hot since the new calendar year on the man-advantage. That trend continued. With the second unit out, some nice passing started by Eetu Luostarinen in transition allowed Anton Lundell to feed Carter Verhaeghe for a backdoor goal on the power play that evened the score at 5:56.

All four Rangers penalty killers were abysmal on the tying goal. That included Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller both caught out of position on the superb Lundell dish for Verhaeghe’s 23rd. Neither Barclay Goodrow or Jimmy Vesey were in the right position when the play materialized. It was a bad sequence.

Following the tying marker, it was mostly Cats. They took advantage of sloppy play to create dangerous chances. Despite getting six of the first eight shots, they were unable to take the lead. Shesterkin made the big saves to keep Florida off the scoreboard. Gallant wasn’t too happy about the team’s overall play.

Held to only two shots for most of the period, the Rangers got their only power play thanks to a lack of discipline from Nick Cousins. On a play in the neutral zone, he belted Chris Kreider from behind leading to a cross-checking minor. It was an obvious call.

After Gerard Gallant started the second power play for a change, out came the same top unit. However, they took a more aggressive strategy by looking shot more. Finally, some nifty passing from Fox to Panarin led to the Bread Man threading a perfect pass across for a quick Zibanejad one-timer that went high short side on Lyon for his 21st with 2:39 left.

For much of the second period, the Panthers applied pressure. Despite doubling up the Rangers in shots (14-7), they were unable to get the puck past Shesterkin. He made some more tough saves including one on Aleksander Barkov on a two-on-one. He also contended with Tkachuk, who looked for tips in front on misdirection feeds.

The Panthers lacked the finish to even the score. They seem too reliant on Barkov, Tkachuk and top finisher Verhaeghe. Sam Reinhart hasn’t had a good season. During the contest, they also lost key center Sam Bennett on an incidental collision with Filip Chytil. The play saw their skates come together with Chytil accidentally knocking Bennett down. He left the game and didn’t return.

Much of the focus was on the new lines. With Panarin up to the top line working with Zibanejad and Kreider, who didn’t look too comfortable playing the off wing, Vincent Trocheck anchored a new checking line between Goodrow and Vesey. That trio would contribute a big goal late in the second to give the team some breathing room.

Following a Trocheck face-off win, Vesey got a shot on Lyon which rebounded out. Both Goodrow and Vesey were in the area. Goodrow sent a sharp angle bank shot off Lyon that Vesey put in for his eighth to make it 3-1 with 4:57 remaining. It was a greasy goal. Something Vesey referenced prior to the game.

After the goal, Ben Harpur was sent off for tripping with under three minutes left. An iffy call, the penalty kill was able to keep the dangerous Cats from converting on the five-on-four. They got some looks. But Shesterkin was there to make the stops. That allowed the Rangers to take a two-goal lead into the locker room.

In the third, it was much of the same. On one end, Shesterkin delivered the big saves. On the opposite side, his teammates went to work on putting the flawed Cats away.

Back together, the old Kid Line used some of their tenacity to combine for a hard-working goal that really was needed. Having skated better as MSG analyst Joe Micheletti noted earlier in the telecast, Alexis Lafreniere made it happen on the forecheck.

Coming out with the puck from behind the net, his stuff in try was stopped by Lyon. However, a loose puck took a Ranger carom towards both Chytil and Kaapo Kakko for shots. A Kakko shot towards the net looked to be headed in. A hustling Lafreniere made sure it did by getting a stick on the puck to put it home for his sixth at 7:56.

It was his first goal since Dec. 7. That ended a long 17-game drought. The goal can hopefully be a confidence boost for Lafreniere. It’s been a challenging third year for him. With an assist against Boston, he has three points in the last two. We’ll see if he can build on it when the Rangers face tougher competition tomorrow night at Toronto.

Before Rangers PA announcer Joe Tolleson could even get to that goal, Fox and Panarin combined to find a wide open Zibanejad for his second of the game 14 seconds later to break it open. That made it 5-1 with 11:50 left. Zibanejad’s 22 goals pace the club.

Down by four, Florida coach Paul Maurice decided to gamble by pulling Lyon for a six-on-five with nine minutes remaining. It worked when Barkov was able to tally his 13th to cut the deficit to three with 8:58 left.

Continuing to mostly go with six skaters when possible, the Panthers hoped to claw even closer. They nearly got burned. On a great opportunity, Shesterkin took a shot at the open net. With the crowd building I’m anticipation, he just missed scoring a goal. One day, it’s gonna happen.

Finally with 3:11 to go, Lafreniere and Kakko combined to set up Chytil for an empty netter that put the finishing touches on a much needed win.

The goal gave him 13. He’s one shy of his career best set in ’19-20. It’s safe to say Chytil will surpass that number and wind up posting career bests across the board. A big reason he’ll get a raise this off-season. His 26 points are already a new personal best. The 23-year old Czech continues to grow as a player.

In the final two periods, Shesterkin stopped 26 of 27. Lyon allowed five goals on 25 shots before Maurice lifted him. His defense didn’t help. A problem that has plagued the Panthers all season long. If they miss the playoffs, that along with the drastic changes will be why.

The victory improves the Rangers to 26-14-7 with 59 points. They remain third in the Metro Division. Three up on the Capitals and five on the Penguins.

The Blueshirts will get a better test up north when they travel to Toronto for a big match tomorrow night. They will then host Vegas Friday before the All-Star break. A long bye week will mean time off until February 6 when Calgary visits.

Rangers had Jake Leschyshyn anchor the fourth line between Vitaly Kravtsov and Julien Gauthier, who made his return. Sammy Blais was sent to Hartford on a two week conditioning assignment. It’s really been a struggle for him since returning from ACL surgery due to P.K. Subban.

Hartford leading goal scorer Will Cuylle was recalled. A second round pick taken 60th in the 2020 NHL Draft, he leads the Wolf Pack with 13 goals. Cuylle has 20 points and 39 penalty minutes in 39 games.

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Canucks fans say goodbye to classy coach Bruce Boudreau, who gets send-off by players, Hughes hits 30 goals in Devils win, Gallant’s latest shuffling splits up Panarin and Trocheck

On Saturday night at Rogers Place in Vancouver, Canucks fans said goodbye to lovable coach Bruce Boudreau. In what amounted to the final game behind the Vancouver bench for the NHL lifer, the Canucks fell short in a 4-2 home loss to the Oilers.

Although they were simply outgunned by a sizzling Connor McDavid, who scored his 40th goal and added his 48th assist to hit 88 points in just his 48th game of a remarkable season, the Canucks didn’t give up. After falling behind 3-0, they tried their best to send out Boudreau with a win.

It just wasn’t meant to be. Despite first-year Russian Andrei Kuzmenko scoring his 19th goal, and the polarizing J.T. Miller adding his 18th early in the third period, they couldn’t overcome a three-goal deficit.

With Spencer Martin lifted for an extra attacker in the final minute, Zach Hyman helped set up an empty netter for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with 35 seconds left to put Edmonton ahead 4-2.

As time wound down, the popular Boudreau again heard the familiar chants, “Bruce There It Is! Bruce There It Is!”, from an appreciative crowd. Something he’s never experienced over a 48-year career saw an emotional Boudreau thank the fans by clapping and waving back as he left the bench with Miller seated right in front of him. Canucks players waited to go off after the affable coach.

The classy coach knew it was over. He’d only been there for over a year. Prior to the final game, he questioned why they let him stay for so long. The rumors started last November due to Jim Rutherford not giving him a ringing endorsement. The fact he was so noncommittal on such a good man was classless. That’s how the Canucks organization will be described in hockey circles for a while.

To have to constantly hear his name bandied about had to be very frustrating. Boudreau still was a total pro through it all. He did the pregame and postgame interviews in the same polite manner that makes the 68-year old so lovable. He’d even make sarcastic remarks in reference to his job status to keep things light.

