Lundqvist leads Blueshirts revival

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Henrik Lundqvist has led a Blueshirt revival by stopping 80 of 84 shots in three consecutive wins including a 36-save performance in a 3-2 win over the Kings. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

A week ago, there were lingering questions as to what was wrong with Henrik Lundqvist. After getting chased by the Stars for seven goals on 27 shots in two periods last Tuesday, the popular 34-year old Swede was down to a .902 save percentage. Just when all looked lost, Lundqvist responded with three consecutive strong games to lead a Blueshirts revival.

After stopping all 21 shots in an odd 1-0 overtime shutout at the Red Wings in a Sunday matinee, he was at his best in turning aside 36 of 38 shots in a 3-2 home win over the Kings last night at MSG. That makes it three straight wins all with Lundqvist in net playing more to his high standard. He’s faced 84 shots and stopped 80 during the stretch to post a 1.32 goals-against-average and .952 save percentage.

He didn’t have to be great in consecutive wins at Toronto and Detroit. He only faced 46 shots. However, he still had to make timely stops. Especially in a sleep inducting 1-0 shutout for his 61st career. J.T. Miller got the game-winner on Sunday scoring number 16 off a brilliant set up from leading scorer Mats Zuccarello. In that win, Kevin Hayes left with an injury that will sideline him between two to three weeks.

With Hayes out, a fully recovered Matt Puempel was back in Monday. Playing for the first time since New Year’s Eve at Colorado after sustaining a concussion, the birthday boy continued to show why GM Jeff Gorton picked up the former Senators 2011 first round pick off waivers. He scored in his return to give him six goals and an assist in 14 games with the Rangers. That also included his first career hat trick in a 12/29 win at Arizona.

Playing against a team that’s given them fits since the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers didn’t get much offense early. In fact, the Kings held them to two shots early on. They out-shot the Rangers 14-5 in the first period but trailed on the scoreboard thanks to a Brandon Pirri unassisted tally at 11:31. A bad exchange between Jeff Zatkoff and his defenseman allowed Pirri to steal the puck and beat the former Pen with a quick wrister for his eighth.

Even though they still led by a goal midway through, coach Alain Vigneault decided to make some adjustments to his lines. He benched Chris Kreider for a few shifts and replaced him with Puempel. The move worked with Puempel scoring off a beautiful Derek Stepan feed on a two-on-one started by Dan Girardi. Girardi stepped up at his own blue line and made a good outlet for an attacking Stepan which resulted in Puempel’s sweet finish.

Before the second concluded, the Kings were able to beat Lundqvist on a Jordan Nolan tally from Andy Andreoff and Drew Doughty with 1:59 left. But for a team that doesn’t score much, it didn’t matter that Los Angeles dictated play with their heavy forecheck. Despite more than doubling up the Rangers in shots 38-17, they were unable to get a point.

The dreaded two-goal lead is something Blueshirt fans are all too familiar with against the Kings. It brings back flashbacks to that painful five-game series loss in which LA used third period comebacks in all three games at Staples Center before prevailing in sudden death. This time, there wouldn’t be any comeback. Instead, Mats Zuccarello finally broke a 15-game drought when he took a Miller feed and scored his ninth goal- first since an empty netter in a 2-0 shutout at Dallas on 12/15. He hadn’t beaten a goalie since 11/15.

Even though he hasn’t been finishing, Zuccarello is playing superb hockey. He continues to rack up points. The goal extended his point streak to six (1-7-8). He leads the team in assists with 29 and points with 38. Ever since Vigneault put him with Stepan and Kreider, they’ve been unstoppable. Even on a night when Kreider saw some time with other players, there was Zuccarello and Stepan delivering.

Trailing by two, the Kings never gave up. It’s not in their DNA. They kept attacking and creating chances. None better than following a Girardi turnover when snake bit captain Anze Kopitar was stopped by Lundqvist. What ensued was total chaos. With about nine players in front of the net searching for a loose puck, it eventually was freed up and sent to a wide open Kopitar with a gaping net. But a certain goal was robbed by a back checking Rick Nash, who stole the puck and started a rush the opposite way. It was a startling play from start to finish with Nash making a heck of a save and then generating a scoring chance.

The Kings eventually did score but it came with 1.6 seconds remaining. Kyle Clifford was able to finish in front following a top heavy Jake Muzzin shot that hit the crossbar. The problem is there was no time left. So Clifford’s goal became bookkeeping.

The Rangers play one more game before the All-Star break. They’ll host the Flyers at MSG on Wednesday night. Another Rivalry Night between bitter rivals with an 8 PM start on NBCSN. Win that one and it would be four in a row. A great way to end what’s been a crazy period.

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Call of the Day: Rick Jeanneret on amazing Lehner robbery

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A sprawling Robin Lehner dives to make an incredible glove save to rob Max Pacioretty of a sure goal which led to the Sabres’ second consecutive 3-2 overtime win. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Buffalo Sabres.¬†

Occasionally, legendary Buffalo Sabres play-by-play man Rick Jeanneret has a call that is so good, you can’t help but chuckle. The past two nights, Buffalo has given him plenty of reasons for excitement.

In a gritty 3-2 overtime win over the Red Wings on Friday, it was Buffalo’s penalty kill that killed off a Kyle Okposo minor before Okposo would be the beneficiary on a late Sabres power play with a great backhand finish in front to beat Detroit with 26 seconds remaining. Jeanneret’s call:

“Okposo is there to hammer it home and Buffalo wins it in OVERRRRTTIIIIIMMME!!!!”

Imagine an exciting comeback win like that where Ryan O’Reilly scored a beauty to force OT with Okposo winning it followed up by another thrilling come from behind 3-2 win in extras over close rival Montreal at Bell Centre. That’s exactly what happened. Buffalo twice came back to tie the score with Cody Franson scoring at 11:53 of the third period to send it to overtime.

As has been proven, Montreal is a tough place to win. Especially on a Saturday with Hockey Night In Canada and Habs ace Carey Price in net. That didn’t stop the Sabres from getting an emotional one-goal win over the Canadiens. They can thank starter Robin Lehner for that. Prior to defenseman Zach Bogosian beating Price at 1:48 of overtime, Lehner made an incredible save to deny Max Pacioretty of a certain goal. Here’s how it sounded from Jeanneret:

The call by Jeanneret is perfect. His level of enthusiasm and energy is still amazing. Even now in the latter stages of a Hall of Fame career, the affable 74-year old remains one of sports treasures. Someone who makes you feel like part of the moment. No matter where you are.

