Lindgren’s return can’t prevent third period disappointment in playoff style loss to determined Hurricanes

Before opening face-off at MSG, the Rangers got good news. After missing 11 games, Ryan Lindgren finally returned from the upper-body injury he suffered on a T.J. Oshie hit against the Capitals.

The glue of the defense was back. Similar to old hat Dan Girardi, the prideful man from Minnesota wearing double fives on the back of his jersey received a warm welcome from excited fans. They know what Lindgren brings. As I’ve echoed before in this space, he provides the nuts and bolts. Whatever the team needs, he’ll do.

It had been almost a month since he last played. Everyone understands how valuable he is to the team with championship aspirations. Even though they’ve been winning games, it hasn’t always gone smoothly. However, Ben Harpur deserves a kudos for how he handled the extra minutes while Lindgren was out. He’s a solid extra defenseman with character and grit.

On what was an emotional night due to the sudden passing of Knicks legend Willis Reed, the Rangers held a moment of silence for the Captain. There isn’t a greater Knick in terms of impact. The flashbacks of him coming out of the locker room to thunderous cheers for Game Seven against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers is fondly remembered by all. All he had to do was make his first two jump shots to lead the Knicks to the franchise’s first NBA title.

As sad a day as it was for New York sports, Reed will always be fondly remembered. MSG made sure to have the right touch during last night’s game by showing clips of the all-time great. Number 19 hangs from the rafters in the Garden.

When we watch Lindgren during each shift, he brings the grit and hustle to the ice. It’s the pride and passion that he plays with that’s made him a fan favorite. He sure makes a difference while teamed up with Adam Fox. The anchor of the blue line clearly struggled without his running mate. With 11 games left, it’s a good chance for the key tandem to get back in sync.

In what was a fast-moving playoff style game between two rivals, Lindgren was called for a dubious holding minor late in the second period. In fact, it was former teammate Jesper Fast who grabbed a hold of Lindgren to pull him in to draw the call. Fans held their breath as Lindgren went down on the play. He struggled to get up and went back to the locker room.

At the time, the Rangers were leading 1-0 thanks to a Tyler Motte goal that came with three minutes left in a tightly contested first period. On a face-off inside the Carolina zone, Jimmy Vesey intercepted a Brady Skjei pass down low. He then got the puck over to Barclay Goodrow, who found Motte open for an easy finish in front at 17:00.

That opening period was well played by both sides. It was clean hockey without any penalties. Initially, the Canes got some good looks on Igor Shesterkin, who continued his recent improvement. He made nine saves in the first while counterpart Frederik Andersen stopped 11 of 12 shots.

The Hurricanes knew the importance of this game. Having lost the first two to the Blueshirts in the season series, a regulation loss would’ve put their hold on first place in jeopardy. They entered play with 98 points. One up on the Devils and six ahead of the Rangers with a home and home series.

Carolina isn’t as high scoring a team as the Blueshirts, who exploded for six goals in a lopsided 7-0 rout of the Predators on Sunday night. The game was over quickly. K’Andre Miller highlighted the victory by becoming the first Ranger to record four points (2-2-4) in a first period since former captain Kelly Kisio. Filip Chytil also snapped his scoring drought with his 20th goal in the blowout.

The Hurricanes lost two of their biggest threats for the remainder of the season. Max Pacioretty (torn Achilles) and Andrei Svechnikov (knee) are big blows for a team that doesn’t have many consistent scorers. They’ll have to do it by committee.

A puck possession team under coach Rod Brind’Amour, they’ll rely on captain Sebastian Aho to lead the way along with Martin Necas. They’ve gotten a good season out of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The checking center has been contributing lately and is starting to resemble the player they thought they were signing away from Montreal.

Their blue line has balance. Jaccob Slavin remains the shutdown defenseman who pairs up with veteran Brent Burns. He still can get it done offensively. The second pair is similar with Brett Pesce proving steady play while Skjei looks for offense. His 15 goals are a career high that paces the back end. Burns has a dozen while leading the defense with 41 assists and 53 points. They added Shayne Gostisbehere for power play help. An area he excels at. Chatfield has provided solid depth on the third pair.

If one were to look at the Hurricanes compared to the Rangers, you’d probably place a blue checkmark next to the offense, power play, and goaltending. There’s no question they have more firepower. Adding Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane to a core that features Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, and Vincent Trocheck makes them formidable.

Even with their recent struggles, the older Kid Line are capable of contributing. So, too are the best checking line they’ve had since Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and either Derek Dorsett or Daniel Carcillo were making key contributions on the 2013-14 team during the postseason.

Shesterkin is an obvious edge over the respectable Andersen in net. Of course, that doesn’t always mean what you think. Even all-time greats have been outplayed in the playoffs. But I know who I’m rolling with in the Metro Division. Although Islanders fans can make a strong case for Ilya Sorokin. He’s been the better netminder this season.

So, what happened during Tuesday night’s 3-2 home loss? The Rangers wilted in a disappointing third period. Having been outplayed by a wide margin during a second period that favored the Canes, who had the puck in the Rangers zone for long stretches, they couldn’t quite put Carolina away.

Even with the remainder of a second power play followed by another man-advantage in which Fast tripped up Shesterkin from behind outside his crease, the Rangers’ special teams got nothing accomplished.

Instead, it was the highly rated Hurricanes’ penalty kill that gave them fits by standing up at the blue line. They got sticks on pucks and made key clears, forcing the Rangers to reset. Even the much improved balanced power play units couldn’t make a dent. They never got much setup time. Andersen didn’t have to work too hard.

Consider that it was the Canes who out-shot the Blueshirts 15-5 in the second. It wasn’t so much a case of it being high quality. Most of the shots were ones you’d expect Shesterkin to stop. The Rangers still did a good enough job defending the net front. But there definitely was too much time spent in their end.

For a while, it looked like they’d protect the one-goal lead. Shesterkin remained locked in. His best save came when he made an aggressive glove denial on Noesen. But the Canes kept coming.

Eventually, a mishap from Chris Kreider cost Shesterkin the shutout. On a transition play where Jack Drury and Derek Stepan combined to move the puck up for Chatfield, he got a step on Kreider and whipped a high rising shot from the right circle past Shesterkin to tie the score at 9:49.

What happened next nobody could’ve predicted. Before you could settle in, Fox moved the puck across for a Lindgren shot that banked off a Carolina player right to Kaapo Kakko. He made no mistake burying the gift past Andersen to restore a one-goal lead just 31 seconds later. It ended an 11-game drought. Lucky goal number 13 put the Rangers back in front.

However, there was even more chaos. Before the public address announcer, Joe Tolleson could announce the Kakko goal, back came the Hurricanes. It was some hard work from their second line that tied the game only 18 seconds later.

Off some sustained pressure from Jordan Staal and Fast behind the Rangers’ net, Miller made the mistake of going to the corner where Zibanejad had his man. That allowed Fast to center across for an easy Noesen finish for his 11th at 10:38. Jacob Trouba had to go occupy Fast on the other side. So, neither defenseman was in front on the play. But it was Miller’s responsibility to stay home. That caused the goal.

For all the accolades he receives for his skating and improvement offensively with a career best 38 points, Miller remains an enigma defensively. Too often, he gets caught up ice or is caught out of position, leading to goals against. His defense has been tough to watch over the past month. Trouba has to do too much.

It’s not cohesive. That explains why Gerard Gallant opted to move Niko Mikkola up to the second pair while shifting Miller down with Braden Schneider for the remainder of the game.

Even on a night, Lindgren was able to return for the third period to the relief of many. The issues that plague the defense were there to be seen. Miller has played his way off a long-term contract. More fans are noticing his miscues. He is skilled. However, his defense has to get better. If not, it’s hard to see what’s a loaded roster getting through the Eastern Conference.

If I’m the coach, I would keep Mikkola with Trouba for the rematch at Carolina tomorrow night. Let Miller work with Schneider where there’s less pressure. Of course, Brind’Amour can dictate the match-ups due to having the last change. Knowing Gallant, he’ll probably go right back to Miller and Trouba.

At this point in his young career, Miller should have a better idea of when to stay home and when to go. This isn’t only on the player. It’s also about the system. Is enough coaching being done? Why does he continue to make the same mistakes without any discipline? If it were anyone else, they would’ve sat.

In the final part of the game, the Canes were more desperate. There was urgency to their game. On a night they blanketed the Rangers’ top six, it wad Carolina, who found the game-winner.

With under three minutes remaining, Kotkaniemi moved the puck up for Burns. As the Rangers were scrambling for position, including Kreider, Burns burned them with a good pass across for a Teravainen goal that came with 2:33 left in regulation.

On the play, it wasn’t about the positioning of Fox or Lindgren. But rather where Kreider was standing on the deciding goal. He got caught puck watching. Stuck in no man’s land, he wasn’t in the right position as Teravainen redirected Burns’ feed. On two scoring plays, Kreider got caught in the wrong position. He’s usually better than that. He knew it, too.

The Rangers were unable to find the equalizer. This was the Canes’ period. They came back from a 1-0 deficit to outscore the Rangers 3-1. That allowed them to earn a big win to hit the century mark in points. Combined with the Devils getting a point in a buzzer beater by Wild forward Matt Boldy in overtime, Carolina now leads the division by two points with 13 games left.

Instead of potentially winning in regulation and cutting the deficit to four for first place, the Rangers are now eight behind the Hurricanes. They trail the Devils by six for second. Each team has 11 left, including a pivotal game on March 30 at The Prudential Center.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes. It’s one loss. There’s no reason to panic. They are going to wind up in the top three of the Metro Division. The Islanders routed the Maple Leafs to move up to 82 points. They’re first in the wildcard. Combined with Florida losing to the Flyers, they are three up on the Panthers and four on the skidding Penguins.

As for the Blueshirts, they’ll get back to work. You can’t win them all. One more intriguing match with the Canes in Raleigh. Then, 10 more games on the schedule. There’s still some work to be done.

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Devils’ tough Florida week ends on a high note

After last Sunday’s big win over Carolina got the Devils a share of the division lead, there was always going to be the potential for a reality check this week when the NHL – in its infinite wisdom – decided to give the Devils their entire season series with Tampa Bay in one six-day stretch. Oh and by the way, we’re also giving you another game down in Sunrise against a team in a life and death playoff battle in the middle of that six-day stretch as well.

In the end the results of this week were mixed, to put it succinctly. Great if your only goal out of the week was to have all your top players stay healthy and not embarrass yourselves in a de facto mini-playoff series with a veteran Lightning team, lousy if your goal was to keep pace with the Hurricanes and wound the pesky Panthers’ playoff hopes while we were at it.

Sure, the Devils are still only a point back of Carolina after a 1-2-1 week overall but now the Canes have two games in hand following an emotional win in Winnipeg in the wake of talented winger Andrei Svechnikov’s season-ending knee injury, and a dramatic comeback against the Flyers after scoring the tying goal with .3 left in regulation and winning in the first half-minute of OT. That thirty-second shift from zero points to two in Philly could prove decisive in the division race.

Of course, that’s ultimately a secondary concern to the Devils’ own performance and injury report. Let’s get the bad of this week out of the way first – Saturday night in Sunrise was clearly one of the worst games this team’s played all year, especially on the road. Perhaps we were looking at this game as a nuisance in the middle of our three-game mini-series with Tampa, or more likely we just struggled to find the same gear with a team that needed the game more. Plus let’s face it, we’ve struggled with the Panthers all year long – albeit the other two games we played with them were just before Christmas when we were struggling in general during December.

If it wasn’t for Akira Schmid’s spectacular 37-save performance, the Devils wouldn’t have even had a shot on Saturday, much less a 2-0 lead in the third period before the roof fell in with three quick Panther goals in the span of two and a half minutes of the third. That three-goal outburst basically decided the game, albeit a game we never really deserved to be winning in the first place. Hopefully we won’t be seeing the Panthers again anytime soon (especially with their old-school penchant of playing physically dirty hockey), although it remains a distinct possibility if we do win the division they could be a team we play in the first round. At the moment, it seems like a three-horse race between them, the Islanders and the struggling Penguins for the two wild card spots.