That’s about what we’ve come to expect from a prideful man who loves the sport. A true hockey lifer whose enthusiasm and passion are what make him such a pleasure to see talk. It’s unfortunate that he never won a Cup behind the bench. He certainly had some good teams in Washington and Anaheim. That’s how hard it can be to win. You have to be lucky.

If he never coaches another game, Boudreau finishes with a respectable 617-342-128 record. That’s a .626 win percentage. He was a winner in all four NHL cities. A former Jack Adams recipient, Boudreau can be proud of his work. Of course, he hoped things would go better in Year Two with Vancouver. It wasn’t meant to be.

Despite boasting star talent by making the risky commitment to sign J.T. Miller to a contract extension that kicks in next season at an average cap hit of $8 million running thru 2030, the Canucks find themselves up against it.

Team captain Bo Horvat remains on track to score over 50 goals with his 30 pacing the team. He could price himself out which is why the organization might have to make the tough decision to trade him. It would be a tremendous loss for the club.

If they can’t keep Horvat, who is in his final season making $5.5 million, what exactly will they get back for the 27-year old complete center? Unless they can find a taker for oft-injured streaky scorer Brock Boeser, who has two more years remaining at an AAV of $6.65 million, it doesn’t look promising for keeping Horvat.

Even with a core that will include Thatcher Demko, Quinn Hughes, Miller and they hope Elias Pettersson (RFA in ’24), without Horvat it would feel incomplete. They can thank former GM Jim Benning for that. Before he was fired along with Travis Green 13 months ago, the Canucks only made the playoffs twice over eight years under him.

Now, the Canucks have another coach. As had been rumored by Elliotte Friedman and discussed on Hockey Night In Canada, Rick Tocchet takes over. The former Coyotes coach had worked as a studio analyst for the NHL On TNT. He gets a second chance at coaching. It won’t be easy.

Seeing players like Horvat and Tyler Myers interviewed about Boudreau gives us more insight into the emotions in the Canucks room. They clearly loved and respected Boudreau. In the video above, Horvat mentioned how much he cared about each player always asking if they were okay. He formed special relationships with his players.

The way the players handled it was professional. It can’t be easy to have to face such questions about the coach and complicated situation following games. You hope for the best for those guys going forward.

For Boudreau, he can hold his head high. He is an great example of how to maintain professionalism. He loved what he did. Amidst the chaos and emotions which were visible both at the end of Saturday night’s game and afterwards at the podium, he was still the same passionate coach he’s always been.

Enough can’t be said about his heart. What a great man. I have nothing but admiration for him. Wherever he winds up, he’ll land on his feet. Hopefully, it’s on TV. If not, all the best to him and his family.

In other hockey related news, the Devils defeated the Penguins on Sunday 2-1 in overtime at The Prudential Center. Jack Hughes scored number 30 in game 46. What a year he’s having. His 58 points pace the team who trail first place Carolina by two points.

After the refs properly ruled that Pens defenseman Marcus Pettersson jumped on too soon to negate his potential overtime winner, which led to a bench minor for too many men, Hughes and Nico Hischier combined to set up Dougie Hamilton for the OT winner. A good one-timer upstairs past Tristan Jarry’s glove to the Devils the win.

They’re sitting in second in the Metropolitan Division with a 30-12-4 record good for 64 points. After a lull in December, they are winning games again. In fact, since Dec. 30 when they defeated the Penguins 4-2, they are 8-1-2 with the only loss in regulation coming to the Blues on Jan. 5. They’re 6-0-1 since and are now seven points up on the third place Rangers, who host the Panthers tonight.

With it looking more promising for the Devils to return to the playoffs, look for Team President and GM Tom Fitzgerald to add a key piece near the trade deadline. They could be linked to Timo Meier. A player who is a hot commodity.

As for the Rangers, after losing 3-1 to the NHL best Bruins, who continue to dominate the competition, coach Gerard Gallant wasn’t happy with his second line. Feeling that they give up more scoring chances than they generate, which has been true most of the season, he called out Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck.

It was clear that something had to change. Trocheck, who’s been a good addition to the team despite not having much chemistry with Panarin, will center a checking line later against the suddenly rejuvenated Panthers. He’ll anchor Jimmy Vesey and Barclay Goodrow on the third line. Both fit his straightaway style better than Panarin, who likes to skate around and try risky passes through the middle.

Instead of moving Filip Chytil up to anchor the second line, Gallant decided to bump Panarin back up to the top line where he’ll play with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. At least the way they lined up during a rare public practice that many fans attended on Saturday, Kreider will start on his off side. We’ll see if it works later.

They haven’t played much together. But it combines the team’s best three offensive forwards on the first line. It’ll be interesting to see if they can click. When the coach has tried this before, it hasn’t clicked. They did produce two goals for and none against. It should be a strong puck possession unit that will have the puck on the forecheck. We’ll see how it goes.

Chytil is reunited with Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko. The question is are they the second line again. When Turk tried that last month, it netted positive results. The only difference was Trocheck had Kreider on his new line which provided a scoring threat.

When asked about playing the trio of former first round picks together again, Gallant felt that they are more instinctive as a line. Not as hesitant. Something we’ve seen with Lafreniere, who enters the game without a goal in the last 17. Kakko hasn’t exactly lit the lamp much lately either. But he did record a two assist game. However, nine goals in 46 games isn’t enough production for a player who’s shown improvement. They need more.

As for Chytil, he has 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points. He’s stayed aggressive and played a straight line game. The only change I would’ve made was having the left shot Chytil replace Trocheck on the top power play.

Gallant remains loyal to his five-man unit that features Adam Fox, Mika Zibanejad, Panarin, Kreider and Trocheck. Supposedly, they had Zibanejad and Panarin work in opposite circles to throw a new wrinkle. The recent struggles of that first unit is why the team is ranked 16th. They’ve become too predictable. We’ll see if things change against an opponent who isn’t the most disciplined.

With Julien Gauthier returning off injured reserve, it forced the Rangers to make a move. Rather than waive someone else (cough Sammy Blais), they placed Jonny Brodzinski on waivers. He didn’t deserve it. He brings a nice element of speed and grit. He cleared and went to Hartford.

Of course, Vitaly Kravtsov is the odd man out. Despite doing nothing wrong lately, he likely will play on a new checking line with Jake Leschyshyn and Gauthier. It makes little sense. Kravtsov has to play his off wing due to Gauthier playing the right side.

He will get fourth line minutes and is off the power play due to Gallant preferring to have Jacob Trouba with K’Andre Miller on the second unit. The forwards are Chytil, Lafreniere and Kakko. They have had success recently since adding Miller to PP2.

It feels like Kravtsov is in purgatory. He needs to escape Gallant. I think a trade would be welcome for both parties. Maybe the Blues for Vladimir Tarasenko if they can make the money match up. I have no idea how. It’s much harder to make a trade for a big name player due to the hard cap.

There isn’t much else to add. I don’t agree with how Gallant runs the team. I’m not alone. But this is what it is for now. I’ll have more later.

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Vancouver fans show their love for embattled coach Bruce Boudreau, Cogliano pays former coach a compliment, hockey world supports popular coach

Sometimes, there are stories that involve sports that make you feel bad. I’m not referencing anything dire here. That’s a good thing. However, as Hasan noted in a well written hockey column on the Devils successful road trip, he also touched on a big topic that’s been discussed around the hockey world.

We all feel bad for embattled Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau. One of the real good guys who’s had both a successful playing career and now as a coach with stops in Washington, Anaheim, Minnesota and now Vancouver, the classy bench boss whose passion for the sport has always shined through is going through a truly tough time.

A year after taking over for Travis Green, Boudreau is on the outs with the Canucks. The worst aspect is they’ve made no secret that they’re going to replace him soon. It’s despicable. This is no way to treat a good man who became so popular in such a short time last year. He came very close to guiding the Canucks into the playoffs. Had captain Bo Horvat stayed healthy, they’d have made it after a poor start.