I had the pleasure of meeting him once while working the production truck for a Devils home game against the Sabres on a snowy night in February 2001. He was a class act. I told him about best friend Brian who has been a huge fan. He couldn’t have been nicer. He was making copies in the old press room at Continental Airlines Arena. That’s a game I still remember due to my scary trip home to Staten Island on 95. And of course, for Dominik Hasek, who got the shutout with Brian Rafalski’s apparent tying goal coming just a split second late.

It’s amazing to think that here’s a man who still is amazing at his job. Rick doesn’t travel much with the team. He does their home games. And for those nights when you get a chance to hear him whether it’s in Western New York or on Center Ice, do yourselves a favor and listen to the way he describes the action. But last night’s game wasn’t too far up in Montreal. Hockey fans got a treat.

With terms like, “Top shelf! Where Mama hides the cookies,” there’s no one more fun than Ricky J. A broadcaster I was introduced to on many a Hockey Night in South River, New Jersey by Brian and close buddies John and Tim.

Here is Franson’s winner and an excited bunch of Sabres pouring off the bench to celebrate the victory:

Coupled with a Toronto shootout loss to Ottawa, the Sabres pulled within four points of the final wildcard in a crazy race. If only it were that simple. With the Devils winning for a fourth time in five against the stumbling Flyers 4-1 on a pair of Miles Wood tallies, they’re now up to 49 points. Philadelphia remains stuck at 50 one behind the Leafs’ 51. Another Canes’ loss kept them at 49 along with the Panthers. Then come Buffalo at 47 along with Detroit, who host the Rangers on NBC today at 12:30 PM. The Islanders’ latest victory of 5-2 over the Kings puts them up to 46.

This is gonna be a truly unpredictable race for the final three months. No one is out of it. Everyone can make it. Don’t forget in the Atlantic, seven total points separate second place Ottawa from last place Tampa. With the fading Bruins looking in serious trouble clinging onto third with 52 just one up on Toronto and the pack right behind, anything is possible.

 

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Devils get shafted on boarding call

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Steven Santini scored the lone goal for the Devils in a tough 3-1 loss to the Canadiens, who benefited from a questionable five-minute major for boarding on Karl Stollery in the third period. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NJDevils.

In the third period of a tie hockey game, the Devils got shafted on a boarding call. At 28 seconds, veteran Karl Stollery boarded Canadiens defenseman Nathan Beaulieu down to the ice into the boards.

Some boarding penalties can be called a major. This wasn’t one of them. But that didn’t stop refs (both Canadian)¬†Frederick L’Ecuyer and Dean Morton from sending Stollery off for five minutes. Here it is:

That simply isn’t a five-minute boarding major. At worst, it should’ve been two. When Montreal forward Torrey Mitchell came in and got two for roughing, it probably should’ve resulted in a four-on-four for two minutes and then back to even strength. With coach John Hynes fuming on the Devils bench, instead Montreal got a three-minute power play out of it.

They proceeded to score two power play goals with Shea Weber blasting a one-timer past Keith Kinkaid followed by Max Pacioretty scoring 1:22 later. That was the difference in the game. One in which the Devils felt wronged. However, the penalty kill wasn’t good enough in that spot. Simply put, you can’t allow the Canadiens to take advantage scoring twice in such a short span.

Montreal scored all three of their goals on the man-advantage including a power play tally from Alex Galchenyuk back in the first following New Jersey rookie Steven Santini’s second NHL goal. He’s been a good player for the Devils since being recalled going plus-six so far.

The loss snapped a three-game winning streak. The Devils had been playing their best hockey lately winning three consecutive one-goal games on a successful road swing that included a huge 4-3 win over the first place Wild on a late goal from unlikely source Beau Bennett.

With the Bruins getting shutout again on home ice in what probably spells the end for poor coach Claude Julien and the Hurricanes getting hammered by the Pens, the Devils remain three points out of the final wildcard spot held by the Leafs. New Jersey visits the Flyers on Saturday. Cory Schneider will be back in net.

While they are justified in being upset over the major on Stollery, the Devils can’t expect to win with only 17 shots. Especially against vet backup Al Montoya, who hardly broke a sweat making 16 saves for the win.

Having played 47 games, the Devils still have 35 left to chase that second wildcard. Every game matters. No one is out of it. Not even Buffalo following an emotional 3-2 overtime home win with Kyle Okposo playing the hero to give them 45 points. The Islanders have won two straight and three of four to reach 44 with still 39 to go.

It’s anyone’s race for that final spot. Even if the Habs benefited from a questionable call. Good teams find a way to kill it off and pick up their teammate. The Devils didn’t. It’s back to the drawing board with a big game tomorrow against those Flyers.

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Tavares stays hot as Islanders win in Doug Weight’s debut

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John Tavares kept it going by scoring twice including his first shorthanded goal highlighting an Islanders’ 3-0 shutout of the Stars to win in Doug Weight’s coaching debut. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYIslanders.

Make it one for one for the Islanders under new interim coach Doug Weight. They shutout the Stars at Barclays Center 3-0 to win in Weight’s coaching debut. The stars were John Tavares and Thomas Greiss. Somewhat curiously, it was the second consecutive shutout for Greiss, who followed up a 32-save performance by stopping all 23 with the Islanders playing well in front of him.

It’s interesting that they sent off Jack Capuano with a 4-0 win at Boston. A game in which the supporting cast stepped up with Nikolay Kulemin tallying twice along with Jason Chimera scoring a goal and assist. Casey Cizikas also had two assists.

In the 3-0 home victory over a Dallas club that scored seven goals in a wild 7-6 win at the Rangers, it was the Isles’ best players who stepped up. Tavares continued to stay hot scoring twice to give him seven goals in the last four games. The superstar center opened the scoring with a highlight reel goal at 13:37 of the first period. After receiving a lead pass from Anders Lee, Tavares held onto the puck and skated around the Stars’ defense before burying one past Kari Lehtonen. A terrific goal by a terrific player.

As it turned out, that’s all they would need. On a night where the Stars lost their discipline taking nine penalties including a fight between Radek Faksa and Thomas Hickey early in the second, the Islanders power play was unable to make them pay. Lehtonen kept his team in it by making 33 saves. That included stopping all 16 Islander shots in a busy second.

The Isles did a very good job limiting the Stars’ shots keeping them to the outside. If there’s been an area they struggled at under Capuano, it’s been defensively. After the win, Weight talked about how he wants players who are going to compete and have intensity that way he sends them back out for the next shift. Last year, the team was better defensively and protected the house.