At the moment, the Panthers game was a sideshow to what was more a Tampa week, with back-to-back matchups at the Rock on Tuesday and Thursday before concluding a two-game Florida swing with another matchup against the Lightning in Tampa last night. I would say Tuesday was a letdown after the adrenaline-induced win over the Hurricanes on Sunday except the Devils actually started pretty well in the first period, with Damon Severson getting the first goal and Ryan Graves doubling the Devils’ lead…until a dubious offside challenge overturned the goal, and seemingly the momentum of the game.

Maybe it would have been a different story Tuesday if Vitek Vanecek hadn’t followed his brilliant return to form on Sunday with another dud of a game, allowing multiple stoppable goals as the Lightning surged past the Devils with a shorthanded goal to tie the game in the first, then three goals in the second period culminating in a last-second tally from Nikita Kucherov.

From there, Tampa did to us what we did to the Canes last Sunday in the third period, put a three-goal lead to bed (worst lead in hockey my fanny, Maven!). Our regulation loss coupled with the Hurricanes’ win in Winnipeg put them back in front, basically washing away Sunday’s game in the span of 48 hours. As much as I wanted to believe Vanecek’s game last Sunday was a sign he’d gotten out of his slump, Tuesday seemed further confirmation that Vanecek – who’d recently passed his career high in games started – has been running out of gas down the stretch, a real concern in terms of who’s going to play in the playoffs and who should play.

In the near term with the four games in six nights, I had little doubt Schmid would play two of the next three regardless of Vitek’s game on Tuesday. Sure enough, it was Schmid in the pipes for the Thursday and Saturday games (a la last week) to give Vitek another long-ish break between starts. Schmid answered the bell in both games, as he has just about every time he’s been called upon this season. As good as Schmid was on Thursday though, the Devils started the game on the back heel when Ross Colton scored after barely a minute, and had to come from behind three separate times to tie the Lightning.

Perhaps most encouragingly, Thursday’s game seemed to be a breakout of sorts for Timo Meier, who’d been a fish out of water in part because for some reason the staff played him on his off wing. Putting him back on the right side Thursday was all the impetus he needed to have a two-goal night, including a late tying goal on the power play

For all intents and purposes, the game was an honorable draw that the Lightning got the extra point in after the skills competition. If anything, the Devils outplayed Tampa on Thursday but Andrei Vasilevsky was again a difference-maker for his team, making thirty-two saves in the game itself and another pair in the shootout. Still, three straight winless games this week including the Panther no-show on Saturday provided quite the backdrop for Sunday’s finale in Tampa.

If Saturday was one of our worst games of the season, Sunday was one of the best all things considered. Unfortunately, for the first part of the game it looked like December again, as goals from Kucherov and Alex Killorn gave Tampa a 2-0 lead against the run of play. Unlike Tuesday though, a shaky start from Vanecek didn’t shake the Devils, and Jesper Bratt responded with a goal just nine seconds after Killorn’s marker – putting the Devils back within one. For Bratt, that goal could well have been a spark considering his long personal slump (seven goals and one assist in his last eighteen games). Sure enough, Bratt followed that goal with another less than three minutes later to tie the game, and that goal was his 30th of the season – a personal first for the talented winger.

Less than three minutes after Bratt’s goal, captain Nico Hischier joined the party with his 30th goal of the season – also a personal first – giving the Devils an improbable lead less than six minutes after falling behind by two. It was the complete inverse of the third period in Sunrise the previous night, with us turning the two-goal lead on its head with three quick ones. Guess things really do even out over a long season.

From there the Devils mostly maintained control of the game, and even extended their lead in the third period from an unlikely source…recent callup (and ex-Lightning prospect) Nolan Foote scoring his first of the season. Foote was only in the lineup because of injuries to Miles Wood and Curtis Lazar, but he made his case for getting a longer look going forward even before the revenge goal in the third period.

Other than being forced to kill off a late third-period penalty, there was surprisingly little drama left in the game (despite being on the back end of a four-in-six, though so was Tampa) and Bratt sealed it with the empty-netter for a hat trick. At least he had some fun with it after, in what would look like a photoshop if I didn’t know better and see this on the TV when it happened:

Can’t say there’s much to complain about overall from the Lightning series. Three points out of six where we more or less outplayed them the last two games. Not that it’ll mean anything come playoffs, even the 2017-18 Devils went three-for-three against Tampa in the regular season before reality set in once the teams met in April. Still, you like to see them meet any challenge head on whether it’s in April or before it, and if last week was tough for us, the next few games will be a challenge for the Hurricanes as well, with two games against their nemesis the Rangers, followed by playing Toronto, Boston and Tampa.

Not that it’s easy for us, with a home game against the Wild on Tuesday followed by a back-to-back at Buffalo and home against Ottawa this weekend before the final two Battle of the Hudson games in the regular season with the Isles and Rangers next week. Of course winning a division isn’t supposed to be easy, as much as we made it look so in our heyday.

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Pieces falling into place for surging Blueshirts

This past week was a good one for the Rangers. They took seven out of eight points against a pair of division rivals.

In doing so, they pulled within five points of the second place, Devils who lost 4-2 yesterday. There’s still a chance to grab home ice in the first round. Even though I’m not emphasizing it as much due to how competitive the playoffs are, it’s a possibility. There are 13 games left in the regular season, including a potential four-point game at the Devils on March 30.

Home ice isn’t what it once was. We’ve seen teams go into enemy territory and win a deciding Game Seven. If the Battle Of Hudson happens in the first round, I don’t think it matters who gets the extra game. When it comes down to rivalries in which both teams are very evenly matched, anything can happen. So, I won’t be referencing it as much until things are settled.

While that’s still to be determined, including whether either Hudson rival can chase down the Hurricanes for first in the Metro Division, the most important aspect is that the Rangers are starting to gel. It isn’t easy when you add key pieces. Even if it’s the likes of Patrick Kane, who came after they acquired Vladimir Tarasenko to upgrade the top six.

The Blueshirts didn’t play lights out following the Kane acquisition. There was an adjustment period for both Showtime and former Blues star Tarasenko. Gerard Gallant searched for the right combination by trying both right wings on different lines. Eventually, he’s settled on Tarasenko flanking Mika Zibanejad with Artemi Panarin on the first line. Kane is fitting in with Vincent Trocheck and Chris Kreider on the second line.

Gallant also realized that throwing all of your eggs in one basket was counterproductive on the power play. Now, you have Kane with Panarin, Trocheck, Adam Fox, and Alexis Lafreniere on one unit. It’s Zibanejad, Kreider, Tarasenko, Jacob Trouba, and Filip Chytil on the second unit. Sometimes, Fox and Trouba will switch depending upon who Gallant starts the power play with. He has two top units. It’s a good problem to have. They’re having success. It won’t be easy for opponents.

Were the Rangers perfect in going 3-0-1 against the Penguins three times with the Capitals sandwiched in the middle of the miniseries? Of course not. There’s no such thing as a perfect game. Even Saturday night’s 6-0 shutout over the Pens was a bit misleading.

Coming off a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh in which Sidney Crosby nearly tied it late before Chris Kreider, who got the game-winner parked in front, added the empty netter for his 30th goal, the Blueshirts didn’t have a great start last night. In fact, it was the Pens who played more desperate. They are fighting just to make the playoffs with the Panthers hot on their heels. It showed during an intense first period.

Playing again without key defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who missed his ninth straight game, the Rangers again went with Niko Mikkola playing alongside Adam Fox, who continues to struggle at even strength. He hasn’t found it as easy without dependable partner Lindgren, who provides the nuts and bolts.

Mikkola has been an important player since coming over from St. Louis with Tarasenko. While he isn’t the best skater, he’s provided crucial minutes that have been needed. Occasionally, he’ll take a penalty. He isn’t a top pair player. He’s done alright out of necessity. Once Lindgren returns, the Rangers should have a better blue line that has more balance. It isn’t great, but it will be more capable.

Even without Lindgren, they’re winning games. There have been some shaky moments where the defense let an opponent hang around. The Caps were able to make things interesting without Alexander Ovechkin by grinding their way within one during a strong third period this past Tuesday. But Jimmy Vesey scored into an open net to end a long, scoring drought in a 5-3 win that Gallant described as Harlem Globetrotters style hockey.

It was an accurate description. I prefer how they played on Thursday. It was a hard fought game that saw a ton of hitting. The Penguins came back twice from one-goal deficits to tie the score.

You had Tyler Motte involved both physically and offensively. His accidental elbow ended Jeff Petry’s night. Seeking retribution, the Pens targeted the grinding forward. Just after he released the puck, Pierre-Oliver Joseph delivered a borderline hit that sent Motte down. It was shoulder to chest, but a little high. There was some elbow. Motte was cut on the play and left for repairs. He returned.

Much has been made of the top six. But with the third line slumping due to both Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko unable to score over a considerable stretch, the checking line has received additional ice time. Why not. The cohesive unit of Barclay Goodrow, Vesey, and Motte has chemistry. They get pucks in deep and forecheck effectively. It’s a line Gallant trusts to help protect a lead late. He had them on when Vesey got his 10th against the Caps.

It was kind of nice to see Motte return and score a goal that put the Blueshirts back in front 2-1. A great response to Rickard Rakell tying the game following a misplay from Ben Harpur behind the net. Who else but Crosby set him up. Motte’s goal was poetic. He took advantage of a Joseph giveaway to beat Tristan Jarry late in the second period.

The Pens came out hard in the third period. Knowing the importance of that game, they really pushed with a strong attack. It would eventually lead to Jake Guentzel putting away a Crosby feed to get even. He stole the puck behind the net from K’Andre Miller, whose reverse was poorly timed. Guentzel was wide open for his 30th.

With the game hanging in the balance, it was a strong shift from the Trocheck line that led to Kreider rebounding home his 29th. Both Trocheck and Fox set it up. Simply put, it was the kind of play we’ve seen over and over where Kreider makes his living. Adam Graves was similar. The difference is Kreider is more skilled. The appreciation for what he provides is increasing. As he marches towards the top five on the all-time franchise goal scoring list, he deserves all the accolades.

After Crosby was nearly able to steer in a rebound with Jarry pulled, Mika Zibanejad and Trocheck combined to set up Kreider for the big empty netter to seal the victory. That made it two consecutive seasons where Kreider scored 30 goals or more. As we know, he hit a career high 52 in 2021-22. While he won’t come close to matching that number, he continues to prove how vital he is. Even in a year where he only has six power play goals, he’s still finding ways to score at even strength (21) and shorthanded with his four pacing the team.

The biggest positive has been the improved play from Igor Shesterkin. It hasn’t been easy to follow up on one of the best seasons in modern history that earned him a Vezina. In truth, the defense hasn’t been as good. That hasn’t helped.

However, everyone knows the importance of Shesterkin to the Rangers’ chances. After Jaroslav Halak played another good game last Sunday in what amounted to a frustrating 3-2 overtime loss in Pittsburgh, Shesterkin returned to the net for the last three games.

After making 28 saves in a win over the Capitals, he was even better on Thursday by finishing with 30 saves on 32 shots. His play is finally picking up at the right time. As I mentioned earlier in this post, the score of Saturday night’s game on ABC was misleading. That’s because Shesterkin had to come up with a lot of big saves on high-quality chances.

In the first period, it was Shesterkin who made the difference. In between Zibanejad getting his team-leading 36th from Jacob Trouba and Miller, he stoned the Pens at every turn. That included a sprawling save on a point blank chance. He also denied Evgeni Malkin with plenty of traffic in front.