When the organization hired veteran executive Jim Rutherford to oversee the operation, they did it with an eye towards drastic changes. The Hall Of Famer recently held a press conference in which he was very honest. Admitting to the Canadian Press that they’re currently interviewing coaching candidates with TNT analyst Rick Tocchet linked to the job once he gives notice, it’s disrespectful to one of the great hockey people in the sport.

Somehow, Boudreau has handled the uncomfortable situation with a lot of class. Continuing to answer difficult questions before and after games like last night’s 4-1 home defeat to the Avalanche, he remains a true professional in every sense of the word.

It was during the game with time winding down that Vancouver fans paid homage to the affable coach with the good heart. Just as they had last season, the fans chanted, “Bruce, There It Is! Bruce, There It Is!” It was an emotional scene at Rogers Arena in British Columbia. One that Boudreau said he’ll remember forever.

“It’s unbelievable. I mean I’ve only been here a year. But it will go down in my memory books in the 48 years I played and coached. The most incredible thing I’ve experienced on a personal level other than winning championships of course. It’s very touching,” Boudreau told reporters when asked what the salute from fans meant.

Somehow, even fully aware that his days are numbered, Boudreau has maintained the same integrity that’s made him extremely popular amongst former players and those who have worked with him in the media.

Former player Andrew Cogliano had nothing but praise for the veteran coach following the game. Boudreau coached him early in his career with the Ducks. He credited him for a lot of the success he’s had in the league.

“We had a lot of success in Anaheim and I actually attribute a lot of my success in the league to him. So I owe him a lot. I love him. I think he’s a good person. He’s a good coach. And I think he’ll come out on top of all of this.”

Former colleague Jackie Redmond has really been outspoken about what’s happening in Vancouver. The outstanding NHL Now host on NHL Network who now is a key reporter for the NHL On TNT, cares about Boudreau who is a friend. She got to work with him last year in studio.

In a tweet response to a Boudreau press conference, Redmond said:

“I know I have my bias, as Bruce is my friend, but the way Boudreau has been treated by VAN isn’t right. It didn’t have to play out this way. He deserves SO much better.

And the fact he has been nothing but class this ENTIRE time tells you exactly how amazing a person he is.”

She also made sure to clarify her stance on the Canucks new Team President Rutherford looking to bring in his own coach. She emphasized how poorly the Canucks organization have handled it and treated Boudreau.

I wholeheartedly agree with Redmond. It’s an absolute travesty how Boudreau has been treated. This is a prideful man who’s had success everywhere he’s been. That included an eight-year NHL playing career mostly spent with the Maple Leafs. He totaled 28 goals and 42 assists over 141 games. He spent his pro career as an AHL star through 1992.

Once an extra in the popular hockey movie Slap Shot starring Paul Newman, Boudreau would move onto coaching. Working his way up from the former IHL and ECHL up to successful stints in the AHL where he guided the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup in 2006, he finally got his big break when the Capitals made him the interim coach in November 2007.

Boudreau had early success helping turn around the Caps. Posting a 37-17-7 record to help the club win the Southeast Division and get them back to the postseason for the first time with Alexander Ovechkin, he was recognized with the Jack Adams Awatd for ’07-08. A great reward for a coach who paid his dues.

The Caps made the playoffs in all four seasons under Boudreau. In ’08-09, they lost in seven to the Penguins in the second round which pitted Ovechkin against Sidney Crosby. Although they continued to have success during the regular season, disappointing exits in consecutive postseasons didn’t help Boudreau. An inconsistent start to ’11-12 led to his dismissal.

He quickly was scooped up by the Ducks. After missing the playoffs, they turned it around under Boudreau. That included a run to the Western Conference Final in 2015. They came up just short in a hard fought seven-game series against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. Following another successful regular season in ’15-16, they were ousted by the Predators in the first round. The Ducks decided to make a change afterwards.

Boudreau would land on his feet in Minnesota. After moderate success helping get the Wild to the postseason the first two years, they went out in five games early. Unfortunately, the team stagnated missing the playoffs in ’18-19. During his fourth season, they were 27-23-7 in 57 games when he was dismissed. Dean Evason replaced him to conclude the COVID shortened ’19-20.

After a year away from the bench where he wound up joining NHL Network and entertaining viewers with his quirky personality and keen sense of humor, it was obvious that he still had the desire to get one more chance as a coach.

Despite that, I really enjoyed his views on the game and was reminded of why I loved him when he was featured preparing his team for the Winter Classic. Who could forget this classic moment spent with his family at the mall during the holiday season?

His enthusiasm for getting ice cream at Häagen-Dazs remains one of my favorite hockey clips away from the rink. It really showed what kind of person he was when spending time with his kids. They didn’t share his excitement for ice cream at 10 in the morning. He remarked, “Okay, fine. They don’t want me to have ice cream.”

Seeing Boudreau get his fourth NHL coaching gig with the Canucks was great. He relieved Travis Green, who probably had the same sick feeling due to all the rumors circulating that he was going to be canned.

Considering how well they played under Boudreau in going 32-15-10 to narrowly miss the playoffs, it felt like a team that had a shot entering ’22-23. However, they got off to a bad start. Even when they finally started coming around, the lack of depth on the blue line along with the uneven start by ace goalie Thatcher Demko doomed them.

If we were to review their season up til this point, the phrase Defense Optional would apply. So would Goalie Optional ever since Demko landed on the injured reserve after looking less than 100 percent. Their share of injuries hasn’t helped the cause. Neither have some of the overpaid free agents they brought in. That isn’t on the coach. It points at a bigger issue with management.

With Rutherford again being very candid about the contract offer they made to potential unrestricted captain Horvat, who’s on track for a career season with a jaw dropping 30 goals and 49 points in 45 games, it sounds like they were totally caught off guard by what he’s done. Imagine having too much invested in other players that you actually are considering moving your popular captain who at 27 is in his prime and the unquestioned leader of the team. Yikes.

Having extended J.T. Miller following a career best 99-point season, and having Elias Pettersson signed through at least next year before turning restricted, they also are tied to bad contracts such as former Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, the injury prone Brock Boeser, Tyler Myers and even Conor Garland, who is signed through 2026 along with former Leaf Ilya Mikheyev, they’re in a tough spot. At least they got Demko and Quinn Hughes long-term.

Even when the clock strikes midnight on Boudreau with a new coach taking over, how can they fix the roster? Andrei Kuzmenko is going to make bank. Can they keep the promising KHL import who has had a good first NHL season?

The goalie depth stinks. They traded away Michael DiPietro to the Bruins for depth forward Jake Studnicka and defense prospect Jonathan Myrenberg. It’s been a struggle for Spencer Martin and Collin Delia. The weak defense doesn’t help. Especially when they don’t have a last line of defense which Demko supplied last year.

When Boudreau is relieved of his duties, they’ll no longer have him to kick around for all of their mistakes. A man who remains upbeat and illustrates all that’s right about the sport. He’s a professional. Something he told the media yesterday. He has too much class for Vancouver. A reputation that’ll remain impeccable which is why we love him.

Bruce, There It Is!

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Devils again do the nearly impossible on the road, with some potpourri thoughts

If you were just going by the quality of play in the last two games on this road trip, the Devils didn’t end the trip quite as convincingly as they started it with a flat early performance against the lowly Sharks in San Jose on an early afternoon holiday extravaganza, and a not-so-surprising one step behind game in Seattle at the tail end of a four-game West swing against a good Kraken team. However, just as in prior years bad Devil teams would find ways to lose games they should win, this year’s team is finding ways to win (or at least get points) in games they should lose. Just in the last two weeks alone there’ve been multi-goal comebacks against the Rangers and Carolina, along with the last two games against the Sharks and Kraken which also saw gutty late comebacks.