Most impressively, they did it without top defensemen Travis Hamonic (week-to-week) and Johnny Boychuk. Weight leaned heavily on steady vet Dennis Seidenberg, who was plus-two with three hits in over 26 minutes of action (27 shifts). Nick Leddy and Calvin de Haan also played over 20 minutes. Adam Pelech filled in admirably getting over 18 minutes while Scott Mayfield was used sparingly. Hickey got over 15 minutes going plus-one with the scrap.

The Islanders didn’t face too much adversity in winning for the third time over four. However, it was still a one goal game with Mayfield off for slashing. In what amounted to a wild sequence, Tavares led a two-on-one rush. But one too many passes sent the Stars in the other direction. But after missing, Kulemin caught the Stars by sending Tavares at the end of his penalty killing shift on a breakaway from center. Even with the fuel tank on low, he was able to come in with enough speed and beat Lehtonen with a forehand five-hole for his team-leading 18th that extended the lead to 2-0 with 3:06 remaining. It was his first career shorthanded goal.

“It was something special from the first goal on,” Weight said. “[Tavares] His work ethic, killing penalties, attention to detail. He’s a great leader.”

De Haan added an empty netter from Greiss with four seconds left for the final margin. The Islanders improved to 18-17-8 with 44 points. They remain last in the Metro Division. But are only six behind the second wildcard Maple Leafs. Weight believes this is a playoff team. But they have to climb over a lot of teams and make up ground.

With 39 games left, there’s plenty of time for the Islanders to do it. Especially with no team really seizing control of the final playoff spot. The Leafs have 50 points with 39 games remaining. The Flyers also have 50 but have played 46 games already. The Hurricanes and Panthers each have 49. The Lightning and Devils are at 47 and the Red Wings have 46 despite playing better hockey lately. Even the Sabres at 43 are only seven out. Whoever can string together some wins can gain in the standings quickly.

It’ll be an interesting race the final three months. The Islanders have a red hot star player finally going. Greiss has been playing extremely well. If they can keep it up, they will suddenly have a shot.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Kari Lehtonen, Stars (35 saves)

2nd Star-Thomas Greiss, NYIslanders (23 saves to become first German NHL goal to post consecutive shutouts)

1st Star-John Tavares, NYIslanders (2 goals-17, 18 including 1st career shorthanded goal, 6 shots, 10 attempts, 14-and-7 on face-offs, +2 in 27 shifts-23:45)

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Rangers finally get a re-Leaf in big 5-2 win

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The victorious and happier Rangers celebrate with winning netminder Henrik Lundqvist after a badly needed 5-2 victory at Toronto in which Lundqvist made 23 saves to end a three-game losing streak during an awful stretch. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

The Rangers finally ended a miserable three-game losing streak by going into Toronto and coming away with a well earned 5-2 win over the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. It was a big win that allowed them to smile again and enjoy playing the game. Especially for Henrik Lundqvist, who was relieved after making 23 saves while allowing just two goals while speaking to MSG’s John Giannone while wearing the Broadway Hat.

Their NHL best 16th road win came at a good time. It ended a nightmarish three-game run in which Lundqvist allowed 16 goals in his last three appearances. This was more like it. He made some big saves including his best to deny Auston Matthews after he blew past Dan Girardi for a backhand point blank. Neither Lundqvist or a more focused defense buckled. Instead, they played inspired after expressing frustration over Tuesday’s 7-6 home loss to the Stars.

One welcome change was Lundqvist not allowing an early goal. Instead, it was the Rangers who got the first goal on a well constructed play. It was started by Chris Kreider when he worked the puck from behind the net to Mats Zuccarello in the corner. Zuccarello won a battle and came out and centered for a pinching Brady Skjei, who scored his second NHL goal at 6:42.

Even though they played much better by dictating the play with puck possession and out-shooting the Leafs 19-9, it wasn’t perfect. The Leafs were able to tie it back up 3:34 later on a play started by James van Riemsdyk. Working the puck to Mitch Marner, the other big Leafs rookie came off the wall and fired a centering feed which deflected off Kevin Klein right to a wide open Tyler Bozak, who took advantage to finish his 11th past Lundqvist at 10:16. They caught the Rangers in a change with Brandon Pirri too late.

Rather than let down as they had recently, the Rangers stuck with it. Sizzling rookie Pavel Buchnevich remained hot when he was able to get a stick on a loose puck that he kicked to steer it in past Frederik Andersen for a 2-1 lead 4:28 later from Rick Nash and Skjei. Both Nash and Buchnevich were in front with the puck hopping off Nash to Buchnevich, whose kick of the puck merited a review. But it was concluded that he did manage to get his stick on it for his sixth. That gave him six points (2-4-6) in four games since returning. Dating back to Nov. 5, he has an eight-game point streak over which he has totaled 12 points (6-6-12). Where would he be in the rookie scoring race if he didn’t miss significant time?

Leading by one entering the second, the Blueshirts continued to apply the pressure. They kept getting good shots and quality chances on Andersen, who did a stellar job keeping his team in it. He finished with 36 saves. But he wasn’t able to prevent J.T. Miller from burying his 15th on a nifty cross-ice feed from buddy Kevin Hayes that made it 3-1 at 9:02 of the second. Prior to the goal, Adam Clendening got caught at the Toronto blue line leading to a dangerous Marner bid. But he hustled back to at least force Marner to miss wide preventing him from tying it up.

Instead, Clendening started the play the other way with Miller working a give-and-go with Hayes and then blistering his 15th from the right circle on a nice one-time blast upstairs. That was a pivotal play. It went from possibly 2-2 to 3-1.

The Leafs handed the Rangers opportunities to increase the margin. Consecutive minor penalties on Frank Corrado gave them power plays. Instead of cashing in, they allowed just their second shorthanded goal to Zach Hyman. With Corrado back in the box for his second penalty, Clendening lost his concentration when he allowed an attacking Hyman to steal the puck and score unassisted making it 3-2 with 3:58 remaining. It was a really bad play by Clendening. A mental lapse which made it a one-goal game after two.

Despite the Rangers basically doubling up the Leafs in shots by a wide 35-18 margin, they had to play a good third to come out with the victory. Playing a more defensive oriented patient style, they slowed down the Leafs to a crawl. They didn’t get much. At one point, the shots were still only 3-2 Toronto with nearly half the third gone.

Matt Martin sucked Oscar Lindberg into a bad tripping penalty in which the former Islander helped it along by taking a dive. Lundqvist protested but the refs weren’t listening. But on a night former Leaf Michael Grabner had been dangerous, he finally beat his former team on what else but a clean breakaway for a crushing shorthanded goal that made it 4-2 with 5:03 left. The play was made possible by Hayes, who took a Nick Holden feed and made a perfect lead pass for Grabner, who got behind the Toronto D. He turned on the jets and beat Andersen with his 20th of the season. His third career 20-goal year and first since netting 20 with the Islanders in ’11-12 following a career best 34 in ’10-11.