That’s how the game would go for the Pens, who came unraveled following an undisciplined penalty by Malkin for boarding Braden Schneider. A sequence that saw Harpur come to his partner’s aid, which led to four minutes for Malkin and two for Harpur, still saw the Rangers on a late power play. On a Fox pass across, Artemi Panarin beat Jarry short side with just over 10 seconds left to put the Rangers up by two. They made Malkin pay for his foolish penalty.

The Rangers exploded in the second period for four goals. Three came over a 4:45 span. On a great play in transition started by Miller, Zibanejad slid the puck across for a wicked Tarasenko one-timer that blew past Jarry to make it 3-0. It was exactly the kind of heavy shot Tarasenko possesses. Jarry couldn’t stop it.

On another rush where the Pens defense looked lost, Trocheck got the puck up for Kane. With two players converging on him, he sent a perfect backhand pass directly on the tape of Kreider’s stick for an easy finish that gave him number 31. The lead was up to four.

With the Pens reeling, Mike Sullivan lifted Jarry for Casey DeSmith. It didn’t matter. Trouba rudely greeted DeSmith by surprising him with a seeing eye shot from a sharp angle that banked off his mask for what amounted to a bad goal. He’s now up to eight goals. The cohesive duo of Tarasenko and Zibanejad picked up the assists on the play.

The Penguins didn’t quit. They were able to create some scoring chances. But Shesterkin wasn’t having it. He continued to make superb stops. Looking more like the goalie who dominated last season, there’s no question that this is the best Shesterkin has played. He’s tracking the puck better and in the right position. He’s also been more aggressive, making some excellent poke checks to deny players.

Before the period was over, a unique combination saw Chytil out with Kane and Panarin for a shift. That was helpful for Chytil, who picked up a secondary assist on another superb Kane feed that Panarin finished for his second of the game. He’s now up to 22 goals. The same amount he had last year in 75 games. Panarin is heating up at the right time.

Shesterkin made a strong denial on Josh Archibald. He also stopped Drew O’Connor. It didn’t matter who it was in a Penguins jersey. He was on his game.

Although the Rangers were out-shot 33-24, Shesterkin stopped all 33 shots to earn the shutout. It was only his second of the season. The last came way back on Nov. 1 when he made 19 saves to blank the Flyers. It’s safe to say this was by far a better shutout than that one much earlier in the season. He earned it.

It’s now been eight games since Kane was brought in to play on Broadway. You can tell that he’s finally getting more comfortable. It took Tarasenko some time to adjust. He looks like a perfect match with Zibanejad. Their chemistry is undeniable. Tarasenko is up to 13 points (5-8-13) in 18 games.

Kane has three goals and four assists for seven points in eight games. He looks more comfortable playing with Trocheck and Kreider, who he knows is the finisher on the line. Listening to his postgame interview last night, you can tell that he understands the game. He is very good at breaking down scoring plays. He’s not the greatest American player for nothing.

Like any contending team that added key players, it’s taken time. Now that both Tarasenko and Kane have gotten acclimated with Gallant figuring out where they fit best, there’s a lot to be positive about. The Rangers have two dangerous lines that can strike at any moment. Pick your poison.

If the Kid Line, which is still being used around the league, can get it going, look out. Lafreniere has been playing with confidence for a while. He’s carved out a net front role on the power play featuring Kane, Panarin, Trocheck, and either Fox or Trouba. He continues to be very active during shifts. If he was playing with better talent, there’s no doubt he’d have more goals and assists.

It’s time for Chytil and Kakko to get into gear. When I’m sarcastically asked if they’ll score another goal, that’s not good. Chytil has been snake bit. He just needs some puck luck. Kakko is still noticeable on the cycle where his puck possession game remains a strength. But his lack of confidence in shooting the puck remains an issue. There’s still time to figure it out.

With the Rangers hosting the Predators later tonight, they look to keep it going. They’re three-for-three so far on the current five-game home stand that wraps up with a pivotal game on Tuesday against the Hurricanes. They’ll then visit Raleigh this Thursday to conclude a big home and home series against a team they’ve owned. That will go a long way to determining if the Blueshirts can move up in the standings.

Carolina leads the division with 98 points. They have 14 games remaining. The Devils are second with 95. They’ll be in action later facing the Lightning for a third time in less than a week at Tampa. They’ve dropped the first two, including one in a shootout that featured an exciting three-on-three overtime.

The Rangers sit third with 90. In addition to making up ground on the Devils if they want home ice, they’ll need to catch their rival in regulation wins. That’s the first tiebreaker. The Devils have 32 compared to 30 for the Rangers. Until the last three games (all wins), they’d needed extras four times, including in wins over the Flyers, Canadiens, and Sabres. That could play a role in where they finish.

Honestly, I don’t care where they wind up. It’s more about how they’re playing. Eventually, Lindgren will return to help stabilize a shaky blue line that still backs in too much and gives up dangerous chances. That’s the one area that must improve this spring.

It’s more important to stay healthy. So, if Lindgren must miss a 10th game in a row, so be it. You want all of your key players ready to go when the playoffs start.

The NHL version of March Madness continues. There are games every other day. It’s a race to the finish for those bubble teams like the Pens who are trying to get in. With the Panthers hot on their heels, it doesn’t look promising. I don’t think Pittsburgh is a playoff team. Nothing they showed in the recent games leads me to believe it. It very well could be no postseason for Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang. That hasn’t happened since Crosby was a rookie.

I have the Islanders in. They continue to win without Mat Barzal thanks to the strong goaltending of Vezina candidate Ilya Sorokin. Even with Bo Horvat in a scoring slump, others have stepped up with Brock Nelson continuing to prove he’s one of the game’s most underrated players. They have 31 regulation wins compared to only 25 for the Pens. The Islanders have 80 points with just 11 games left. So, they’ll need to continue to win down the stretch.

The Panthers are up to 77, trailing the slumping Pens by a point. Each team has 13 left. But it’s the Cats who have 30 regulation wins to lead the tiebreaker. Both are back in action tomorrow.

It’s definitely nice not to have to worry about qualifying for the postseason. We know the Rangers can finish anywhere from first to third. We’ll see if they can keep it going tonight.

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Devils’ big win over Canes a good start to the stretch drive push

Lately I’ve disdained the daily recaps towards more of a week in review approach, especially as it’s become obvious that the Devils will be in the postseason anyway. However, with the importance of Sunday’s game, that deserved a little bit of a standalone review (albeit belatedly). Of course, the Devils’ 3-0 win at the Rock didn’t exactly clinch the division – and there’s still plenty of time to go with sixteen games left starting with Florida week, a brutal gauntlet of four games in six nights – three against Tampa and one against a surging Panther team that needs every point in its own playoff push.

Still, it’s hard to look at anything that lays ahead and think the Devils can’t hack it when they’ve passed just about every challenge in front of them this season with flying colors, Sunday’s division showdown being the latest example. An old Lou Lamoriello axiom (and I doubt he’s the only one who believes in it) is that your best players need to be your best players, and to a degree that was the case on Sunday – Jack Hughes got the first star with three points, Jesper Bratt had the second star with two goals, and Vitek Vanecek had the third star with a sterling 32-save shutout.

Even if (somewhat controversially) Vanecek only got the third star, to me the game was as much about goaltending as anything else. After two straight games off Vanecek returned to form with a bang, making a ton of key saves throughout the game, including the point-blank chance above on Sebastian Aho. On the other hand, Canes rookie Pyotr Kochetkov has had a fine season, but perhaps the moment was too big for him on Sunday – allowing two five-hole goals in the first period and trying to play the puck in the second period with Hughes bearing down to comic results:

Unironically yes…if you’re a Devils fan anyway. When the order of the three stars is your main complaint on the night, things are going well. At least as far as the Devils are concerned, I was a little annoyed before the game when I checked Twitter and saw Rutgers got snubbed out of the NCAA Tournament entirely – bleh. I was half expecting the Aaron Rodgers ‘decision’ to break while I was at the arena as well, but that didn’t exactly happen.

Back to the Devils, we can pay lip service about taking nothing for granted until the postseason berth is officially clinched (and there’ll be a deserved celebration when that does happen), but let’s be honest – this last month of the regular season is basically about keeping the Devils’ game at a high level, avoiding injuries and working people in and out of the lineup. Even Devils players are embracing the idea that this stretch drive is a test run for what’s to come:

The good news is most of the players here haven’t really been a part of that era of failure. Sure Hughes has taken his lumps until this year, but this is only his fourth season after all. And while Nico Hischier’s been here for more of the stink, he also was a big part of our only playoff berth in the last decade as an 18-year old rookie. Still, a lot of this roster hasn’t really been through a stretch drive or playoff hockey either – which is where vets like Marino, Dougie Hamilton, Ondrej Palat and a few others come in. Not to mention the head coach in Lindy Ruff, who’s been through too many playoff runs to count.

What is becoming obvious is that this organization will have to make a decision on how much to pursue winning the division down the stretch, now that it’s a realistic possibility. Especially with the unfortunate news out of Carolina that talented forward Andrei Svechnikov is out indefinitely with a knee injury, rumored to be a torn ACL – that would certainly end his season if it was the case. Even before the Svechnikov news broke, it’s hard to gauge how interested the Canes were in winning the division anyway. After all, they won the division the last couple years as well but didn’t get out of the second round of the playoffs either time.

Conversely, with a full month left to go in the regular season you don’t want to take your foot off the gas either. Especially with a schedule of games that can make you pay, although who knows what the Lightning’s motivation is right now after some desultory games lately? Hard to blame them considering they’re pretty much trapped into their playoff matchup already, with both them and the Leafs still double digit points behind of the colossus in Boston, and double-digit points ahead of Florida for a top three division seed.

After months of thinking the same fate befell us – i.e. being locked into playing the Rangers – the Devils’ sustained excellence the last two months (20-4-3 in their last twenty-seven games) finally saw them catch a Hurricanes team who’d managed to stay in front pretty much since early December. It’ll be interesting to see how much a young team pushes for the banner of a regular-season division title. As someone who’s seen a bunch of them, I don’t really care about that particular banner but I can’t blame the players if they did…it’d be a nice capper for a rags-to-riches season that sped the Devils past the world of the playoff bubble right into Stanley Cup contender mode.

What helps with the potential for stretchtime blues as the playoff clinch gets nearer, is that guys will have spots to compete for – starting in goal, although The Vitek took a big step toward reestablishing his crease on Sunday. Seeing how effective he was after a few days off should at least encourage spelling him with Akira Schmid more down the stretch, to give Vanecek a full tank of gas heading into what hopefully can be a long playoff run.

On defense, young Kevin Bahl and vet Brendan Smith are jockeying for the last defensive spot, at least until Luke Hughes arrives after his college season. And it’s not even a question he’s coming, since the Devils themselves have indicated he’ll be here once Michigan’s season is over. What kind of a role he’ll have and get the opportunity to earn is still a bit of a question mark, especially if the other defensemen are playing well. Down the stretch against the D did what it needed to do against the Hurricanes, locking down the game after getting their three-goal lead in the middle of the second period. It’ll be harder to do that in the playoffs when you don’t have a team coming in on a back-to-back (granted the Devils were on one themselves), but still good practice for when they’ll need to do so later on.

Up front, there’s the matter of assembling parts on the top lines and making roster decisions on the back lines. After the trade for Timo Meier, third-year forward Yegor Sharangovich has been relegated to the bench. Even newest acquisition Curtis Lazar hasn’t cracked the lineup yet, perhaps a victim of the team’s latest surge and not wanting to change a winning lineup. Still, I wouldn’t put the other guys’ roles in stone. Although Miles Wood seems to be an untouchable in terms of being scratched, if ever a game was going to do it Sunday should have – given he touched the puck as he was going to the bench in the first period, causing a delay of game penalty, then had a foolish turnover that led to a glorious slot chance in the third period for Carolina.