Granted, things actually started well in San Jose when Ryan Graves scored on the first shift of the game to give the Devils an early lead, but playing essentially a third road game in three and a half days (Friday and Saturday nights followed by Monday early afternoon in San Jose) the Devils were bound for a flat performance and this certainly was one. A Monday afternoon start time is weird enough, but having the first period end due to technical difficulties with a door along the boards turned this game into surreal. Just after the teams came back onto the ice for a twenty-three minute second period the Sharks struck twice quickly, with Timo Meier and Erik Karlsson’s goals both counting as ‘first period’ tallies.

After being outshot 13-4 in the first period though, the Devils did pick the pace up after, outshooting the Sharks 37-19 the rest of the way. Still, they went forty minutes between goals until Nico Hischier finally tied the game eleven seconds into the third period after a sweet turnaround assist from Ondrej Palat found a streaking Hischier going to the net for a one-time wrister. It looked as if it wouldn’t be our game when Nick Bonino gave the Sharks the lead back a few minutes later, which held up through the final seconds of regulation until lone All-Star Jack Hughes showed why he’s going to Florida in a couple of weeks:

There was some question at first as to who tipped the puck in front, turned out Hughes’ shot glanced of Karlsson, but there was no question that goal salvaged at least one point for the Devils, which turned into two when Tomas Tatar scored the only goal in the shootout, just the second skills competition for the Devils all year (and the first win in one). New Jersey’s win gave them an astonishing 4-0 record on the trip to that point and seven straight on the road overall.

Seattle however, proved to be a tougher nut to crack. In a mild surprise, Mackenzie Blackwood was in goal for the second time on this trip (and against two of the three tougher matchups on paper, to boot). It certainly was more of a reward for Blackwood’s game in LA – and perhaps managing the workload of both guys, neither of whom have started more than 43 games in a season – than any kind of slight on Vanecek though, especially after he won the other three games of the trip and only got nosed out of being an All-Star rep himself because of having two of the three or four best goalies in the NHL also playing in the tri-state area.

In any event, Blackwood acquitted himself well enough to give the Devils a chance to steal a game they were outplayed in against the biggest surprise contender in the West (with the Devils being that in the East). Maybe in another year the Devils would have mailed in a game at the end of a long road trip where they fell behind 2-0 in the second period after a pair of goals by Ryan Donato, but not this year’s team. Damon Severson pulled one back for the Devils midway through the period, and Erik Haula shockingly tied the game at 6:04 in the third with a shorthanded goal, just his fourth goal overall on the season. However, the Kraken showed their mettle and re-took the lead less than two minutes later with man of the match Donato adding the primary assist on a Brandon Tanev goal.

Proving that deja vu actually exists, again the Devils were down one late with the goalie pulled for an extra skater, again it was a young, franchise center – this time Nico – who tied the game dramatically with just over a minute remaining.

Unlike in San Jose however, there would be no dramatic win after regulation last night after Andre Burakovsky ended a back-and-forth game seventy seconds into OT giving the Kraken a hard-fought 4-3 win, ending the Devils’ trip just shy of perfect with nine points out of a possible ten. Overall the Devils’ road record ‘dropped’ to 18-2-2 more than halfway through the season, still a lot of insane work and goals accomplished though. Now come the final four games before the All-Star break, with two home tilts coming up against the Penguins and Golden Knights, then the team goes back on the road to Nashville and Dallas.

At least one win out of those two home games would be nice, if nothing else to restore some form of control over home ice. After a tense atmosphere at the Rock through December and early January, they’ll again return home as conquering heroes Sunday afternoon when they host the Penguins. Hopefully this time they are able to channel the crowd support to maintain their winning ways.

Potpourri: I usually leave the Around The League stuff to Derek here, but a couple of things happened this week I did want to comment on, especially since I didn’t see much of the last couple of Devil games to begin with. I don’t want to dwell on the Ivan Provorov mess in Philly much, the cliff notes version being that on the Flyers’ Pride Night (which each team has one of around the league to celebrate diversity and inclusion), Provorov sat out warmups because he didn’t want to wear the custom practice jersey of the night.

To me it’s just more silly than offensive, you can be offended or baffled by his choice but it is ultimately his to make, a point reinforced by the Flyers not punishing him. I just don’t see the point of why you won’t wear a jersey to skate around in for fifteen minutes, nobody’s asking you to openly advocate for human rights. He cited religious concerns but as agnostic as I am with religion, I know of no religion that prohibits wearing symbolic jerseys one time for fifteen minutes during warmups. Nor will his little protest actually lead to any change, so it’s symbolic protest for the sake of it. In some cases that’s fine and necessary even, in this case he just gave himself and the organization an unnecessary headache.

What actually annoys me even more is the shameful way the Vancouver Canucks are treating Bruce Boudreau with open speculation on and off all year long about his job security coming to a head this week, with rumors abound that Rick Tocchet will be the next head coach, just as soon as he can get out of his TNT contract (which ostensibly requires four weeks’ notice for him leaving their studio to take an NHL job). Given that the rumor is now public knowledge and Tocchet is widely speculated to be taking over Monday, it led to this astounding end of Bruce’s daily presser in Vancouver:

If you want to fire Bruce for being five games under .500 because he isn’t meeting your – perhaps grossly inflated – expectations fine, if you just want your own guy in there that’s also fine…but to do it this way and leave the poor man twisting in the wind publicly knowing he’s dead man walking is a great injustice to not only one of the good guys in the sport, but also a longtime coach who deserves better than to have possibly his last ever job end in this manner. If you knew you were going to fire him weeks ago and wanted Tocchet, then fire him at that point and have an interim coach take over with the announcement of a search for a permanent coach, then install Tocchet when he can take the job.

I have nothing against Tocchet or Canucks fans, but it would serve the Canucks right if he failed miserably and they didn’t even get a top pick for the trouble of a lost season.

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Rangers’ top guns silenced by league best Bruins, who turn MSG into a morgue, Gallant short changes bench in blah loss

It would be easy to conclude that the Bruins are a better team than the Rangers. Through 45 games or so, the records of each Original Six team confirm that.

The B’s played a back-to-back after taking care of the Islanders in their barn 4-1. The Rangers played for the first time since a less than impressive 3-1 road win over the hapless Blue Jackets. The difference is they had two days off after Monday to prepare for what amounted to a measuring stick kind of game.

Playing against a team that doesn’t lose many games that were on their second consecutive game without rest, the Rangers simply didn’t take advantage. They weren’t good enough. None of the top guns stepped up. The result was a blah 3-1 loss that left me and a whole lot of other fans frustrated.

It isn’t due to the Bruins, who improved to a remarkable 36-5-4 through 45 games. They did what they were supposed to. Took advantage of a few mistakes and buried three past Igor Shesterkin, who would probably want the third goal back that came only 28 seconds into the period to turn MSG into a morgue.

The issue is that after playing their opponents fairly even except on the scoreboard for two periods, they melted in a lackluster third that felt very vanilla. Even the first career goal as a Ranger for a very deserving Ben Harpur with 4:23 left never felt like the start of a comeback. At least it was a good moment for him.

You never got the sense they could come back. Not after coach Gerard Gallant pulled another line switch in the middle of the second period that felt like an act of desperation.

While he admitted to reporters afterwards that it wasn’t on Vitaly Kravtsov for his sudden demotion to the checking line where he took the remainder of his shifts with Jake Leschyshyn and Jonny Brodzinski, the explanation Gallant gave was unsatisfactory. It felt like another punishment of a player who showed a pulse scoring last game and getting a scoring chance when he played with Artemi Panarin tonight.

Who’s he kidding? If most observers including not even the biggest Kravtsov fans can see that there’s little chemistry between Panarin and Vincent Trocheck, who was at fault on the second Boston goal scored by a vacated Patrice Bergeron, why can’t the coach see it?

Is he oblivious to the different styles they play? Trocheck fits better with Jimmy Vesey, who was elevated on the mismatched second line while Kravtsov drowned on the fourth line. No place for a young skill player to excel. At this point, I’m ready to give up.