Grabner has been a huge difference maker for this team. After going two consecutive seasons without reaching double digits in goals, here he is back with 21 in only 45 games played with the Rangers. The 29-year old Austrian has always had great breakaway speed. But it’s really been a perfect fit under Alain Vigneault in a more offensive minded system where he can play with more skilled players. There is no reason for the coach to ever split up Grabner, Hayes and Miller, who as a third line have great chemistry and are lethal shorthanded. Grabner’s shorthanded goal was the first of this season and 13th of his career. The Rangers are tied now with Calgary for the most shorthanded goals (7) this season.

With Toronto pulling Andersen with under three minutes left, it was Grabner again who stole the puck at the red line and scored into an open net for his team-leading 21st for the final margin.

An important victory for the Rangers. One in which they defended better. Girardi was a standout making several key defensive plays. He blocked five shots and played a good game. They all played better. Lundqvist did the rest stopping 23 of 25 to get his 19th win of the year.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Brady Skjei, NYR (goal-2nd, assist, 6 attempts, +3 in 21 shifts-15:29)

2nd  Star-Kevin Hayes, NYR (2 assists, 6 shots, +2 in 25 shifts-14:13)

1st Star-Michael Grabner, NYR (2 goals including big shorthanded goal-20th, 21st, 5 shots, 8 attempts, 3 takeaways, +3 in 25 shifts-14:00)

Notes: Rangers finished with 34 hits led by Holden’s game-high eight. The Leafs had 21. … Martin tried to start something with Clendening. Both went off for slashes. You have to wonder what the heck Martin’s thinking. He really is a clown. … In a reverse, it was Hayes who barely saw any power play time with only 10 seconds while Miller received 3:16. … Jimmy Vesey remained mostly on the fourth line and received no power play shifts. He’s without a point in seven straight and is a minus-nine. … Interestingly, Matthews was held off the score sheet and went minus-three with Nazem Kadri. … Key Stat: Blocked shots NYR-18 (Girardi 5, Klein 4) TOR-9. … Face-offs went in favor of the Blueshirts 35-28 with Mika Zibanejad going 14-and-7. Frederik Gauthier went 9-and-5 for the Leafs.

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Slumping Lundqvist, Rangers look to snap out of it at Matthews, Leafs

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AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Sportsnet Stats.

There probably are better alternatives than trying to end a slump against the red hot Maple Leafs. Winners of nine of their last 11 having only lost once in regulation, Toronto finds itself tied for third in the Atlantic Division with 50 points. During that span, the rebuilding Leafs have outscored opponents 44-29. That included a 4-2 win at the Rangers last Friday on a night they honored Steven McDonald.

Since that point, the Rangers have dropped three in a row allowing a preposterous 16 goals in losses to Toronto, Montreal and Dallas. Ugly, uglier and ugliest would be how to describe their play at the moment. Even worse, Henrik Lundqvist was in for all 16. The slumping 34-year old franchise goalie gave up all five to the Canadiens in relief of an injured Antti Raanta in only two periods. He followed that up by permitting seven more to the Stars on home ice before giving way to Magnus Hellberg for the third.

With Lundqvist allowing four-or-more goals in his last four appearances which included a 5-4 win at Columbus in which he got stronger, his goals-against-average has skyrocketed to 2.89 and save percentage has plummeted to .902. This isn’t all about the prideful former 2000 seventh round pick who’s been the backbone of a team that’s made the playoffs in all but one year since his rookie season in ’05-06.

It’s about a porous defense that has been exposed. Minus Marc Staal, who is skating, they are a terrible unit that can’t get out of its own collective way. Even workhorse Ryan McDonagh is struggling defensively. It isn’t just a Dan Girardi or Kevin Klein problem. While both certainly don’t have the foot speed to keep up with today’s faster skating transition game, rookie Brady Skjei has also been culpable. He got victimized badly on two Dallas goals the other night. Opponents have been finishing checks on him and forcing turnovers. To be honest, Skjei has been inconsistent for roughly two months. He has to get through this.

How bad has it gotten? Even dependable Nick Holden had an awful turnover and forgot to take his man leading to a second consecutive Dallas goal in 12 seconds. When things go badly, it’s usually a total team breakdown. So, it’s not only a weakened blue line which has used offensive minded Adam Clendening with mixed results.

The forwards aren’t getting the job done either. Sure. They continue to score enough goals leading the NHL in offense. With both Mika Zibanejad (2 goals in return) and Pavel Buchnevich (1-2-3 versus Dallas) finally back, Alain Vigneault has four lines he can roll. But the fourth unit centered by Brandon Pirri struggled mightily on Tuesday. They were on for two goals against and were benched. Pirri was responsible for one goal against when he never took Patrick Sharp on a wraparound. Both he and Clendening were the closest players.

There is one change to the lineup. Jesper Fast is out with an upper body injury. Oscar Lindberg is back in. He should be playing over Pirri. But the coach will have to figure that out for himself eventually.

With the Rangers continually leaving the front of the net unprotected, it’s left Lundqvist naked. Six of the Stars’ seven goals came from in front. The lone exception was an Adam Cracknell shot that beat Lundqvist short side with no one screening him. Right now, his confidence is shaken. He isn’t making the critical stops we’ve been accustomed to. He’s given up goals short side and five-hole more often. It’s all a matter of playing the angles better and challenging shooters more. When he slumps, he’s too often back in the net and off balance.

So, can the Rangers snap out of it at the Leafs against rookie leader Auston Matthews? It’s not the best match-up. In terms of speed and skill, Toronto has plenty of firepower to match the Blueshirts. They can come at you with three balanced scoring lines featuring Matthews, James van Riemsdyk and Mitch Marner. They will be without defenseman Morgan Rielly. But there’s plenty of young talent which also includes William Nylander, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman¬†and¬†Nikita Zaitsev. There’s old reliable Tyler Bozak still teaming with Van Riemsdyk. But they have much more support with Matthews leading the way with 22 goals and 38 points. Plus Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner.

If it’s anything like last week, then the Rangers could be in for a long night. They got fore-checked to death and could’ve lost by a wider margin. That said, Lundqvist still allowed two stoppable shots with Nylander catching him off his angle and JVR finding the five-hole following a Girardi gaffe that allowed a pass to get through for a Toronto power play goal.