I’m sure also some lineup decisions will be couched in the name of resting guys for the playoffs, when in fact it’s a convenient excuse to give other guys a look. Whatever the case, it’s a nice problem to have and beats the alternative of the last few years of force-feeding younger players into big roles because the games don’t matter anyway.

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Successful weekend for Rangers didn’t come without some level of concern

How do you measure success? If you’re supposed to be a serious playoff contender like the Rangers are, you expect to play a more consistent brand of hockey. Instead, there are still more questions than answers after a successful weekend that saw them earn three of a possible four points at Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

For sure, any team will take that when they’re on the road. A place that’s been kind to the Rangers, who are still searching for the steady play down the stretch that would bode well when the postseason arrives in mid-April.

No one would argue with picking up five of eight points during a four-game road trip. Especially following a 4-2 defeat to the league best Bruins. If you include the 3-2 overtime win at Philadelphia on March 1, that’s a good 3-1-1 record in the five games they’ve played away from home this month.

After looking less than impressive in defeating the Canadiens and Sabres in extras with the latter 2-1 overtime win due mostly to the brilliance of Igor Shesterkin (32 saves), they again needed extra time against the Penguins on Sunday.

A bad offensive zone penalty from Artemi Panarin for tripping up Evgeni Malkin led to both him and Sidney Crosby combining to set up Kris Letang on the power play for the overtime winner past a frustrated Jaroslav Halak. Before he left the ice at PPG Paints Arena, the veteran backup slammed his equipment in disappointment over the loss. It wasn’t his fault.

Right now, it has more to do with how the team is playing. If not for Shesterkin denying Dylan Cozens and making several crucial stops against a Sabres team without Alex Tuch, they don’t even get a point. At least they made it difficult on the dangerous Tage Thompson. A four-on-three power play goal from Panarin shouldn’t be required to win in Buffalo. But that’s what they needed.

Playing for a second consecutive day, the Rangers were far from their best facing the rival Pens for the first of three big divisional match-ups over the next week. They can thank the fourth line for keeping them afloat in an otherwise lackluster first period that saw the Penguins in control due to some very undisciplined penalties.

Malkin and Crosby were able to set up Rickard Rakell on a five-on-three for the game’s first goal just over six minutes in. For some reason, the Blueshirts weren’t ready at the beginning. They were penalized three times, including twice over a 46-second span. Vincent Trocheck high-sticked Jason Zucker and Mika Zibanejad did the same thing to Rakell while on the penalty kill.

That can’t happen. The loss of discipline allowed the Pens to grab an early one-goal lead in what amounted to an important game. They’re battling for playoff position with the Islanders. By earning the victory yesterday, they moved two points up on the idle Isles for first in the wildcard. They’re up to 78 points. Six behind the Rangers for third in the Metro Division. Both teams have 16 games remaining, including a rare two at MSG this week over a three-day period.

While the top three lines struggled to establish themselves, it was that aforementioned fourth line that made a key contribution in an uneven first period. The trio of Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, and Tyler Motte, who returned on Saturday, play a straightforward game. On a strong shift deep in the Pens zone, Vesey came out and attempted to stuff in the puck. Following his second attempt, it rebounded out to Goodrow, who scored his 11th to draw the Rangers even.

The checking line isn’t always going to supply offense. Vesey had been ice cold lately. He went 11 games without a point before his aggressive drive to the net allowed Goodrow to get his first goal in seven games. Motte picked up his second point (both assists) since returning to the Rangers following a trade with Ottawa. The trio provided coach Gerard Gallant with an honest effort when he again tweaked his top three lines in a desperate attempt to find offense.

“We haven’t played well,” Gallant candidly said after altering the top nine, which resulted in a more inspired third period that led to Chris Kreider tying the game with his 28th goal on a controversial play where Vincent Trocheck knocked down Malkin from behind. Kreider was able to pull away and beat Tristan Jarry to move past Camille Henry for sixth all-time in Rangers’ franchise history in goals with number 257.

“We admit to that. We’re still winning hockey games, too. Tonight, we still got a point against a real good team over there, and we’re battling hard. So. We got to be better. We know that. I think everyone in that room knows it.”

Earlier in the game, Kreider had what looked like a gimme on the power play. An Adam Fox pass across to Mika Zibanejad, and the top center quickly moved it down low for a wide open Kreider at the doorstep. But he shot the puck right back into Jarry. That miss prevented the Rangers from tying the game.

At the time, they again were trailing. On a blind reverse by Fox behind his net that never had a chance for Vladimir Tarasenko, Brian Dumoulin made a good pinch. He then moved the puck up top for a long Zucker one-timer that took a favorable bounce off Zibanejad’s skate past Halak for a 2-1 Pens lead only 1:21 into the second period.

It was a poor decision by Fox. He should’ve just moved it forward where there were teammates. The Pens had players in the area, too. But if you’re going to make such a reverse, you have to know that the player is there. Tarasenko had no chance to get over on that play. Dumoulin made a smart pinch, and Zucker stayed hot by getting his seventh goal in six games.

Even though they were only down by a goal, it felt like more. That was due to the lack of chemistry from the top three lines. Gallant, who tried Patrick Kane with the slumping Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere, would soon put the top nine into a blender. Desperate to find a spark, he moved Panarin up with Zibanejad and Tarasenko. Kreider was dropped to the second line with Trocheck and the invisible Kaapo Kakko. Chytil played with Lafreniere and Kane.

It was only the fourth line that remained intact. Coincidentally, that trio of Vesey, Goodrow, and Motte continued to have effective shifts at even strength. They were strong on the forecheck and created some more chances that Jarry had to stop. A credit to the style they play. That North/South mentality is what is played when things tighten up. That’s been severely lacking since Chris Drury added Tarasenko and then Kane. They’re supremely skilled types who were acquired to add scoring.

While the Penguins continued to get good opportunities on a spotty defense, Halak made the timely saves to keep the Rangers within striking distance. He was superb making 32 saves on 35 shots. That goaltending got the Blueshirts a point to keep them six up on the Pens for third place in the division.

The Pens finally took a couple of penalties. On their first power play, after Kane passed up a wide open shot in the right circle for a low percentage pass that led to a Pittsburgh clear, out came the Rangers second unit. It’s still perplexing to see both Zibanejad, who leads the team with 19 power play goals, and Kreider on PP2. They were out with Tarasenko, Chytil, and Fox, who played for the entire two minutes.

It was that first unit second unit that generated all the chances. After a Jarry stop on Tarasenko, he turned aside a tough low Fox point shot. Then came two misdirection feeds for Kreider where he went wide. He wasn’t done.

Sensing that his team needed a lift, Trouba laid a clean hit into Alex Nylander in the neutral zone. He had just let go of the puck as the Rangers captain closed in and finished the check, leading to chaos.

As usual, there was a response. Immediately, Malkin went after Trouba along with Zucker, who got in his face. Malkin cross-checked Trouba to get the only penalty. That gave the Rangers a second straight power play.

On the five-on-four, they came very close to tying it. Following another key save by Jarry to deny Tarasenko, who came to life in the second period, he responded to a Marcus Pettersson cross-check from behind on Chytil with a good clean hit on Pettersson into the boards. This was the most physically engaged he’s been. He also led the Rangers with six shots on goal. I liked how he played.

Following that sequence, then came the close call where Fox moved the puck for Zibanejad. Instead of shooting, he went down low for Kreider, who looked to have an easy goal. Instead, he sent his backhand right back into Jarry, who covered up for a stoppage.

Afterward, as he searched for a rebound, Kreider was decked from behind by Pettersson. He delivered a cross-check. It looked like he’d get the only penalty. But Kreider retaliated late to draw a roughing minor. Both went off, keeping the Blueshirts on the five-on-four.

The remainder of the power play was frustrating. All set up in the left circle, Panarin fired way wide. Following a miss from Lafreniere, who remained on the top unit, Jarry was able to get a stoppage.

As the period wound down, there was more hitting. Once Trouba delivered his hit on Nylander, the game changed. The intensity ratcheted up. Both old Patrick Division rivals didn’t pass up a chance to finish a check. It was a physical battle. In fact, the Rangers and Penguins combined for 89 hits (45-44 Pens). Braden Schneider led the Rangers with eight while Kris Letang paced the Pens with six.

It wasn’t a bad reintroduction to a classic rivalry that saw these teams go seven in a hotly contested first round won by the Rangers last year. It’s exciting that they’ll see each other this Thursday and Saturday at The Garden. Before those crucial games, each plays on Tuesday. The Rangers host the Capitals while the Penguins take on the Canadiens.

In the third period, Gallant decided to mix and match. Already having moved Kreider to the second line with Trocheck, he eventually slid Kakko back down to the third line with Chytil and Lafreniere. Kane played mostly with Trocheck and Kreider. That left Panarin up with Zibanejad and Tarasenko.

It was their best period. Playing more aggressively, they out-shot the Penguins 12-8. Both Panarin and Tarasenko tested Jarry early. Kreider laid a good hit on Pettersson. His best hit came earlier in the game. He was very active throughout.

Halak had to make stops on Zucker (8 shots) twice, including from in tight when he got open. He was the Pens’ best player.

On another effective shift by the checking line, Motte got a shot on Jarry. Due to how well they played, Gallant rewarded them with more shifts. That’s how it should be when the stars aren’t pulling their weight.

A good offensive shift by the new second line led to some good chances. Kane and Trocheck were stopped by Jarry. Kane also missed over the top on a backhand. It’s a good bet that Turk will keep that line intact for tomorrow night. He usually will see if the line tweaks can have a carryover effect.

With the physicality continuing throughout the period, the Rangers got a break that led to the tying goal. On a play in the neutral zone, Trocheck nailed Malkin from behind. As play continued, he moved the puck across for Kreider, who came in and beat Jarry to tie the game with 10:51 remaining.

Not only was it a big goal. But it allowed Kreider to move past Camille Henry into sole possession of sixth place on the Rangers’ all-time franchise goal scoring list. He’s up to 257 goals all as a Broadway Blueshirt. Next up is Vic Hadfield (262). With 16 games left in the regular season, Kreider needs five goals to tie Hadfield and six to pass him for fifth.

As the game remained tied late in regulation, Nylander was able to get a great opportunity. With less than a minute to go, he got a good shot on Halak that he made a clutch stop on to get the Rangers a point.

It came against the Zibanejad line with Trouba and K’Andre Miller. Since returning from his suspension, Miller has really struggled. He’s constantly been caught up ice on bad pinches and frequently out of position. That’s led to some goals against, including Jeff Skinner scoring the only Buffalo goal on Saturday. He was over on Trouba’s side instead of where he should’ve been.

This has been going on for a while. As skilled as he is with a career high 31 points, Miller takes an awful lot of risks. At some point, either Gallant or Gord Murphy has to get in his ear about making better decisions with and without the puck. How many times is he going to get beat by an attacking player due to taking the wrong angle? They need him to be much better.

As has been the case lately, another game went to overtime. Thank God there wasn’t a shootout. This time, it was Panarin, who made the mistake of tripping up Malkin in the offensive zone. All because Malkin took him off the puck. While the replay showed it wasn’t as bad as it looked, it was still a lazy penalty. His specialty.

Following a timeout by Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, out came Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Jeff Carter, who took the face-off before Jake Guentzel replaced him.

Once they got set up against the Rangers’ trio of Goodrow, Trouba, and Niko Mikkola, who was very effective, while paired up with Fox, it was obvious where the puck would go. Letang moved the puck over to Crosby, who passed it over to Malkin. He then made a soft feed to Letang up top for a good one-timer that beat Halak glove side with Guentzel in front at 1:38.

That ended the game. As good as the penalty kill is, having to kill off a four-on-three is a bit more difficult. It’s one less player for each team. I think that favors the attacking team. They don’t have to overthink it by making the extra pass. Your three penalty killers really have to be good. In this case, they couldn’t prevent the Letang shot, which was perfect.