Kravtsov would fare better under a more trustworthy coach who isn’t afraid to put him in a better position to succeed. I hope he escapes Gotham City. It’s never going to happen under a bland coach who prefers grinders. Gallant has a lot in common with Colin Campbell. That’s not a good thing either. Campbell pulled this crap with a more established Alexei Kovalev. Then, he was dealt to the Pens and exploded.

I half-wonder how Alexis Lafreniere feels being shuffled around like a used card deck. How can he have any confidence? At least he ended his point drought by picking up a primary assist on the Harpur goal that came in garbage time. He also took one of those needless hooking minors where his stick wasn’t parallel to the ice. It was a mixed bag for Lafreniere, who only was credited with one shot on goal.

The real frustrating part is that the division is up for grabs. Who in the Metro is a heavyweight? Carolina? I’m not buying it. They lead it with 64 points after a defeating the Wild 5-2. They are a good team, but I’m not sold on them going far in the playoffs. The Devils? They’re young and talented. But lack grit which could be problematic.

Certainly not the Rangers, who remain a mystery wrapped around an enigma inside a puzzle. Definitely not the Capitals and Penguins, who both are beatable. The Islanders look like toast due to their anemic offense. Five out of six are likely making it, which means one could be the second wildcard opponent for the Bruins. I wonder how they’d feel about potentially drawing the Caps or Pens in a first round series.

Even at this point, nobody can tell me with certainty that this team isn’t capable of going on a run and winning the first two rounds if they finish in the top three. They can. That’s why Gallant must change his evil ways. Stop with the Trocheck/Panarin combo that is clearly not working.

It’s time for Filip Chytil to get the nod between Panarin and Kravtsov (until the inevitable happens). Trocheck works best with gritty two-way types who play straight ahead. That’s Vesey and perhaps Lafreniere, who will take the body and forecheck. Barclay Goodrow can always be elevated if necessary. That’s how Gallant uses him. Goody can be plugged anywhere.

Of the four original lines he went with, the third line of Chytil between Lafreniere and Goodrow were effective at even strength. They had a couple of strong shifts down low. Goodrow’s energy can rub off.

The fourth line which was centered by recent waiver pick-up Jake Leschyshyn (second game as a NYR) alongside Vesey and Jonny Brodzinski was effective. They nearly combined for an early goal. But an aggressive Jeremy Swayman came out to stop Brodzinski in front. He was very sharp making 31 saves on 32 shots to earn his 11th victory.

This also marked the first game back for Chris Kreider. He missed the previous three games due to a lower-body injury stemming from a hit he took. It wasn’t a memorable night for the 52-goal scorer. He was on for two goals against including the backbreaking Clifton goal that was due to his turnover at the end of a power play. He also was denied on another power play by the pad of Swayman. Kreider was rusty.

What were the excuses for Panarin and Mika Zibanejad? Panarin had five shots on nine attempts. Nothing went in. He also over-passed on a perfect Kravtsov feed where he had room to shoot the puck. Instead, the pass down low for Trocheck never connected. It went right into the teeth of the Bruins defense.

Zibanejad had three shots and another three that never made the net. He didn’t have any memorable shifts. It didn’t click. Kaapo Kakko was all but invisible with no shots and a whole lot of nothing against a well schooled defensive team. He never missed a shift. He gets more leeway than the other young forwards.

Kravtsov got rewarded for his one dangerous chance on a one-timer that Swayman stopped by moving down. He finished with 10:18 in 10 shifts all at even strength. Gallant never considered using him down two goals with Shesterkin pulled. Why would he? Maybe Kravtsov should make a jailbreak. It worked in Midnight Express.

It’s extremely difficult to beat a quality opponent like the Bruins when you shorten your bench. That’s what Gallant decided. He outfoxed himself. Jim Montgomery did no such thing, rolling all four lines with only A.J. Greer getting slightly under 10 minutes. Down a key defenseman after Brandon Carlo left during the second period due to a blocked shot, the Jack Adams favorite simply worked in his third pair that features Matt Grzelcyk and Clifton. That’s what a confident coach does when he believes in his depth.

There wasn’t much difference between the old rivals in the opening period. However, just to remind them of who they are, the Bruins took advantage of a Shesterkin poor pass that gave Kravtsov no chance to clear the zone. Before you knew it, a loose puck came right to David Krejci, who fired a perfect shot pass right on the stick of Pavel Zacha for a nice redirection goal at 1:19.

On the scoring play, Zacha was given too much room to tip in the Krejci shot past Shesterkin. The closest player was Trocheck. He didn’t pick him up.

Trocheck is a good player. He didn’t have a particularly good game. He was responsible for two Bruins goals. Outside of going 10 for 16 on face-offs, he was a net negative. Since recording a goal and assist in a win over the Panthers on New Year’s Day, Trocheck has one assist over the last eight games. Gallant decided to reunite him with Panarin.

A couple of shifts following the Zacha tally, Leschyshyn and Brodzinski almost combined to tie it up. After Brodzinski just missed on a tip-in, Leschyshyn was stopped on a rebound by a sharp Swayman. It was a good shift by the energy line.

Due to their tenacious forecheck, Brad Marchand got two early chances to score. However, Shesterkin was up to the task in keeping The Rat off the scoreboard.

Following some hitting from both sides, there were close calls on each end. First, the B’s third line just missed with both Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic going wide. On the opposite end, Goodrow made a bid in close. However, he was denied by Swayman.

The first was very back and forth. It was very entertaining to watch. The teams combined for 24 shots (13-11 B’s). There were opportunities on both ends. The Rangers could’ve scored on a couple, but Swayman was really on. He made key stops on Leschyshyn, Panarin and Kreider.

If there was a crucial point, it came with Kreider off for holding Hampus Lindholm. On a good lead pass, McAvoy broke in on Shesterkin. Adam Fox raced back and tried to break it up. But his stick caught skate leading to tripping to give the Bruins a five-on-three for 1:41.

With Boston looking to get that second goal, the Rangers penalty killers stepped up. A Zibanejad takeaway and clear killed precious time. Both Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren were their warrior selves blocking shots. Astonishingly, the Bruins only wound up with two shots on Shesterkin with him stopping Marchand to get a stoppage. His best save came before it expired when he came out to rob Coyle.

With under a minute to go in the period, Chytil got a step on Craig Smith to draw an interference minor. They managed one shot on the first part. Following defensive stalwart Derek Forbort blocking a Trocheck shot, Kreider had a tip-in denied by Swayman before the first expired.

Although they were trailing, it was a good period. It felt like they could get the game tied and go from there. That’s not what happened. The Bruins killed the remaining 1:12 of the five-on-four at the start of the second. Swayman made one save on Trocheck followed by another after the Bruins were back at full strength.

Prior to those saves, Carlo got in front of a Zibanejad one-timer and took some punishment. Pretty soon, Boston was playing with five defensemen. Carlo exited the game and didn’t return. Hopefully, it’s not too serious. A defensive defenseman with size, he’s a key part of the Bruins defense.

They also were without Jake DeBrusk, who is out awhile with lower-body injuries sustained in the Winter Classic. It doesn’t matter. They just plug someone in and keep rolling. How come Boston can do that and if the Rangers have one player out, it screws everything up? Makes you wonder about who’s in charge of the bench. Toss some more numbers in a hat.

One would’ve thought the Rangers had momentum. Instead, it was the Bruins who took it away like Mall Rats. If you don’t get the reference, then you should rent the underrated Kevin Smith movie.

On what was a heads-up play by Smith, who got the puck ahead for Marchand (speaking of rats), they caught the Rangers napping. They had four players back. All it took was a misread by one to allow Marchand to feed Patrice Bergeron in the high slot for a wrist shot that went stick side on a frustrated Shesterkin, who apparently got a skate shower as it was scored.

Steve Valiquette showed the replay during intermission adding that he’d never seen that happen before. Neither have I. Had Trocheck not followed Harpur towards the net, and remembered to cover Bergeron in the slot, the goal never happens. He didn’t. Just like that, Bruins 2, Rangers 0.