The Rangers have all said the right things. That they’re embarrassed and can’t leave Lundqvist by himself. It isn’t fair. By the same token, Lundqvist knows he must be better. A better start would help. Too often, he gives up an early one and his teammates are fighting an uphill battle. A few big saves at the start could set the tone.

Vigneault still believes in him. So do his teammates. The big thing is this. This team has permitted seven goals three times in the last month. The other two coming in losses at Pittsburgh and home for Minnesota. Raanta got victimized against the Pens while Lundqvist was in before being chased by the Wild before Christmas.

Maybe it’s the system. Vigneault has the talent to play an aggressive style emphasizing fast skating and transition. The trouble is there are moments where the team is taking too many risks leaving them flatfooted to play defense. The defense pinches and looks to keep plays alive. But when they get caught, look out. The same applies when a forward makes a dangerous back pass that can be intercepted fueling a counterattack.

So, can they figure it out? The All-Star break is the weekend of Jan. 28-29. The Rangers have four games left starting tonight. They remain in fourth place in a tough Metro Division with 57 points. The next two games are 1/22-23 at Detroit and home on Monday for the Kings. Then the Flyers visit next Wednesday.

With teams starting to play better hockey behind them, the time is now for the Rangers to straighten out. If they don’t, they could find themselves falling back to the pack just fighting for a wildcard which is where they currently are. They’re still seven clear of the second wildcard. But it’s getting awfully crowded.

I would like to see them play with more urgency. Particularly defensively. They can score with anyone. But it takes more discipline and better effort to defend their zone and protect Lundqvist. Make it harder on opponents by keeping them to the outside and boxing out in front. It remains to be seen if this group is capable of doing it.

The watchful eye of Jeff Gorton along with the organization are paying attention. Game time is 7:30 at Air Canada Centre. We’ll see if they can respond.

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Devils come to life with successful (!) road trip

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Before the Devils’ recent four-game trip to Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Minnesota, winger Taylor Hall referred to it as ‘make or break’. ¬†Such an assertion seemed laughable to this fan and blogger with the Devils’ season already having gone up in smoke after a winless three-game homestand capped off a 4-11-2 stretch that buried the team in last place of the entire Eastern Conference. ¬†Particularly with the Devils’ road woes on the season with just six wins in twenty-three games, and our recent trips to Western Canada had all been nightmares. ¬†A funny thing happened on the way to the slaughterhouse though, as after the Devils suffered a laughable OT loss after a hideous line change in Edmonton, suddenly the team found something and ripped off a three-game winning streak to arguably put the team back on life support after last rites had been administered.

If you could have gotten odds on the Devils putting together a trip without a regulation loss and put money on it, you’d be a seriously rich man right about now. ¬†Especially this Devils team, which had been an embarassment for over a month in every way possible from effort to execution to coaching to goaltending. ¬†What might be more remarkable is suddenly the playoff pipedream can be indulged again with New Jersey a mere three points out of the last wild card spot thanks to a freefalling Flyers team and a mediocre Metro. ¬†After careening into the basement the Devils shockingly got back over NHL .500 last night with a wild 4-3 win over a Minnesota team that had been dominant at home all season. Granted in this NHL where everyone this side of Arizona and Colorado is either over, at or just under .500, being one game over is not all that impressive. ¬†What does give every fan some hope is the home-heavy schedule remaining…twelve of the next sixteen games at home and only one more road trip that’s as much as three games long the rest of the season.

Granted this team hasn’t exactly been stellar at home lately either, which is part of the reason why I’m not invoking the ‘I thought I was out but they pulled me back in’ Godfather line just yet. ¬†They’ve still been outscored 18-4 their last four home games that I’ve attended, it’s going to take a little more for me to believe again. ¬†And obviously there’s a lot more work for the team to do to dig itself out of the hole it’s created the last several weeks. ¬†Unfortunately I won’t be going to the home return Friday against the Habs either, due to a scheduling conflict. ¬†Hopefully the team will get a hero’s welcome home and at least start off on the right foot with the fans, many of whom seemed to finally be at the end of their patience by the end of our embarassing homestand a week and a half ago.

Things got so bad that I literally no-showed for a game for the first time ever several days back. ¬†When I say no-show, I don’t mean I was mildly sick or a bad weather forecast kept me home, I mean I just flat had no interest in going to a Monday night home game against the Panthers with the team showing no heart (and more importantly none of my other friends were going to be there either, so I would have been sitting myself watching that mess which turned out to be another desultory 3-0 loss). ¬†I would have liked to have given the team a shot at redemption Friday but made plans with a friend for dinner before either of us realized there was a game on Friday. ¬†I suppose that’s part of the apathy that set in at that point, normally I’m pretty up on when a game’s being played.

So what’s changed? ¬†Granted I’ve watched only on and off due to general apathy, late gametimes and a stomach bug that ruined my weekend (and lost me a few pounds) but the number one thing that seems to have changed have been some of the more recent additions to the team. ¬†Defensively things had to change, but with John Moore and captain Andy Greene on the shelf I didn’t think they’d wind up changing for the better. ¬†Fortunately their absence has given an opportunity to rookie Steven Santini, more minutes for Jon Merrill and even a shot for AHL lifer Karl Stollery. ¬†Santini’s brought a physical edge lacking on the blueline since the offseason trade of Adam Larsson, while Stollery’s come out of obscurity to give the team solid third-pairing and power play minutes. ¬†Merrill has been perhaps the most important revelation though, while I expected Santini to do well eventually I had been through expecting anything of Merrill, who’d been an injury-plagued bust since a decent rookie campaign three years ago. ¬†However he’s finally blossoming into a solid top four d-man who’s playing 20+ minutes a night and even contributing offensively to an extent.

Up front there’ve been fewer changes but Blake Coleman has added a spark from Albany since being recalled to take the injured¬†Vernon Fiddler‘s spot in the lineup. ¬†More importantly, some of our key players are starting to come alive again, like Kyle Palmieri, whose snipe in the third period last night against Devan Dubnyk gave him his tenth goal of the season and answered what seemed to be a back-breaking Wild goal to tie the game again. ¬†Hall himself roared to life in Western Canada, scoring back-to-back game-winning goals in Calgary and Vancouver, both in tense 2-1 wins. ¬†While I’ve been down on coach John Hynes this season, he made a gutsy decision benching Hall after a second-period turnover last night put the Devils down by two in Minnesota. ¬†Hall returned in the third period and responded, assisting on an Adam Henrique goal that tied the game at two. ¬†Also coming alive is Cory Schneider, who aside from a horrid¬†goal early in Edmonton has largely returned to form of the previous few seasons in the last couple weeks. ¬†Even understudy Keith Kinkaid once again pitched in with a strong effort at Calgary.