As they left the ice, Halak showed his frustration. I don’t blame him. As Gallant said following the game, the team isn’t playing well. They’re at least getting points and probably didn’t deserve to win either game at Montreal and Buffalo. But they benefited from the shootout and a Rasmus Dahlin penalty that led to Panarin’s OT winner.

For most of the season, Gallant has struggled to find the right combos. Adding both Tarasenko and Kane hasn’t helped. While they’ll help the offense, it’s thrown things out of wack. It’s almost as if there’s too much skill and not enough sandpaper.

Drury basically reversed course with these two moves. It better work, or there’s going to be a lot of egg on their faces. With third place looking like the best they can do, the Rangers won’t have home ice. The Devils and Hurricanes are 10 points up. Technically, Carolina remains in first despite yesterday’s 3-0 loss to the Devils due to having one extra game left.

Ryan Lindgren was once again held out over the weekend. He’s now missed seven games with that arm injury. They can pretend it isn’t one by terming it upper-body. But we know the truth. It was exposed on the T.J. Oshie hit. If he doesn’t return tomorrow or later this week, Lindgren can become eligible for LTIR. Once he’s missed 10 games, that frees up space for the Rangers to recall players from Hartford. We’ll see where things go.

There’s no doubt that Lindgren makes a big difference defensively. Playing minus his partner in crime, Fox has had a dip in his play. He’s making more mistakes than we’re used to seeing.

Mikkola has become a key player. He had arguably his best game since coming over with Tarasenko from St. Louis. He’s not the fastest skater but often makes up for it by being in the right position. He is also good at blocking shots. Drury was wise to get him in that deal.

Without Lindgren, Ben Harpur continues to play with Schneider on the third pair. A serviceable defenseman who’s best suited as an extra, he’s a no frills player who will take the body. They’ve managed him well. As long as Lindgren is back at 100 percent when the games count, that’s all that matters.

At the moment, there’s concern due to how the team is playing. Even being down Lindgren, they should have better structure. This has been an issue most of the year. It was masked by that seven-game winning streak they had last month where they were simply outscoring opponents. The astonishing part is that it came prior to Kane joining.

Too often, both goalies are being left to contest with high danger chances on rushes and odd man breaks. There’s been too much easy access. The East/West style being played results in turnovers that fuel the transition. When both Panarin and Kane defer, instead of shooting the puck, it creates problems. That’s why they’ve been separated except on the power play.

Even there, we’ve seen opponents score two shorthanded goals due to mistakes. That must be shored up. Limiting the giveaways and playing more aggressively would certainly help the cause.

I’m in the camp that wants to see Gallant give Kreider, Zibanejad, and Kane a look. I think that could work. I prefer Panarin with Trocheck and Tarasenko. However, Tarasenko has been finding some chemistry with Zibanejad. They’ll remain together.

Kakko remains a disappointment. Although he’s shown improvement with better puck possession and posted career highs in goals (12), assists (20), and points (32), he’s still inconsistent. Three goals in the calendar year aren’t enough production.

It’s Year Four. Kakko still doesn’t shoot the puck enough and is too hesitant. At this point, he should be more instinctive. He waits too long to shoot when he’s set up. Nobody would argue his puck possession style that leads to sustained pressure. But something is missing. If he doesn’t improve sooner than later, he’ll get passed by Brennan Othmann. He could become the odd man out.

The Rangers now play five games in a row at MSG. It begins tomorrow night with the Caps visiting. Then, there’s the two-game miniseries versus the Pens on Thursday and Saturday. That’s followed up by the Predators on Sunday, Mar. 19. It concludes with the first of a home and home series against the Hurricanes on 3/21 and 3/23.

This will be an interesting stretch. It’s a chance for the Rangers to get right. Something that needs to happen as they enter the home stretch.

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Devils’ dream season continues with first-place showdown at the Rock

After continuing their road dominance this week with wins in Arizona, Washington and Montreal, the Devils will return home to the Rock tonight to a playoff atmosphere for at least the team’s second biggest regular season home game in a decade (the other being when they clinched their one and only playoff berth since 2012 against the Leafs in 2018). Yes, it’s obvious the Devils are going to the postseason and seeding doesn’t matter once you’re there, but there’s still a certain mystique involved when you use the term ‘battle for first place’ in mid-March.

Although part of me is still agnostic toward winning the division – after all, I’ve seen plenty of seasons where top-seeded Devil teams lost in the first round – part of me also wants to avoid the potential annoyance of a Devils-Rangers first-round war and the consternation of worrying how many Ranger fans crash the party at the Rock. Then again, maybe this team would be better served if the Rock was MSG 2.0 given their insane 25-4-4 record away from the Prudential Center this year. Even the mighty Boston Bruins (who have an insane 105 points in 64 games, and actually clinched a playoff spot yesterday) are ‘only’ 23-6-2 away from TD Garden.

This kind of road dominance is unreal – I can only compare it to the 2011 Giants, who went 10-1 on the road and 11-1 away from the Meadowlands, including their second Super Bowl win over the Patriots in four years. It’s hard to compare a sport where you play a max of 20 games to one where you play over 80 before the playoffs start though. Even the Devils’ 1995 and 2000 playoff runs – where they went a combined 20-3 on the road – wasn’t encapsulating an entire season’s worth of games. If you look back at those years, the Devils actually had an under .500 record on the road in 1995’s shortened season (8-14-2) and had more losses than wins in 1999-2000 as well, albeit slightly over NHL .500 (17-15-5-4). It’s just that they turned it on in crunch time away from the Meadowlands in both seasons, culminating in a dramatic double-OT Cup clincher in 2000 at Dallas, home of the then-defending champs.

Even those were veteran teams though, for a young team to be turning it on like this again and again in opposition buildings is mystifying, inexplicable even. It’s a measure of how good this season has been that the Devils are actually on pace to have their best regular season in franchise history, a mark previously held by the loaded 2000-01 defending champions who had 48 wins and 111 points – and they arguably should have had even more since they got off to a sub-optimal start in their first twenty games with the joint holdouts of Jason Arnott and Scott Niedermayer before turning it in gear after both players re-joined the fold. Also the Devils are shooting for individual records, with Jack Hughes still having a chance to set team marks for goals and points in a season while Dougie Hamilton only needs one more goal to set a franchise mark for most goals by a defenseman.

In many ways I actually compare this season more to 1993-94 than 2000-01 though, for it was that season where the long Lou Lamoriello-era run of success was really born. 1987-88’s playoff push was more or less like the modern-day version of 2017-18, an unexpected out of nowhere surge that thrilled the fanbase but didn’t lead to sustained success in the next few years after that, back then it was really 1993-94 where the Devils first established themselves as a force in the making with an unexpected 106-point season. They continued to surprise the establishment in the playoffs with nail-biting series wins over the Sabres (in seven games) and the Bruins (in six games, after going behind 0-2) before the Ranger classic, where they came up just short but set the foundation for a team that won three Cups in the nine years after that.

Where I compare this season to 1993-94 isn’t just based in where the organization was in its history but in a similar season arc – an unexpected battle for first place against a talented, veteran group still searching for playoff success (then the Rangers, this year Carolina). Even the Devils’ increasing question mark over who’s going to start in goal for the playoffs is reminiscent of 1994 with a veteran leading the way at the start of the season in Chris Terreri, eventually getting overtaken by a 21-year old rookie named Brodeur who few expected stardom from. This time around, Vitek Vanecek is in the role of Terreri, the guy who carried the mail early but is perhaps getting overtaken by a rookie making unexpected contributions late in the season. It’s too much to even expect a fifth-rounder like Akira Schmid to have half the career of Marty to this point, but you can’t exactly do better than he has in his eleven starts and fourteen games so far with an 8-4-1 record, a 1.91 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Those were highlights from Schmid’s first NHL win, a relief appearance against Ottawa after Vanecek left with a minor injury. He won his first four starts this year, before losing his next three and being sent down due to Mackenzie Blackwood’s return off of IR. Blackwood going back on IR gave Schmid a second chance and he’s more than made the most of it with a shutout of the Flyers, a critical relief appearance in Colorado when Vanecek was leaking goals and back-to-back wins against the Caps and Habs over the previous three days.

Although Vanecek is likely getting tonight’s critical start – and deservedly so given his 27-7-3 record and all he did to stabilize the goaltending position early on – he might be on a shorter leash now, considering his own declining play and Schmid’s ascension. While you couldn’t really find fault with the goals Vanecek gave up against the Leafs (as they played spoiler again at the Rock for Timo Meier’s home debut), his previous four starts were concerning enough with sixteen goals allowed, a lot of them of the stoppable variety. Including the Toronto game, he’s allowed twenty goals in his last five starts and has never had this kind of workload in a season before, AHL or NHL.

For a team about to set a franchise record for points, the concern in goal is a real one since none of these guys exactly have a proven track record. Then again, the franchise as a whole hasn’t had a track record of success in recent years. This is new territory for a lot of key players, but this is where you rely on vets like Hamilton, Ondrej Palat, Tomas Tatar and the suddenly surging Erik Haula to help steer the kids through the challenges of meaningful hockey in March and playoff hockey after it. Not to mention a veteran coach like Lindy Ruff, who’s been a part of many playoffs and seen it all in the NHL – except a Cup win of his own. It would be a heartwarming story if this organization could get a hockey lifer like Lindy a title, though his own future in the organization is still a bit up in the air given his lame-duck contract status. At least he, and the team have managed to flip the narrative from early October on its head – from Fire Lindy and boos during the home opener to Sorry, Lindy and sold-out crowds all over the map reveling in this year’s return to relevance in the NHL.

Only time will tell if this season is indeed a trend-setter for the next era of Devil dominance like 1993-94 was. There’s no reason not to believe it should be, considering the talent on the roster and the ages of key players like Hughes and fellow franchise #1 overall pick Nico Hischier. Not to mention a masterclass by GM Tom Fitzgerald in building a team that in a normal season would get him a well-deserved executive of the year award. But with the Bruins having a record-breaking season in the East, and the second-year Seattle Kraken going on their own surprising surge in the West there’ll be some competition for both that and the Jack Adams award (best coach of the year).

Pretty much the only thing we know for sure is that tonight will indeed be a rocking sellout crowd. I wasn’t even that upset that I had to miss going to Tuesday’s game against the Leafs, which I also figured would be amped due to the home debut of the newest marquee acquisition, since I rationalized it knowing we’d have bigger games coming up anyway that I would be at. One of them being tonight. Not that tonight’s game will ultimately decide the division though it could make the difference. Still a long way to go even if the Devils should get the regulation win needed to tie them in the standings, given that three of the next four games are against Tampa in what I jokingly kid is a playoff mini-series, albeit one interrupted by a game in Florida.

However the standings end up, as one of the ill-fated marketing slogans of the last few years put it…it’s time to eNJoy the ride.

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Rangers shoot their way past the scrappy Canadiens, Kane scores first goal and adds first assist in key win, Lafreniere and Trouba play well, defense struggles without Lindgren

It wasn’t easy. However, the most important part is that the Rangers fought back from three one-goal deficits to shoot their way past the scrappy Canadiens for a key 4-3 win at Bell Centre up in Montreal.

Having not played since falling to the number one overall Bruins last Saturday, the Rangers showed some rust in their first game over five days. Although the defense struggled at times, they were able to navigate their way through. It was imperative due to the Islanders coming back to stun the Penguins 4-3 in overtime. Had the Blueshirts not posted their 18th comeback win of the season, three points would’ve separated them from the streaking Isles.

By earning points 80 and 81 courtesy of a Mika Zibanejad goal in the third round of the shootout, followed by an Igor Shesterkin save on Habs goalscorer Alex Bezile, they remained five up on the Islanders.

Working in their favor is that they have three more games remaining on the schedule. The Blueshirts have 18 games left compared to 15 for the Islanders, who are locked into the first wildcard in fourth place of a crowded Metro Division.