Right after, McAvoy almost made it 3-0. But Shesterkin bailed out his teammates. On the other end, Kravtsov made a bid for goals in two straight. But he had his slap shot from the slot denied by the unflappable Swayman. Nothing was getting by him. Later in the period, following Gallant’s desperate move, Panarin was one on one with the Bruins goalie. He was stoned.

That’s how it went. The Blueshirts had their looks as Alain Vigneault loved to say. But nothing went in. When he wasn’t getting stopped, the Bread Man was firing missiles wide. Maybe they can attack the $11.65 million dollar man the same way they do Ivan Provorov. If that’s what he felt comfortable doing, that was his choice. Or do all the cynical Canadian analysts prefer anarchy like Russia where some of these players must fear for their families back home? Ask Panarin.

I have gay friends who are married. I support them. I think it should be more personal. Stop forcing it everywhere. Cancel culture isn’t healthy. We should be respectful of others. The same applies for different opinions. If someone disagrees with me, fine. That’s your prerogative. If anyone has interest in a nice colorful rainbow Rangers Pride towel, please contact me. No charge. It was an extra from the last game I attended. Email me at kovy274hart@yahoo.com.

Personally, I don’t care. I understand why they have such nights. Everyone should be accepting of others. I watched the Provorov interview and thought he was polite and respectful. I preferred sports without all of this. It’s contrived.

Back to the game. I’m not going to say it was miserable. The Rangers had the better of the play for a good portion of the middle stanza. They never could capitalize due to the second-year netminder. Swayman made all the stops. That included 11 during the second. He turned aside Vesey who got his own rebound off a wide carom. He robbed Panarin, who felt just enough back pressure to shoot quicker than he would’ve preferred.

Shesterkin did his part too. He made a key stop on Coyle, who looks much better now that his line produces. The rapid improvement of former first round pick Trent Frederic (10 goals) and veteran Nick Foligno rediscovering himself has made that quite a third line. It hardly looks like one. A credit to Montgomery, who sure has done a great job replacing Bruce Cassidy. He’s in Vegas and has another team in first place.

One of the biggest differences was the Bruins willingness to get down and dirty. They blocked a ton of shots. In total, they had 25 as a team. Fourteen of eighteen skaters blocked at least one. Forbort led everyone with six. He’s a shot blocking machine who finishes checks. He also had six hits. That’s why I gave him the game’s Second Star. His effort epitomizes what makes the B’s so tough.

The Rangers out-attempted the Bruins 70-50. However, they only out-shot them 32-27. They had 38 attempts never reach the net. On the flip side, the Bruins had 23 that never hit the target. They were more efficient and opportunistic. To be blunt, they took advantage of three Rangers breakdowns. That was the difference in the game.

Even when Clifton misfired on an attempted clear for a delay of game minor late in the second period, his team blanketed an ineffective Rangers top unit. They were hungrier to the puck. That was evident on another Forbort block and a Lindholm defensive play behind his own net. He shielded the puck and then cleared it down at the start of the third.

What did Gallant do? Zilch. Never adjusted his power play. Continued the same trend. Is it Groundhog Day yet? If it were, Groundhog Chuck would see his own shadow when it comes to our coach and his Blind Faith in the first unit. That’s a music reference if you appreciate classic rock and not the awful computer generated crap they blast at MSG.

As the power play expired, Kreider over skated a loose puck inside the blue line. His turnover allowed Krejci and Marchand to combine to send Clifton in on Shesterkin. Marchand passed across for Clifton, who quickly went high short side to the glove for a 3-0 lead at 28 seconds of the third.

The game was essentially over. The fans that attended knew it. They didn’t make much noise. They had no reason to. But the crowds today don’t compare. Enough said.

When the supporting lines are more visible than the top two, that’s a problem. The best Rangers no showed the third. It was mostly dull and boring. A very vanilla period with little excitement. With seven minutes remaining, it felt like our players were skating around aimlessly. They weren’t in any rush. It was infuriating.

Gallant kept his new lines and played them as if there was no care in the world. Even as Panarin and Trocheck go together like oil and water, he kept sending them out with Vesey. Nothing positive happened.

If it sounds like I’m bored, that’s because I was during that ho-hum period. It was disappointing. They had a good team playing their sixth period over 24 hours and never made them sweat. It was embarassing.

I get it. The Bruins are really good. They’re at a historic pace. And what will be their reward for it? Maybe the Pens or Caps. Then either the Leafs or Lightning. That doesn’t feel like a reward. It feels like a punishment. How many points will they reach? They’re up to 76 in 45 games. That means there’s still 37 left. Wow.

The league is backwards. This divisional format while great in theory doesn’t reward the best teams. All three that’ll make it out of the Atlantic are better than any Metro team. It should be seeded 1-8. Same for the very competitive Central that will soon see the Avalanche make their climb up the standings. What if that’s who the Stars or Jets draw in the first round? Logical? Insane.

Notice I didn’t bother with the Harpur goal. It was nice to see. Lafreniere got the puck over to him and his long shot beat a screened Swayman with 4:23 remaining. Had they showed that kind of urgency earlier, maybe it’s a different game. They didn’t make life difficult for Swayman until the bitter end. He still made a great save on a double deflection of an Adam Fox shot. He also got a piece of a Trouba shot that was deflected.

Swayman had a great game. He was better than Shesterkin, who still was good in turning aside 24 of 27. He didn’t get enough run support. At least somebody scored a five-on-five goal.

Next up are the Panthers on Monday, January 23. They remain underwhelming. They’re hanging around. But it’s Sergei Bobrovsky getting the starts with Spencer Knight out.

Paul Maurice roasted the refs following a frustrating 5-4 overtime loss up in Toronto. He was justified. They called Radko Gudas for charging on a clean hit. He said, “It wasn’t Panther friendly.” The stupid league fined him $25,000. Toronto is treated differently than almost every team. I feel his frustration. They need every point.

That’s gonna do it. Enjoy the weekend!

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Improvement of young Blueshirts a key to second half, Lafreniere struggles continue, Kreider back to face league best Bruins

A few hours leading up to what amounts to a big game at 33rd and 7th when the Rangers host the league-leading Bruins in a battle of Original Six with plenty of history, let’s look into a few young Blueshirts who have improved their play.

The plus side for the Rangers, who enter tonight’s home match sitting third in the Metro Division with 57 points, has been the play of Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko and K’Andre Miller. All three have taken steps in the right direction to help contribute in wins. The growth of each is encouraging for the team’s present and future. They’re all 23 and under.

Let’s start with Chytil. In his fifth season, the former ’17 first round pick (21st) has been able to play more consistently. Although he has missed some time due to injuries which is why some refer to him as Filip Brittle, the 23-year old center has been a key secondary scorer the team cab rely on.

With a primary assist that set up Vitaly Kravtsov for his first goal in 12 games during a good bounce back win at the Blue Jackets, it gave Chytil a new career high in points with 24. His previous best was 23 which he has in both ’18-19 and ’19-20. The injury bug didn’t help him the past two seasons where he went an identical 8-14-22 with that same total in 67 games during ’21-22 leaving much to be desired.

However, the turning point came during the playoffs. It was there that a more focused Chytil showed maturity and newfound grit as he scored seven goals and added two assists all while centering Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko on the third line. They were instrumental in helping the team get past the first two rounds and nearly by the Lightning.

In 37 contests this season with his contract up, Chytil has continued to emerge as a younger leader. He’s backed it up by scoring 12 goals with 12 assists for 24 points and a plus-10 rating. While 20 points have come at even strength which has aided a team that sometimes struggles at five-on-five, he’s also contributed on the power play. His three power play goals lead the little used second unit that’s shown improvement. Hopefully, they’ll earn more ice time in the second half.

With Chytil evolving into a reliable player who has a shot at cracking 20 goals and over 40 points barring something unforeseen, there’s also been the growth of Kakko. The former ’19 second pick has shown more confidence with the puck during extended shifts. Although it hasn’t always led to consistent production as his nine goals and 11 assists would indicate, the 21-year old who turns 22 next month is much more noticeable on the forecheck.