In a way it’s fitting the team returns home to face Montreal on Friday, for it was against the Habs that the team’s season first went up in smoke in a 5-2 loss where goalie Carey Price and teammate Jeff Petry combined to gang-bang Palmieri in the crease in early December, and there was little response from the team or the league which should have suspended Price for using his blocker as a weapon and should have suspended Petry for being a third man in. ¬†That game started our 0-6-1 death spiral where they were outscored 30-9 in those seven games. ¬†It would be nice if this Devils team showed its revival out West wasn’t completely illusory and stood up to the Habs in front of what’ll surely be a rabid (if split) crowd.

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Video of Day: Auston Matthews scores against Sabres in first ever match-up against Eichel

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In the first ever meeting between former first round American picks a year apart, Auston Matthews got the better of Jack Eichel scoring a go-ahead goal as the Leafs edged the Sabres 4-3 Tuesday night. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Buffalo Sabres. 

Our Video of Day features 2016 first overall selection Auston Matthews. In the first ever match-up between former American first round picks a year apart, Matthews led the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 win over the Sabres at Air Canada Centre last night. His team-leading 22nd goal gave Toronto their first lead. They came back from a 2-0 deficit scoring four straight before William Carrier closed it to 4-3 with over two minutes left in regulation.

Jack Eichel didn’t register a point and finished minus-one in the one-goal loss for Buffalo. He did lead his team with six shots and had 10 attempts missing the net four times. But on Matthews’ tally, Eichel was stripped of the puck in the neutral zone by Matthews, who turned the play in the other direction. He then got open in the slot taking a centering feed from Zach Hyman and buried a perfect shot top shelf to chase Sabres starter Robin Lehner.

A frustrated Lehner screamed at the bench and broke a stick after being replaced by Anders Nilsson. In truth, he only gave up one bad goal with Matt Martin’s unassisted tally squeaking through him from a bad angle to tie it in the second period. Toronto’s first goal came from Leo Komarov when he was able to deflect a Nazem Kadri shot over Lehner at 32 seconds of the second. That started a three-goal Toronto period finished off by Matthews to put them ahead 3-2.

In the third, James van Riemsdyk was able to beat Nilsson from an awful angle in tight for the game-winner on a power play. Carrier would tally his fourth by batting a Zemgus Girgensons pass out of mid-air past Toronto starter Frederik Andersen with 2:23 left. But that was the closest the Sabres got with Kadri winning a defensive draw with a couple of seconds to spare to clinch Toronto’s ninth win over their last 11. They’re tied in points (50) with the Senators and are one of the eight seeds at the moment in a tight playoff race.

For the Sabres, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane scored in the first. Okposo leads Buffalo with 13 goals and 29 points in 43 games. Kane is second in goals with 12. Eichel ranks third with 10 markers in just 23 games with seven helpers. If you prorate it, he’d probably have about 18 goals if he didn’t miss any time. The 20-year old second-year center is a unique talent who combines superior skating and puck possession with a lethal shot. What I like most is he’s a right-handed shot. Think Jeremy Roenick in his heyday with the Blackhawks. That’s who he reminds me of.

As for Matthews, he does things so quickly. Having gotten valuable pro experience playing for Zurich SC in the Swiss League, he is the real deal. With second overall pick Patrik Laine sidelined with a concussion on a Jake McCabe hit in a meeting between the Sabres and Jets, Matthews has taken a one point lead in the rookie scoring race with 37 (22-16-38) in 42 games. Matthews’ talented teammate Mitch Marner is third with 36 (10-26-36) followed by another Leaf William Nylander (9-20-29) and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk (8-21-29). Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski is next with 26 (6-20-26) while logging over 21 minutes.

The Calder race is an intriguing one. Matt Murray can’t be excluded. But he’s struggled since returning with the Pens defense depleted. Anthony Mantha is the other interesting first-year player with 11 goals and 11 assists in 29 games. He certainly can finish around the net. It’s worth noting that Rangers rookie Pavel Buchnevich continues to put up points. His goal and two helpers gave him 13 points in 13 games. Had he not missed significant time due to a bad back, he might be in the mix. The Russian is a talented offensive player who makes things happen.

As for the new American rivalry, Eichel and Matthews face off three more times. The next meeting is Feb. 11 at Toronto. The final two are in Buffalo on Mar. 25 and Apr. 3.

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It’s time to panic for bumbling Blueshirts

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Mika Zibanejad scored twice in his return but the Rangers again broke down defensively with Henrik Lundqvist allowing seven goals in a bitter 7-6 home loss at MSG. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

I figured they would respond to such an awful loss at Montreal. How wrong was I? Instead, it was more of the same as the Rangers rolled out the welcome mat for the Stars who enjoyed the first two periods scoring seven times before clinging on for dear life to prevail 7-6 in a wild game at MSG.

There is nothing pretty about what’s going on. Ever since I acquired Henrik Lundqvist in my fantasy hockey league to shore up destroy my goaltending, he’s allowed an impossible 16 goals in seven periods. It’s indescribable. If you want to pin the blame on me, by all means go ahead. I thought he was capable of turning it around. I am not ready to throw in the towel yet. But unless something drastic changes with the team defense and a risky offensive system in which they take more chances under coach Alain Vigneault, I may have cost myself not only first place but a chance of finishing in the top three for the money.

It’s hard to fathom what’s happened. We all understand that the Rangers defensively aren’t good. Ever since Marc Staal went down, they have fallen apart at the seams. It didn’t start that way. The team responded to Staal’s injury by going into Philadelphia and Columbus winning respectively with the highlight a 5-4 come from behind win at the Blue Jackets on 1/7. The last time Lundqvist won, he still gave up four. So, over his last four appearances, he’s allowed four-or-more totaling 20 goals allowed on 113 shots in 10 total periods. That is eye opening. If you exclude a 5-2 win at the Flyers, he’s allowed four-or-better in five of the last six games.

Tonight was tough on the eyes. As bad as it was seeing him interviewed again by MSG’s John Giannone and being as blunt as possible in describing how embarrassed and frustrated he is, it was even worse watching the first two periods. He allowed seven goals on 27 shots in two periods of work before Magnus Hellberg replaced him for the third. The seven were the most he’s ever given up at home.

In this one, the defense was putrid. That much is true and has been during a three-game losing streak in which the Rangers have been outscored 16-12. As Lundqvist pointed out to Giannone during his interview. From a tweet on my Twitter feed which can be followed at NewYorkPuck.