With a point, the Penguins are in fifth place with 74 points. Good for the second wildcard. They have 18 games remaining, including three pivotal match-ups with the Rangers. Those are coming up following a visit at the fading Sabres (10-4 losers to the Stars). Between March 12-18, the Blueshirts and Pens will play three times. That’ll include a two-game series on 3/16 and 3/18, both at MSG next week.

While the Rangers try to catch the Devils (3-2 shootout win over the Capitals) for second place- something that remains unlikely due to the bitter Hudson rival holding a nine-point lead, it’ll be interesting to see what unfolds in the rest of the division. It looks like third place is as high as they can get. But there are plenty of games left. Things can change. You never know what could happen.

The Rangers will definitely play a role in the wildcard race. They still have crucial games against the Pens as noted. Plus, two with the Caps, who are still hoping to chase down the wildcard. Washington is sixth in the division with 69 points and 16 games remaining. They have lost nine of their last 12 (3-8-1). They host the Islanders this weekend in a huge four-point game. Then visit the Rangers next Tuesday. The Caps face the Isles three times and the Pens once.

While the race for the final two spots in the Eastern Conference runs through Long Island and Pittsburgh, the Rangers want to play a more steady game down the stretch. Something coach Gerard Gallant alluded to following tonight’s game. He was happy to get the win but knew they could play better.

“We were up and down all night. We kept battling back, and fortunately for us at the end of the day, we got the two points. So, we didn’t play play a perfect game, but we created some good offense. Some key guys scored for us tonight,” Gallant told Dave Maloney during the postgame.

Ever since Ryan Lindgren went down in Washington on a tough T.J. Oshie hit that wasn’t penalized. The defense has had issues. Part of the problem is K’Andre Miller wasn’t available for the previous three games due to serving a suspension for spitting on Drew Doughty.

Accidental or not, that left Gallant a man short on the bench. He rotated five without Miller and Lindgren, who missed his fifth straight game on Feb. 25. He’s still listed as “day-to-day” by the Rangers. Very noble of them to inform reporters who must guess when he could be available. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

Whether they want to admit it or not, the Rangers are a different team defensively when Lindgren plays. He’s a solid physical presence who can cover for Adam Fox, who’s not exactly been playing well over the last few games.

He’s no longer a Norris candidate. Both Josh Morrissey and Rasmus Dahlin have passed him. Not that it matters. It’s an award that Erik Karlsson will win for the third time due to his brilliance on a lottery bound San Jose. We know how valuable Fox is to the Rangers. He can definitely play better even minus his regular D partner.

At least Gallant finally had a full deck to work with. Ben Harpur again played on the third pair with Braden Schneider. Fox worked mostly with Niko Mikkola, who got just enough of a Mike Hoffman shot in overtime to have it go off the crossbar with Montreal on a four-on-three. Miller returned to the second pair alongside Jacob Trouba, who again continued to play better. Miller struggled. He was culpable on one goal against. The bad reads are glaring when they happen. He must stabilize.

Unsurprisingly, they skated without Tyler Motte. The grinding fourth liner remained out a second straight game due to that cheap shot from Austin Watson. Even more unsurprisingly, he wasn’t suspended for the dangerous charge from behind that led to his dismissal from last week’s game against Ottawa. Of course he wasn’t.

This is the same league that only gave Tony DeAngelo a slap on the wrist (2 games) for spearing Corey Perry. Apparently, spitting is worse than attempting to injure an opponent. George Parros is the latest failure running the joke that is NHL Player Safety. That Princeton education is really kicking in.

Why even have Player Safety if they’re going to be so lousy at their jobs? It was better when the players policed themselves on such dirty plays. No wonder there’s almost always an automatic response to a big hit. Even if it’s clean, such as the ones Trouba delivers. The players know how pathetic the league is at discipline. It remains a sore subject.

With Motte remaining out, at least the Rangers were able to recall a forward from Hartford. Jonny Brodzinski was the more affordable option than Will Cuylle. That matters when it comes to the salary cap. Especially after adding Patrick Kane to Vladimir Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola. The Rangers are all-in.

Playing his third game as a Ranger, Kane was a factor. He set up a goal and scored the tying power play goal with 5:29 left in the second period. It was his mistake that allowed the Habs to come two-on-one and score shorthanded 71 seconds earlier. He lost control of the puck on the bumper. Josh Anderson was able to take a Chris Tierney feed and beat Igor Shesterkin high glove to give the Canadiens their third lead with 6:40 remaining in the period.

But Gallant decided to keep Kane and a different power play unit out. This one featured Kane, Artemi Panarin (3 assists), Chris Kreider, Vincent Trocheck, and Trouba. A mix of what they used earlier in the game. Gallant changed for Fox, who was caught on for the shorthanded goal. He also replaced Alexis Lafreniere with Kreider. The moves paid off.

Kreider parked himself in front of Montembeault, who got the start for Montreal. After Panarin moved the puck up to Trouba, he passed to Kane in the left circle. Looking at Kreider screening in front, Kane took the shot and got rewarded with his first as a Blueshirt. That allowed him to atone for his turnover. He was very appreciative to get the chance and bury it.

“I just saw the defenseman come out at me. He was kinda giving me that side [far side]. I had to pull it in a little bit. Obviously, a great screen by Kreider and just had to pick the corner,” Kane said while wearing the Broadway Hat in the visitor’s locker room.

“Obviously, it’s not something you want to see. But I felt like it was a pretty nice move for the coaching staff to leave us on there and give us a chance to get it back. And nice to score after a play like that.”

It had to feel good for Kane. Following two losses against Ottawa and Boston where he didn’t register a point and was minus-four while trying to get adjusted to life on Broadway even with Panarin as a line mate, the American star had an impact with a goal and helper in a much needed victory. He understands that it wasn’t perfect. But knows how Gallant wants to play.

One thing that was clear from Thursday night’s game was the effort the Canadiens put in. Despite being out of the playoffs and unlikely to win the Connor Bedard lottery due to how hard they play under coach Marty St. Louis, they continue to give a good account of themselves.

Montreal played well and easily could’ve won. Give the Rangers credit for being able to overcome not having their best game. They were inconsistent. Both Gallant and players noted that they have to be better defensively. An area that remains an issue when Lindgren is out. He is skating. That’s the positive. It still can’t be used as a crutch for giving up odd-man rushes, breakaways, and wide open lanes to the net.

It didn’t take long for the host Canadiens to strike first. On the opening shift, the third line couldn’t get the puck out. Following a turnover from Fox, Tierney took away the puck and fed Rem Pitlick. He then moved it over for Denis Gurianov, who sent it to a cutting Kaiden Guhle, who in one motion fired a turnaround shot that beat Shesterkin 25 seconds in for a 1-0 lead.

However, with Guhle off for slashing Jimmy Vesey (drew two penalties), the Rangers power play went to work. Having altered the units by moving Mika Zibanejad and Kreider off the top unit to create more balance, Gallant’s new first power play cashed in thanks to some good work in front by Alexis Lafreniere.

After Panarin moved the puck over to Fox, his wrist shot was redirected by Lafreniere for a power play goal at 3:16. A perfect tip-in that beat Montembeault. That tied the score. At one point, he had no power play goals for his career. Now, Lafreniere is up to three thanks to being given more of a chance on the man-advantage.

With the game still tied late in the first, a bad read by Miller led to the second Montreal goal. On a play that started behind their own net, Chris Wideman moved the puck to Guhle, who then sent it into the neutral zone by both Filip Chytil and a turned around Miller.

Caught on the play, that allowed Alex Belzile to skate in on a two-on-one. His shot went high blocker on the short side past Shesterkin, who’s been having problems stopping those. The goal wasn’t on him. It was very poor coverage. You can’t have most of your players trapped. Only Trouba was back. He took the pass away. Belzille took the shot and scored his fourth at 17:02 of the first to put the Habs back in front.

There also is the sudden scoring slump Chytil is in. Since scoring his career best 19th back on Feb. 8 versus Vancouver when he went on a tear with seven goals over five games, he has no goals over the last 13. That included having a potential 20th taken away with an open net. He had been putting up points, but his play slipped recently. Since Feb. 20, Chytil has two assists and is a minus-seven in eight games. They need him to find his game.

Unlike the beginning of the contest where the Habs struck early, this time, it was the Rangers who drew even in the first minute of the second period. On some nice passing from both Kane and Panarin, they combined to find an open Trouba, who moved in and beat Montembeault to tie the score at 48 seconds.

That gave Trouba goals in two of his last three and a three-game point streak (2-2-4). The captain has picked it up lately. While offense isn’t his main priority, it’s nice to see him contribute. He remains an important leader on and off the ice. It’s usually his physical play that we’re talking about.

Help is on the way. It looks like Lindgren is finally cleared. As I mentioned before, he was skating. We can now expect to see the glue of the defense back for tomorrow. Good news.

In a better period where they had more puck possession and out-shot the Habs 14-6, the Blueshirts actually fell behind for a third time. They were put on the power play thanks to some hard work from Vesey, who was taken down by Anthony Richard behind the Montreal net. A rare miscue from Kane allowed the home team to score a shorthanded goal.

He lost the puck, which allowed Tierney to move it up to a flying Anderson for a breakaway. He came in and went high glove for his 19th at 13:20. It was the fifth shorthanded goal the Rangers had given up. They also allowed one against Boston in a 4-2 loss. Don’t make it a bad habit.

Given a reprieve by Gallant, Kane rewarded the coach by getting it right back. The adjustment of using Kreider over Lafreniere worked. They both have the same role, but Kreider is more proven at the net front. His screen on Montembeault worked perfectly, allowing Kane to find the far side for his 17th of the season.

The 447th of his brilliant career. Hopefully, it’s the first of many as a Blueshirt. That’s what they got him for. I’m glad Kane was quick to point out that they have to play better defense. He understands what it’s all about. Good overall play is what leads to success in the postseason.

Right after Kane’s tally, Zibanejad got a great scoring chance. Left alone in the slot, his slap shot rang off the crossbar and out. He had Montembeault beaten but ran into bad luck.

After the Rangers were on another power play drawn by some strong work by the third line, Lafreniere was sent off for hooking Rafael Harvey-Pinard with 2:07 left in the period. That led to some four-on-four.

Following it, the Habs nearly went back ahead on an abbreviated five-on-four. Mike Matheson was given far too much room in the slot. Fortunately for the Rangers penalty killers, his shot hit the goalpost. Following that close call, they were able to kill off the remainder and get to the locker room still tied at three.

The third period was more tightly contested. The teams only combined for a dozen shots with the Rangers leading 7-5.

Early on, an awkward hit delivered by Kreider actually saw him get the worst of it. In obvious pain, he went back to the locker room. Initially, it didn’t look good. But after missing a few shifts, he was able to return.

When Kreider was out, Lafreniere saw some shifts in his place with Zibanejad and Vladimir Tarasenko. He had a very active game and came close to getting his fourth goal in two games. He notched a pair against the Bruins.

Although there wasn’t an abundance of chances, Shesterkin made a key stop on Pitlick. His biggest save came when he denied Anderson on another breakaway. That came following a near miss from Lafreniere, where he had a wide open net. But his shot must’ve been deflected.

Anderson took off and was one on one with Shesterkin. This time, he tried to go low. But Shesterkin was ready and kicked out the shot to keep the game tied halfway through the third. A clutch save.

On the other side, Montembeault got over to make a glove save on a Zibanejad shot. He was good finishing with 30 saves on 33 shots. Shesterkin wound up making 23 saves on 26 shots.

With under five minutes remaining in regulation, Kane got caught flat-footed and took an obvious slashing minor on Johnathan Kovacevic. However, it was mostly the Rangers that were aggressive in killing off the penalty. Vesey had the only shot with his shorthanded bid from a tough angle denied by Montembeault.