It’s the size and strength along with puck protection that’s allowed Kakko to become more effective on the cycle. He’s able to skate in and out of traffic more and find room to either shoot or pass the puck. A bit unselfish, the puck possession hound can certainly think shot more and increase his goal production. He creates enough chances. On track for new personal bests across the board, the right wing is headed in the right direction.

With a pair of helpers on Monday night including a nice lead pass that allowed Mika Zibanejad to score his team-leading 20th versus Columbus, we’re seeing a more confident player who is starting to get it. He also picked up a secondary helper on Barclay Goodrow’s first career power play goal. A nifty redirect of a K’Andre Miller point shot.

Speaking of which, Miller is having his best stretch so far. The assist on the Goodrow tally allowed him to join an exclusive list of Blueshirts who recorded points in seven straight games as a defenseman before turning 23. Per NYRStatsInfo, that list includes Rangers legend Brian Leetch and former Ranger Neal Pionk over the past 35 years.

Had they backtracked a bit further, that small list also includes Ron Greschner. At 22 during ’76-77, the defenseman had a seven-game point streak between March 10 thru 23 in 1977. He recorded three goals and five assists for eight points.

Considering that he was a very good Ranger, Greschner definitely deserves a mention. He spent his entire 16-year career on Broadway. One of the most productive defensemen in franchise history which dates back to 1926, Greschner registered 179 goals with 431 assists for a total of 610 points in 981 games.

He helped the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 1979. At only 24, he had seven goals and five assists in 18 games during that run. Ultimately, they lost in five games to the Canadiens. Greschner went 17-32-49 over 84 career playoff games. His final season was ’89-90 when he retired.

With the 22-year old Miller joining that list with three goals and six assists for nine points over the past seven games, the smooth skating defenseman has already established personal bests in assists (20) and points (25). Twenty of the twenty-five have come at even strength. Another three via the power play where coach Gerard Gallant has finally given him some shifts on the second unit. The other two points came shorthanded which illustrates the confidence he has with the puck in transition.

A key part of the second pair teamed alongside the harder hitting and grittier Jacob Trouba, he works well with the Rangers captain. Although there have been more peaks and valleys in his third season while mostly paired with Trouba, he’s asked to do a lot by the coaching staff that includes assistant Gord Murphy, who handles the assignments.

In his third year, Miller has seen his role increase. Continuing to get tough match-ups at five-on-five while also playing penalty kill and now having contributed on the second power play where he should remain due to his skating and shot, he averages 22:15 per game. Undoubtedly, the former Wisconsin product who the club took with the 18th pick in the first round of 2018, understands the game. It’s not always easy.

There have been tough starts to games like one where he got burned twice along with Trouba. But was able to shake it off and get a game-winner on a deflection in a 5-3 come from behind victory over the Hurricanes on Jan. 3. Afterwards, he spoke about the bad first period and sticking with it. There was still time to turn it around.

It’s that kind of poise and maturity that make Miller unflappable. He has character. While he still isn’t consistent in his end, it’s a process of learning from mistakes and adjusting. One of the smartest moves of former GM Jeff Gorton was trading up with Ottawa to select Miller with the 22nd pick in 2018. It’s worked out a lot better for the Rangers than the Senators. Originally, the first round pick came from the Bruins in a blockbuster deal that’s been very good to the Blueshirts.

It’s hard to believe that Gorton was also able to land the overlooked Ryan Lindgren from Boston as part of the Rick Nash trade that also wound up turning Ryan Spooner into Ryan Strome, who was a good Ranger. The gritty and gutsy top pair defenseman who’s teamed up with Norris candidate Adam Fox to form a great tandem. Lindgren took a tough hit on a boarding call that could’ve been a major. Of course, the warrior returned.

That’s in line with who Lindgren is. The reincarnation of old number 5, Dan Girardi. The only difference is he wears double 5’s and is a lefty. When we think of Girardi, we’re reminded of some of the diving blocks he made during deep playoff runs that sent him hobbled to either the bench or locker room for repairs. Superman would always come back. It’s similar with Lindgren, who will do anything to get back in a game. He has the same hard-nosed mentality. Hockey player.

While the breathtaking Fox gets all the deserved ink for his artistry and brilliance in leading the Rangers with 45 points (9-36-45) from the back end while logging nearly 26 minutes a night, it’s rugged 24-year old partner Lindgren who plays like a Doberman. He will deliver the crunching hits and take a licking sacrificing for the cause.

Lindgren has also improved his skating. He makes good reads and knows when to jump in offensively. Although it’s not part of his job description, he’ll make a smart pinch and help the offense. His 13 assists are two shy of a previous career high established in ’20-21. He needs three more helpers to surpass that number and four points for a new personal best. A defensively responsible player, he’s plus-16 this season and plus-64 over his career.

It’s also worth pointing out that the continued steadiness of second-year defenseman Braden Schneider has helped supply the Rangers with three pairs they can trust. Although he and partner Ben Harpur don’t play as much, they’ve been a solid duo since being put together.

The strong skating and capability to jump into the play make Schneider a young player with promise. He’s already scored a career high five goals and added five helpers along with a plus-nine rating. He has 68 blocks and 66 hits with several reminding fans of Trouba. Nicknamed by teammates Baby Trouba, the former ’19 first round pick the team traded up for to steal away from the rival Devils has been worth it.

While it’s true there has been improvements made by the aforementioned young players, one player who isn’t included is Alexis Lafreniere. The former consensus top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft has struggled mightily in his third season. It’s been tough to watch.

After a strong finish to his second year where his 19 even strength goals ranked second best behind Chris Kreider, he also had an impact in the playoffs. Lafreniere scored twice and added seven assists for nine points. All while playing mostly with Chytil and Kakko on the effective forechecking third line. That looked like a springboard for a bigger third year.

Instead, he’s clearly struggled to score goals or be involved offensively. The crazy part is his 18 points (5-13-18) are two fewer than Kakko, who’s been more noticeable. If there’s a notable difference, it’s how he’s been handled. Unlike last season when he had a defined role on the former Kid Line, Lafreniere has been shuffled like a deck of cards. Gallant still hasn’t found the right combo for a young player with promise.

Going from playing his natural position to playing the off wing for a stretch with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck didn’t help. While the trio had success offensively, their lack of defensive awareness meant more goals against than scored. So, Gallant broke it up. He also tried Lafreniere with Zibanejad and Kreider on the right side. But it didn’t net positive results.

Lafreniere seems most comfortable playing the left wing which is where he should be. He has always had good chemistry with Chytil where he could line up tonight. But the lack of confidence is an issue. He is without a goal since Dec. 7. That’s a stretch of 16 games. It also included the first healthy scratch of his career. Over the 16 games, he has only five assists and 20 shots on goal. Not enough to generate quality chances needed to score.

Even in an increased role when Kreider was out due to a lower-body injury, Lafreniere couldn’t hit the score sheet while playing top line minutes with Zibanejad and Kakko. He also was used in the Kreider role on the top unit during the power play. He does go to the net and is good along the wall. But it hasn’t been clicking.

With five games remaining before the All-Star break, the Rangers face a hard question. What to do with their seemingly lost former first overall pick. If he doesn’t show improvement, wouldn’t it make sense for the organization to assign Lafreniere to Hartford for a stretch? He’s never played in the AHL. It wouldn’t be a punishment. It could provide a chance to stay sharp, get top minutes including on the power play, and boost his confidence.

The Kings have been patient with ’20 second pick Quinton Byfield. He spent time with the Ontario Reign as did former USA WJC standout Alex Turcotte. Byfield did well in the AHL and was recalled. He produced his best NHL game with a goal and assist on the top line during a Kings’ win. Sometimes, it’s a process. Byfield has only played 63 games for LA posting 6-11-17. He looks better since coming back up.