He also indicated that sometimes, playing that way is going to have an affect on other parts of their game. Mainly by opening themselves up, it can leave defensemen trapped and not able to get back. But also, it doesn’t explain all the blown assignments in front of Lundqvist’s net. Six of seven Dallas goals were scored from within 20 feet. The only one that wasn’t was an Adam Cracknell shot from the face-off circle which Lundqvist missed. That one was stoppable along with a bad wraparound allowed to Patrick Sharp in which he completely got wrong footed. He also gave up the five-hole on a Jamie Benn backhand in the first period.

Worrisome is that he seems to have no answers. He is saying the right things. Lundqvist has always been accountable. Win or lose, he’s by his locker and doesn’t duck out. Confidence is a shaky thing. When you have it, you can do anything. When you don’t, you feel helpless. That’s how I would describe the Rangers’ franchise goalie, who at 34 is going through the worst stretch of his career.

The game didn’t start out badly by any stretch. Only 27 seconds in, Derek Stepan took a Chris Kreider feed from behind the net and beat Dallas starter Antti Niemi with a wraparound for his 11th. Mats Zuccarello picked up the secondary assist. That line was terrific again in defeat combining for three goals and five assists. Zuccarello hasn’t been able to finish but he continues to put up points recording three helpers. Kreider continues to produce scoring a power play goal and an assist in the defeat. Stepan had two goals and a helper.

Offense isn’t the problem. Keeping goals out is. The defense totally let down Lundqvist again. A turning point came when an obvious Kreider goaltender interference in which he bowled over Niemi negated a Nick Holden goal that would’ve made it 2-0. Instead, the Stars, who already had taken over the game by out-shooting the Rangers 9-2, went to work on the power play. The Rangers were victimized again on a declining penalty kill with a Tyler Seguin pass across banking off Ryan McDonagh and Benn right to Patrick Eaves, who deposited it for his 16th to tie the score at 12:34.

Making matters worse, Holden over skated the puck turning it over inside his own blue line- leading to Sharp finishing off the first of two from Radek Faksa just 12 seconds later for a 2-1 Stars lead. The Rangers’ most consistent defenseman messed up and a sliding Brady Skjei couldn’t prevent Faksa’s cross-ice feed from finding an open Sharp for a lay-up. At that point, I had already started to waver on the game. The Sabres were taking on the Maple Leafs in a battle between American first round picks Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews.

By the time I flipped back, Benn was celebrating his 11th goal a day after breaking his stick three different times in a road loss at Buffalo. This one showed more Ranger follies as they allowed a two-on-one with Benn able to go thru the wickets on a beatable Lundqvist for the Stars’ third straight goal at 17:54. Cody Eakin and Eaves netted the assists. Eakin was public enemy number one for running Lundqvist the last time the teams faced in Dallas when he got the gate in a 2-0 Rangers win on 12/15. He served a five-game suspension.

In this one, the Rangers sought retribution. Rick Nash got to Eakin early with a good clean hit. At the start of the second, Kreider gave Eakin a shove from behind near the glass which led to the two dropping the gloves for a wrestling match. Both received five minutes for fighting at 1:52. Even though it was noted that Kreider used Eakin’s helmet to hit him which is supposed to be an automatic ejection according to NHL rules. We’ll see if anything comes from that. The Rangers can ill afford to lose Kreider to a suspension.

When former Ranger Lauri Korpikoski separated Skjei from the puck with a good check against the glass behind the net, he then easily came out and fed a wide open Antoine Roussel for his seventh to make it four consecutive Stars goals at 4:32. It was a weak play by Skjei. But no one took Roussel in front. It was an easy tap in which made it 4-1.

By that point, I’d seen enough. I needed to go to CVS to pick up some stuff and eat. I was gone from the car for approximately 20 minutes. In that span, the score went from 4-1 to 4-3 to remarkably 7-3 with the Stars celebrating number seven as I put on ESPN Radio with Kenny Albert and Dave Maloney discussing how bad it had gone.

During that period, the Rangers made their first comeback attempt. In his return, Mika Zibanejad got back to scoring when he neatly deflected home a Rick Nash shot for his sixth to cut it to 4-2 at 9:56. On a second straight dominant shift in which Pavel Buchnevich first missed a gaping net, he stuck with it and got a favorable carom off the back boards from a wide Kevin Klein shot to beat Niemi for his fifth at 12:06. Buchnevich is on a serious roll. He also picked up a secondary helper on Zibanejad’s first of two. The electrifying 21-year old Russian rookie had three more points in the loss to extend his point streak to seven straight dating back to Nov. 5. There’s no question that had he not gone down with back spasms, he’d be in the hunt for the Calder.

But with the Blueshirts suddenly only down one, they fell apart again. It happened quickly when on the following shift, Sharp scored on a stuff in only 48 seconds later to restore a two-goal lead with 7:06 remaining in the second. Less than three minutes later, here came Cracknell on a two-on-one when he unleashed a wrist shot by Lundqvist that was unscreened. As if that weren’t bad enough, Eakin scored his first when he got to a loose puck in front and beat Lundqvist less than two minutes later to suddenly make it three Dallas goals over a 4:46 span. Boos rained down at the buzzer with the Rangers looking finished trailing 7-3.

But in the third with Hellberg in, a funny thing happened. The Rangers didn’t give up. Instead, they got the momentum back early thanks to a Kreider power play goal when he redirected a Stepan pass in front for his 18th cutting it to 7-4 at 3:11. Pressing for more, they then dominated at even strength when during an extended shift for the top line, Stepan was able to find a McDonagh rebound and snap it upstairs for his second of the game to suddenly make it 7-5 with still 14:29 left.

With the crowd back in it of what was left (and I wonder how many stayed), it was Zibanejad who was able to get his second of the game from in front with the puck taking a nice carom to beat Niemi 1:55 later for a 7-6 deficit. There was still 12:34 remaining. Nash and Buchnevich picked up the assists. It was another great shift in which they had the Stars on their heels.

One thing about Dallas. They can become very fragile once they give up goals. Lindy Ruff’s club became conservative and tentative, allowing the Rangers to dominant play. At that point, the fiery former Buffalo bench boss had seen enough. He called timeout and replaced Niemi with Kari Lehtonen. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Sure. It was a good timeout to settle his team down. But Lehtonen hasn’t exactly had a good history against the Rangers.

After Niemi had given up three goals on 13 shots during the first part of the third, Lehtonen came in relief and shut the door. He had to make some very tough saves. He stopped all 12 Rangers shots to preserve a one-goal win for the Stars, making Ruff look like a genius. It didn’t come easy.

The Rangers spent plenty of time in the Dallas zone. They had the puck for seemingly ever during extended shifts. With the crowd urging them on, they fired from every angle. Klein was stopped once and missed on another attempt. McDonagh was denied.