Once the penalty expired, Kane joined Kreider and Zibanejad for a rare shift. He got a backhand on Montembeault who made the save for a stoppage.

On a bit of a scary defensive shift where both Trouba and Miller backed up, Harvey-Pinard was able to get between them for a good chance that Shesterkin bailed them out on with 88 seconds left in regulation. The game would require extras.

In overtime, Zibanejad went for it early, but Montembeault made the save. Following stops from each goalie, it was again Anderson who got open and nearly ended it. However, his shot went off the goalpost. He easily could’ve had a hat trick. He was the Habs’ best player.

Montembeault was able to get across to deny a wrap-around from Trocheck. Following that save, Fox was caught out of position and grabbed Nick Suzuki to hand the Canadiens a four-on-three power play with 1:27 left in overtime.

But the penalty killing unit that included Zibanejad, Trouba, and Mikola got it done. Not without some more puck luck. On a good shot by Hoffman that Harvey-Pinard tipped, the puck went off the crossbar and out of play with under a minute to go.

Following a pair of saves from Shesterkin on Hoffman and Harvey-Pinard, Mikola blocked one final attempt to send the game to a shootout.

In Round One, Pitlick missed wide, and Kaapo Kakko was denied on his backhand deke by Montembeault. Then Suzuki came in and was stopped by Shesterkin. In the bottom of the second, Zibanejad came in and faked and went forehand deke tucking the puck past Montembeault into the open side.

That left it up to Belzile. He came in and got a good shot that Shesterkin shrugged aside for the win. It didn’t come easy. But they desperately needed it.


3rd 🌟 Patrick Kane NYR scored 1st goal as a Ranger, 3 SOG in 9 attempts, plus 🍎 in 20:43

2nd 🌟 🤩 Kaiden Guhle Habs goal (4th) plus 🍎, +1 in 20:05

1st 🌟 🤩 ⭐️ Josh Anderson Habs shorthanded goal (19th), 2 SOG in 5 attempts, 3 hits, +1 in 22:06

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Happy Mika Zibanejad Day, remembering the virtuoso five-goal game in Rangers’ thrilling overtime win over Ovechkin Caps on March 5, 2020

It was three years ago today, on March 5th, 2020, that the Rangers got a special performance from Mika Zibanejad. Facing the Capitals, it was an exciting back and forth game played at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

On a memorable night at MSG, Zibanejad put on a Broadway show. Facing Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps, the Rangers were led by Zibanejad, who tied a franchise record by scoring five goals in a game. That included the electrifying overtime winner at 33 seconds when Tony DeAngelo and Artemi Panarin combined to lead a flying Zibanejad for a memorable breakaway goal on Ilya Samsonov where he went deke and backhand finish to win the game 6-5.

It’s the best regular season game we ever attended. Seeing Zibanejad put on a magical show to out-duel Ovechkin was special. In the third period, he recorded his fourth career hat trick when Pavel Buchnevich set him up from behind the net to put the Rangers up 4-3 just 12 seconds in.

However, the Caps kept coming back. Led by the greatest goalscorer in NHL history, Ovechkin tied the game with his 46th nearly halfway through the period. But it was a late power play that allowed Zibanejad to get number four. On a rush, then rookie Kaapo Kakko had a slap shot go wide and take a favorable carom off the back boards right to Zibanejad for the easy put away that made it 5-4 with 1:42 left.

But before they could celebrate a victory, Ovechkin had other ideas. In the final frantic minute, he was able to get to an Ilya Kovalchuk rebound and steer in his 47th with 43 seconds left in regulation. That tied the score once again at five.

That’s the kind of game it was. So, it went to overtime. In the three-on-three, it didn’t take long to end. On a simple back pass from DeAngelo over to Panarin, the Bread Man found Zibanejad just behind the Caps for the breakaway.

Even with some back pressure, he was able to go to his bread and butter move. A good fake, deke, and backhand into an open side after Samsonov bit for the exhilarating overtime winner at 33 seconds.

What a finish. At the time, Zibanejad was on fire. He became only the third player in Rangers’ history to record a five-goal game, joining Don Murdoch (Oct. 12, 1976) and Mark Pavelich (Feb. 23, 1983).

Unfortunately, as Zibanejad hit 41 goals on Mar. 11, 2020, in an overtime loss at Colorado, the pandemic forced the postponement of the remainder of the schedule. The Rangers had 12 games left. Had they been able to play them, maybe Zibanejad hits 50. Artemi Panarin would’ve gone over 100 points in his first season as a Blueshirt. It wasn’t to be.

Had they beaten out the Islanders, who at the time were fading, maybe David Quinn’s trajectory is altered. Instead, a disappointing abbreviated 56-game schedule in 2021 saw the Rangers miss the playoffs and get pushed around. That led to the dismissal of Quinn, John Davidson, and Jeff Gorton.

The rest is history. Since then, Chris Drury took over and made key decisions on personnel and hired Gerard Gallant, who guided the Rangers back to the postseason in 2021-22. They made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final before falling to the championship pedigree Lightning in six games.

With 32 goals this season, Zibanejad is on track for his second 40-goal year. His 67 points rank second behind Panarin, who leads the Rangers with 69. Now earning a well-deserved $8.5 million per year, Zibanejad continues to prove he’s one of the best top centers. He put up 24 points during last year’s playoff run.

Even with the key addition of Patrick Kane after Drury acquired Vladimir Tarasenko, it will fall on Zibanejad to lead the team in the upcoming postseason. He’s the best forward they have. A reliable player Gallant can lean on in all situations, Mika Magic remains one of the greatest acquisitions in franchise history. Who would’ve thought Gorton getting him from Ottawa for the proven Derick Brassard would become so lopsided.

Zibanejad has recorded seven of his eight hat tricks as a Ranger. None more memorable as the virtuoso five-goal game to best the Ovechkin Caps on a night where things were still normal. Nothing has ever been the same since.

For one night at least, Mika Zibanejad gave us something to remember.

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Calm after the storm: Devils finish successful deadline week on and off the ice with trade for Lazar

Another deadline day has come and gone, this one much more satisfying for Devils fans than the seller deadlines of the last few years where we often didn’t even have much to sell. After Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald already left Timo Meier under our deadline tree on Sunday, I wasn’t exactly expecting much of an encore after that. Especially given the team’s been cooking on all cylinders lately even before officially adding Meier to the lineup (16-3-2 in its last twenty-one), scoring seven goals in each of its last two games – including a wild 7-5 win at Colorado on Wednesday.

It seemed obvious any moves at all would be cheap depth adds, and today’s trade for Curtis Lazar from Vancouver is certainly that. A well-traveled fourth-liner who’s now on his sixth NHL team, Lazar offers little in terms of scoring but will add physicality, versatility (of being able to play C and RW), and another guy who can win faceoffs in our back six. And from all accounts Lazar is a good locker room guy, who’s also signed for two years after this at $1 million per. He certainly has the seal of approval from his former coach:

While Meier and Lazar have very little in common other than the fact both will be delighted to get off of losing teams and play on a contender, one thing they do have in common is neither guy should be a rental. Fitz – as a former player who was on the other end of the process more than once – knows the perils of trading for rentals at the deadline and expressed public reluctance towards doing that as a GM. So far he’s been consistent with that belief, given his big and small trades at the deadline were both for guys who can be on the roster beyond this season’s playoff run.

As far as the big picture goes, I’ve been continually impressed by how Lou-like Fitz has been as a GM, and I mean the calculating ’90’s and ’00 Lou, not the latter-day just throw everything at the wall version. He’s shown he understands that the team is an orchestra and needs different types of players to succeed, even if he doesn’t use the same vernacular. Whereas, our former GM Ray Shero often just tried to accumulate talent haphazardly with no real plan for balancing out the roster. At least we can credit Shero for hiring Fitz with two different organizations and making him his right hand, a transition that proved to be more than seamless when Shero and the Devils parted ways in early 2020.

Meier was the type of big swing that Lou has taken any number of times – Doug Gilmour, Alexander Mogilny, Ilya Kovalchuk – even as he had the reputation of not wanting a star system. And as players, Meier and Lazar both added elements the Devils could use – in Meier’s case, a big-time scoring wing. As good a player as Jesper Bratt is, Meier’s more of a shooter and could thrive with either the passing skills of Jack Hughes or the all-around game of fellow Swede Nico Hischer. In Lazar’s case, he just provides another solid veteran option for the fourth line or a cheap depth piece that can sit and watch until needed. Certainly it’s better having a Lazar or even a guy like Nathan Bastian sit than a supposed prospect like Alex Holtz.

If I’ve had one criticism of Fitz all year (and really throughout his tenure), it’s the odd treatment of Holtz. After an opening night against the Flyers where he could well have been the team’s best player, scoring the only goal and narrowly missing a second, he quickly found himself on the outside looking in. Somewhat understandably while the team ripped off thirteen in a row earlier in the season, but later on it just became pointless to have him sitting upstairs instead of gaining more valuable game experience in Utica. Supposedly Holtz himself asked to get sent down a few weeks ago and the request was granted. Fitz publicly addressed this problematic situation to a degree earlier today:

Good on Fitz for owning up to it publicly, but it really shouldn’t have taken until late February before you realized that playing a 21-year old nineteen games at barely ten minutes a night (mostly on the fourth line) over the span of several months wasn’t doing all that much to further his development. Perhaps this is one situation where Fitz’s career as a player hurt him, what was best for his development as a back six forward wasn’t what was best for a guy who you eventually want to be in your top six. From a cynical point of view, Holtz’s lack of game action possibly hurt his trade value as well. Maybe the Devils send him to San Jose instead of a Fabian Zetterlund or a Shakir Mukhamadullin if his value was higher?

Other than the Holtz situation though (which is at least being rectified by him getting more gametime in Utica), things couldn’t be better in the land of the Devils right now. Apart from the big splash with Timo, there really wasn’t a lot to address at the deadline which is also a credit to the GM – as well as scouting and development. Defensively, the Devils are running seven deep now that Kevin Bahl’s improvement’s earned him a lineup spot over veteran Brendan Smith for the moment, and Fitz indicated that Luke Hughes would be playing games with the Devils this year once his college season ends, giving them eight options to play games on D. Another old Lou tenet is you need eight guys who can play games in the NHL on D, Fitz seems to subscribe to that as well.

Even as the Devils have been doing well during the hubbub of deadline week, it’s nice as a fan to put it behind us and know this is the team we’re going to battle with for the rest of the way. With Meier being cleared for contact today after his undisclosed injury caused him to miss time at the end of his Sharks tenure and the beginning of his Devils stint, it seems like he’ll be back in the lineup no later than the Devils’ next home game on Tuesday. That should be another electric atmosphere at the Rock, ironically against the same Leafs team which controversially ended our thirteen-game winning streak a few months back, benefitting from three disallowed goals.

First things first however, finishing another road trip with games in Vegas (tonight) and Arizona on Sunday. If the team has one concern on the ice, it’s that Vitek Vanecek’s been pedestrian in his last few starts – but fortunately rookie Akira Schmid has picked up the slack, coming on for the hockey version of a save in Colorado after an off night from Vanecek turned a 5-1 laugher into a 6-5 nailbiter early in the third. I’ve been silently concerned all year over what would happen once Vanecek got up to his career high in games played, which he’s already about reached with another twenty plus games to go in the regular season plus an ideally longer playoff run. Fortunately Schmid’s development has given us some protection in goal, even as Mackenzie Blackwood is again recovering from injury.

Scoring seven a game can also give your goalies protection, and if the Devils didn’t already have one of the best offenses in the league with Hughes, Bratt, Nico and defenseman Dougie Hamilton leading the way, they pretty much cemented it with the impending arrival of Timo. Now comes the fun part…seeing how all the talent comes together before the playoffs.