The main point of emphasis is that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the Rangers decided to send down Lafreniere. He’s clearly struggling mentally. That’s affected his game. I see a player who’s a step slower and not as decisive. The game is very fast. It should be more instinctive.

Tonight will be the 180th game of his NHL career. Lafreniere remains stuck on 36 goals with 34 assists totaling 70 points. Of course, there’s been criticism from frustrated fans who don’t have any patience. They don’t understand that he hasn’t been handled well in Year Three. Even for a young talented player with lofty expectations, it can be tough. The mental side of sports aren’t emphasized enough. At least we’re starting to see players be more open about the pressure.

At this moment, I’m not ready to throw in the towel on a 21-year old player who is capable of much more. It’s about rebuilding his confidence. If that means letting him build back up for some games in Hartford which can make him a better player, I’m for it.

The real question is will the Rangers organization even consider it. They’re known for using young players like props to get fans’ hopes up. Why else did Kakko stay up during his rookie season when he was completely lost? For one reason. Public Relations. That’s the Dolan philosophy. It’s been harming player development for a long time. Or do the names Malhotra and Lundmark not ring a bell?

This is a franchise that never won a draft lottery up until they lucked into Lafreniere following the uncompetitive preliminary round against the Hurricanes. A two-part system that benefited a lucky loser over a bad team that didn’t even qualify for the expanded 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Lucky loser has been used more in tennis when a player who lost in qualifying replaces an injured player during a grand slam. It applies to the unlikely 2020 Draft scenario that landed the Rangers the top pick.

Can Lafreniere still figure it out? Not without the right decision making. I get that Gallant is trying to win games. I also understand how delicate the situation is. They don’t want to mess up Lafreniere anymore. He has to be more proactive during shifts, aggressive and avoid bad penalties which have started to occur recently.

Look at Vitaly Kravtsov. He hadn’t scored in a dozen games until the other night. Playing on the third line with Chytil and Goodrow, he went to the net and got rewarded. Chytil found him with a superb pass that Kravtsov tipped in. It was only his third point during a tough stretch. He didn’t celebrate much on the goal. But rather pointed to Chytil for the pass and smiled.

It also happened to be arguably his best game so far. Kravtsov finished with a team high five shots and nearly scored again. When it comes to the development of young players, it’s all about how they respond. The 23-year old former ’18 first round pick was more aggressive and it paid off. Despite more impatience from fans who want to throw him away, Kravtsov has only played in 45 NHL games. He’s 5-5-10 including 3-3-6 in 25 in his first true season. That’s significantly less than Kakko or Lafreniere.

With rumors heating up regarding Timo Meier, how the heck can a team like the Rangers afford the Sharks forward? Meier is up at the end of the season as a restricted. He must be qualified at least $10 million. Given the cap issues they have, it’s unrealistic to add a player of Meier’s caliber. Between what it would cost in roster player(s), prospects and picks, along with the crazy salary, there’s no way they can do it.

It’s even more farfetched than Patrick Kane. I’m sure the Blackhawks wouldn’t ask for a combination starting with either Kakko or Lafreniere plus Brennan Othmann and a first round pick. Click. Not worth that potential steep price for a possible rental. There’s no guarantee even in a more mediocre league. The best teams all play in the Atlantic. That would be the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Lightning.

What about key decisions Team President and GM Chris Drury must make following the season? Namely Miller and Chytil. Lafreniere likely won’t cost much. But the other two could. Kravtsov is also a Group II. Lindgren, who makes $3 million, is up in 2024. That’s also restricted. Libor Hajek likely will be gone.

The only players who turn unrestricted are Sammy Blais ($1.525 million) and backup Jaroslav Halak ($1.5 million). Unless something creative happens, the Rangers won’t be able to do much this summer. That’s still a long way off. They can at least make an addition at the trade deadline due to freeing up space by unloading Ryan Reaves to Minnesota.

With Kreider returning after missing the past three games, that should help solidify a lineup that’s struggled to score at five-on-five. They only scored once there without the veteran power forward who ranks second behind Zibanejad with 19 goals. He definitely was missed both at even strength and on the top power play unit.

A good question for Gallant entering tonight’s big test against a Bruins team that’s only lost five times in regulation, is will he use power play two a little more. Lafreniere will be back on that unit. What about Miller, whose more capable of running it than Trouba?

It is Boston. It’s a good bet Gallant will lean on his top unit if they get power plays. The Bruins are an outstanding team at five-on-five. Their superior depth up front and on the blue line makes them very formidable. At 35-5-4, their 74 points lead the league. A dozen more than the Hurricanes and 13 clear of the Devils and Leafs.

Patrice Bergeron is a game-time decision. Although it would benefit our side, I’d prefer to see him play. I want a full Bruins roster for this big match-up. Bergeron also is one of the all-time great Bruins having eclipsed 1,000 points and played 1,260 games. He’s 16-19-35 this season. For his career all with Boston, Bergeron has 416 goals, 601 assists and 1,017 points to go with a plus-273. That’s why he’s considered one of the greatest two-way players.

Igor Shesterkin should be in net on one end. Linus Ullmark played last night in Boston’s 4-1 win over the Islanders. He’s a ridiculous 24-2-1 with a 1.88 GAA, .937 save percentage and two shutouts. It might be Jeremy Swayman. No picnic either, the second-year netminder is 10-3-3 with a 2.35 GAA, .912 save percentage and a shutout. He’s played much better lately.

It isn’t only about stopping David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. Pastrnak is fourth in scoring with 63 points including 35 goals (second behind McDavid) including 13 on the power play. His 217 shots lead the league. He’s gonna get paid. The Bruins are going to have to pay top dollar. That could be between $11.5 and 12 million.

What makes Boston so tough is they have David Krejci back centering the second line. That’s normally between Pavel Zacha (re-signed) and Pastrnak. But Jake DeBrusk is out. They also have Charlie Coyle centering a good third line. Plus Taylor Hall and secondary scorers Trent Frederic, Nick Foligno and Zacha.

The defense is well balanced. Anchored by Long Island native Charlie McAvoy and aided by Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Carlo and shot blocking machine Derek Forbort, they’re well equipped to both play strong defense and contribute offensively. Matt Grzelcyk is capable of offense while Connor Clifton is more defensive oriented.

Up and down the lineup, there aren’t many weaknesses. For the Rangers to win, they’ll have to fare well at five-on-five. An area Boston excels at. That means not getting pinned in for stretches. Smart concise passes and smooth exits that lead to attack time. They have to carry the play and win the neutral zone. Face-offs will be tough. But if Bergeron is out, that can only help. Remaining disciplined is another key due to the precision passing of the Bruins. Particularly Marchand and Pastrnak.

Special teams always are essential. Unless it’s mostly played at full strength, there will be some penalties. That means power plays and penalty kills. The Rangers need to be sharp in this area.

Obviously, getting bodies to the front no matter who’s in net will help the cause. Boston has some big defensemen. The Blueshirts will have to make life difficult. Get dirty. Don’t get sucked into any undisciplined penalties by Marchand, Foligno or Frederic. The Bruins are gritty and tough.

If we really want to get a good idea of where this team is after having played much better since Trouba’s blowup during the ugly loss against the Blackhawks which was the low point, this is as good an opportunity as any to find out who they are. They’ve had good wins over quality opponents like the Stars (Miller’s Miracle) Devils (Chytil in OT), Golden Knights, Avalanche (though shorthanded), Lightning (split with the second needing extras), Leafs (ended their streak) and Hurricanes (big third period).

The Bruins are the measuring stick. That’s how impressive they are under Jack Adams frontrunner Jim Montgomery. Good for him on finally getting a second chance after a struggle off the ice with alcohol. They’re the team to beat right now. The Rangers already lost once at MSG 5-2 back on Nov. 3. That was then. They’ve improved. The final meeting is March 4 in Boston after the March 3 trade deadline.

Well. It should be a good one. Hopefully, a lot better than two months ago.

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