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Tkachuk and Senators ruin Kane’s Broadway debut, Rangers outplayed in third, Motte leaves game with possible head injury, Tarasenko tallies again in loss

Twenty-four hours after waiting to make his Broadway debut, Patrick Kane put on the freshly minted Blueshirt with his number 88 on it. The future Hall Of Famer played in his first game as a New York Ranger.

It was eventful. In a highly anticipated match at the World’s Most Famous Arena on 33rd and 7th, the Rangers took on the rejuvenated Senators. As good as it started with Chris Kreider scoring his team-leading fourth shorthanded goal in beating former teammate Cam Talbot on a breakaway, it didn’t quite have the ending they’d hoped for.

A game that was a very hot ticket with the average cost going around $215 a pop, which was the most expensive since they retired the number of Henrik Lundqvist, wound up in favor of the aggressive Senators, who came back to post a 5-3 win over the Rangers at a packed MSG.

Despite Kane reuniting with Artemi Panarin on a cohesive second line centered by Vincent Trocheck, neither former Blackhawk scored. They moved the puck well, showing off some of the camaraderie they previously had in Chicago. But despite combining for 10 shots, including six from Panarin, they couldn’t quite beat Talbot, who was sharp in making 29 saves on 32 shots to earn a big win for the Senators. They’re chasing the Islanders and Penguins for the wildcard.

A night after doing enough to pull out a 3-2 victory in overtime over the Flyers, the Rangers were again shorthanded. Playing without both the injured Ryan Lindgren and suspended K’Andre Miller, who will serve the final game on Saturday for the spitting incident with Drew Doughty, they went with five defensemen. At least Kane made it a full dozen forwards on the bench.

Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. A dangerous high hit from Austin Watson caught Tyler Motte in the helmet for a charging major and game misconduct before 13 minutes had elapsed. Motte exited the game with Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay for the locker room. He didn’t return.

What that could mean is a potential head injury for Motte, who was re-acquired from Ottawa to fill a key checking role like he did last year. It had to be concussion protocol. Coach Gerard Gallant didn’t provide any update, indicating that it was an upper-body injury. We won’t know anything else until the weekend.

Skating two men short again, the Blueshirts got worn down by the very physical Senators. Ottawa outscored the Rangers 3-0 in the deciding third period. They out-shot the Blueshirts 12-6.

It wasn’t like it was one-sided. However, Senators captain Brady Tkachuk imposed his will. The behemoth of a powerhouse made an impact in sparking the Sens to the comeback win. He was very active during shifts, using his unique combination of size, strength, and skill to make a difference.

Held without a point during the first two periods that saw the score in favor of the very skilled Rangers that included a beauty scored by an improving Vladimir Tarasenko on a breakaway, Tkachuk was around it a lot. So were his teammates, including former popular Ranger Derick Brassard, who was recognized by the Garden for playing his 1,000th career NHL game. That was a cool moment. Big Game Brass is fondly remembered by the fans.

Brassard would enjoy a memorable night by scoring twice, including the tying goal on a nifty spin around backhand in tight that fooled Jaroslav Halak. His second of the game came on a steal from Claude Giroux, who got the puck to him in front to take advantage of a Halak turnover.

Less than two minutes later, it was another active shift from Tkachuk that helped set up a hard shot from Travis Hamonic with traffic in front. Halak couldn’t control the rebound, allowing an unchecked Giroux to get the game-winner with 16:34 remaining.

Giroux continued his big first season with the Senators by also adding a second helper on the empty netter from Tim Stutzle that came with 2:42 left in regulation. The former Flyers captain who signed with Ottawa was named the game’s First Star with a goal and two assists.

It really was all about Tkachuk, who had a goal wiped out on a good offsides challenge by Gallant. The replays showed that he was just ahead of the puck as it entered the zone. He made a great deflection with Braden Schneider draped all over him. That kept the score 4-3.

Tkachuk is the kind of physical force that can take over a game. It’s a good thing the Rangers won’t see him or the emerging Stutzle in the playoffs. They’re a nightmare match-up. With Jakob Chychrun added to solidify the blue line, Ottawa will continue to make their playoff push. They might run out of time. But the future is bright.

The biggest reason for the loss was the power failure. Ottawa kept giving the Rangers power plays. However, they never took advantage of the undisciplined penalties the Senators took. That included the Watson charging major that knocked Motte out of the game.

Already leading by one on a great shorthanded goal from Kreider in which he went backhand deke on Talbot, Kane nearly had Panarin for a goal on a good shift. But Talbot shut it down. He kept the Sens in it with 11 stops in a busy first.

It could’ve been worse. When Watson came up high making contact with Motte’s head, refs Pierre Lambert and Peter MacDougall made sure by confirming their call on replay. It didn’t take long to assess Watson a five-minute major for charging and game misconduct. Watson listened to their explanation as he skated off the ice.

Gallant mostly rolled with the brand new top power play unit that consists of Panarin and Fox on the points with Mika Zibanejad, Kreider, and Kane up front. No problem, right? Not exactly. They were a bit too deliberate. Talbot made the saves when he needed to. But he wasn’t under duress. Ottawa has a good penalty kill.

The little used second unit mostly featured Trocheck, Jacob Trouba, Filip Chytil, Tarasenko, and Kaapo Kakko, who I feel isn’t as good a fit as the more active Alexis Lafreniere. He would see one short shift in the third. Not enough for a player who provides the nuts and bolts. The closest they came to scoring was a setup for Tarasenko, who was denied by Talbot.

If there’s been a good development over the past two games, it looks like Tarasenko is finally getting the cobwebs out. In the 3-2 win at the Flyers, he assisted on a pair and picked up the overtime winner when he took a Chytil pass and scored off the rush past Carter Hart. A snipe. Tarasenko stayed hot. He would score a beauty later that had the Rangers ahead 3-2.

Ottawa got caught with too many men in the final minute of a sloppy first period. However, the Rangers didn’t score on the first part and failed to capitalize on the remaining 1:34 to start the second. It was a missed opportunity. Gallant talked about good puck movement, but too many passes. Something Kane also alluded to in the postgame. He had four shots on goal and came close on a tip try.

Ottawa was able to hang around. Chychrun took a slashing minor following their second successful kill. They would again keep the Rangers off the scoreboard. With Schneider off for a hook, it was the Blueshirts who got it done on the kill. They aren’t ranked that high. But the threat of scoring shorthanded can make opponents back pedal. Kreider had Zibanejad, but he missed wide.

Prior to the game, I thought the two teams would combine for eight total goals. That was my guess last night. For nearly half the game, it didn’t look like it would happen. But, things really picked up.

On a play where the Rangers got caught watching, Drake Batherson and Alex DeBrincat combined to set up rookie Shane Pinto for an easy put away for his 16th to tie the score at 9:42.

The Sens then went ahead 21 seconds later. It was Brassard who struck for his first of the night when he tipped in a Mathieu Joseph shot for his 10th at 10:03.

However, the Rangers had a strong response. On a good shift over two minutes later, Trocheck got the puck to Panarin, who circled around and found a cutting Trouba. He went to the backhand and had his shot bank in off a player in front. Trocheck was also nearby. Trouba’s fifth came from Panarin (50th assist) and Trocheck at 12:15 to tie the score.

Two and a half minutes later, it was Tarasenko who scored on a breakaway. After he took a feed from Ben Harpur, Zibanejad was able to find Tarasenko at the Ottawa blue line. He split Chychrun and Nick Holden to break in and pull a Forsberg, tucking in a backhand on an over-committed Talbot for his fourth as a Blueshirt. It was the highlight of the night.

It’s interesting how Talbot was the goalie on both those Forsberg tallies. One of course dates back to when he played for our team. He was a popular backup behind the legendary Henrik Lundqvist. Without him, no President’s Trophy in ’14-15. I’m sure they’d have traded it for a Stanley Cup. They would’ve faced Kane’s Blackhawks.

When Artem Zub got called for interference on a cheap hit from behind on Trocheck, the Rangers again saw their shadow. They fired blanks or passed the puck too much. There were moments where both Kane and Panarin deferred instead of shooting. That’ll change. They’ll be better.

Mikkola took his latest minor penalty with 44 seconds left for interfering with Batherson. However, Ottawa couldn’t convert on the split power play. They came in ranked fourth. But wound up minus-one with Kreider scoring the Rangers’ eighth shorthanded goal back in the first.

This one wasn’t about the special teams. It came down to five-on-five play in the third period. One in which the Senators pushed the pace. They weren’t playing the second of a back-to-back like the Blueshirts. They had more left in the tank. It really showed.

On what was a good play by Giroux, he moved the puck in front for an open Brassard, who, instead of going forehand, fooled Halak by spinning off for a backhand short side to tie the score at 1:35. A heady play by the veteran.

The Sens kept the momentum going. On some strong play by Tkachuk down low, he got the puck up for a Hamonic shot that an isolated Giroux rebounded home without much resistance for his 26th to give Ottawa a 4-3 lead.

It almost got worse. On a close play at the Rangers blue line, Tkachuk thought he’d stayed onside on the entry. During the shift, he banged into Lafreniere, who looked the worst for wear. Then, he tipped in a Giroux shot pass to temporarily make it 5-3. But the Rangers bench made a smart challenge. It definitely was close. But after taking their time to review the video, that also means putting time back on the clock. They got the call right. It was offsides. Tkachuk even smirked.

Despite some timely saves from Halak, who would only want the second Brassard goal back, the Rangers never were able to create that magic moment. I thought they’d tie it. But it wasn’t meant to be in Kane’s Garden debut.

With under three minutes left, Gallant went for it by going for the six-on-five. Obviously, the six skaters are easy to name. So, I’m not gonna bother. Initially, Halak was going to be near the bench with the face-off in the Senators end. But Turk changed his mind to go with his six best skaters.

If there was a miscalculation, it was not having Trocheck out to go against Giroux on the draw. Zibanejad took it instead. He didn’t lose it per se. But the skaters went forward, allowing Giroux to come out with the puck and narrowly miss an empty netter.

A racing Tkachuk negated an icing. He then found Stutzle for an easy finish into the vacated net for the 5-3 final with 2:42 left. Gallant’s gamble didn’t work.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes. Ottawa was simply better when it counted. They held the Rangers to six shots in the final period. They scored their two pair early to flip the script. Tkachuk didn’t get a star. But he should have. It’s not always about goals and points. He was the difference.

Next up are the number one overall Bruins. They whipped the Sabres by turning a 3-0 game into a 7-1 laugher. Even minus Taylor Hall (LTIR) and Nick Foligno, they added Dmitry Orlov (6 points in 3 games) and Garnet Hathaway. They also picked up Tyler Bertuzzi yesterday to bolster their depth.

Boston is up to 101 points. Led by David Pastrnak (43 goals), Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand (left game with injury), they are as complete a team as there is. They’re four lines deep and are well balanced defensively. Plus, feature Vezina favorite Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.

If the Rangers are without both Lindgren and Motte, which is a real possibility, they could be forced to play two men short. That’s what they’ve put themselves in with the Tarasenko and huge Kane acquisition. It’s not about the regular season. It’s about the postseason. They have 20 games remaining to jell. Ten home and ten away, including five in a row on the road starting tomorrow afternoon.

Let’s hope it’s not another embarrassment on national TV after last week. That was before Kane. It’ll be their third game over four days. It’s sure to be a tough test.


3rd 🌟 Derick Brassard, Senators scored 2 goals (10, 11) in 1,000th career game, 3 hits, +2 in 11:55

2nd 🌟 🤩 Claude Giroux, Senators goal (26th) plus 2 🍎, 4 SOG in 8 attempts, 2 takeaways, 7-for-13 on draws, +3 in 19:01

1st 🌟 🤩 ⭐️ Brady Tkachuk, Senators 2 🍎, 2 SOG in 4 attempts, 3 hits, 2 takeaways, 3-of-6 on draws, even in 18:25, willed team to victory

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