Even when they turned the puck over as Adam Clendening did getting caught, Hellberg made a great save stoning Sharp with a glove stop that got the crowd on his side. During their recent struggles, that’s the big save that’s been missing. He made another robbing Seguin with a sliding kick save on an odd-man rush. Hellberg only faced four shots stopping them all. But the confidence he did it with makes me wonder if he shouldn’t get the next start Thursday at Toronto. I put it up as a poll and so far, more Ranger fans have voted in favor of the 25-year old Swedish unknown they traded for from Nashville over a year ago.

From looking at my timeline, Vigneault has indicated that Lundqvist is going to play. It is the time to find out if he can regain his confidence. He said he still has confidence in him. Why wouldn’t he? I guess the only other thing to say in response is that there’s no way of knowing if Hellberg could perform consistently in a 60-minute game. Especially at Toronto, who came back to beat Buffalo 4-3 and are now up to 50 points.

The one thing I would say is I like how the Rangers responded when he was in. They seemed to play with more desperation and urgency. Most importantly, Hellberg gave them a chance at the comeback by making two great saves. Lundqvist has always been able to provide that. But he hasn’t come through lately. It makes the whole goalie situation interesting. How will they play in front of him? Based on some of the responses from teammates, they’re embarrassed by it.

Every teammate is being accountable here. There’s no question about the closeness of this group. They are talented enough offensively. But without better defense, they can’t be successful. Here was Vigneault too on the slump:

The big question I have for the coach is will he make any adjustment. He emphasizes speed and transition creating offense. This team continues to score goals. It’s just that they’re giving up too many which is putting them in trouble. The Caps and Blue Jackets are pulling away. The Rangers are coming back to the pack. They have to get it righted and fast.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it goes. The next two are on the road with Thursday at Toronto and Sunday at Detroit. Then it’s back home for the Kings and Flyers before the All-Star break. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is. It won’t come easy.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Derek Stepan, NYRangers (2 goals-11th, 12th, assist, 8 shots, +1 in 29 shifts-18:00)

2nd Star-Patrick Eaves, Stars (goal-16th, 2 assists, 3 shots, +1 in 25 shifts-13:51)

1st Star-Patrick Sharp, Stars (2 goals-3rd, 4th, 5 shots, +1 in 26 shifts-16:33)

Notes: Buchnevich’s seven-game point streak which includes the last three games since returning from rehabbing his back gives him 5-6-11 during that stretch which started between 11/6-12. … Zibanejad’s two goals in his return from a broken leg were his first since 11/20. Dating back to Nov. 15, he’s on a four-game point streak with six points (4-2-6) upping his season total to 17 points (7-10-17) in 20 games. … With three helpers, Zuccarello matched his career high for a game also doing it against Minnesota on 12/23 in a 7-4 home loss. … Nash had two assists. … Clendening, Klein and McDonagh each tallied an assist. … Victimized for two Dallas goals, the fourth line of Jimmy Vesey, Brandon Pirri and Jesper Fast were benched. … Korpikoski tallied two assists and Benn recorded a goal and two helpers for the Stars. … The Rangers were edged on draws by the Stars 34-32 despite a strong performance from Stepan (12-and-9). Faksa dominated going 16-and-8.

 

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HARD HITS: Snow to blame for Islanders mess

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With Jack Capuano finally relieved of his coaching duties, the focus is on GM Garth Snow for this Islanders mess. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NBC Sports.

It only took 42 games. But the Islanders finally fired coach Jack Capuano. A day after the team went into Boston and shut the Bruins out 4-0, they decided to send Capuano his walking papers. So after nearly seven years behind the bench, the embattled coach is finally out. In a way, it’s kind of a relief. His press conferences were tough to watch after losses. At least he can have some peace.

As for the team performance, let’s just say it’s not all Capuano’s fault. It starts at the top. It would be an understatement to conclude that Islanders Team President and GM Garth Snow has had a lousy year. Stemming from a terrible off-season in which he and new ownership let Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin go, his replacements have been underwhelming. The Islanders currently sit dead last with 42 points in the Metropolitan Division. The worst total in the East trailing the rebuilding Sabres by one.

Jason Chimera and most notably¬†Andrew Ladd have been big disappointments. While Chimera’s totals of eight goals and eight assists aren’t bad for his age, it in no way makes up for the departure of Nielsen to Detroit. He hasn’t lit the world on fire either with 25 points (9-16-25) on a low scoring Red Wings roster that seems destined to finally miss the playoffs. But the two-way pivot was a great fit on the Islanders. He could be counted on to play any situation and provided solid scoring behind captain John Tavares and Okposo.

Regarding Okposo, he has fit in well with Buffalo pacing them in goals (12) and tied for the team lead in points (28). That he got the same length in contract as Ladd and was paid just a tad more with an average cap hit of $6 million per year compared to $5.5 million shows Snow’s ineptitude. You’re telling me they couldn’t just keep a cohesive player who was a splendid fit with Tavares? No one expected Ladd to have only eight goals and four assists with just 64 shots and a minus-10 rating at the halfway point of the season. He’s a better player than that. If he doesn’t improve, that contract could be an albatross over the next six years.

Anytime you commit that many years and salary to a player who’s entering their 30’s, there’s a risk factor. I’m no fan of long-term contracts. All one has to do is look on the Manhattan side of New York City to see why. Ladd is 31. He has won two Stanley Cups and has a good resume. How he performs under interim coach Doug Weight in the second half could determine if he can turn it around. For whatever reason, he didn’t mesh with Tavares. Capuano instead found that Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson were better fits. Bailey is second in team scoring with a club best 23 assists and trails Tavares by three points with 29. Nelson ranks third with 23 (9-14-23).

Capuano tried different combos. He was desperate to find the right one. It was like throwing a square peg in a round hole. Sometimes, when a team makes changes to a roster that finally won their first playoff series since ’93, it’s a huge miscalculation. By not keeping core guys who fit the system, they took a risk. So far, the results have been disappointing. The Islanders are currently 17-17-8 and sit eight points behind second wildcard Philadelphia. They’ll have to climb over so many teams and do so in the league’s toughest division.

No one expected Snow to retain Martin, who got four years and an AAV of $2.5 million from the Maple Leafs. For the season, he has two goals and two assists with 154 hits which ranks second in the NHL. His 77 penalty minutes lead Toronto. The 27-year old is a nuts and bolts guy who drives the opposition nuts with his physicality. In a recent win over the Rangers, he certainly got under their skin. Even if it’s hard to justify his contract, Islander fans would agree that Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck were a tough checking line that injected energy into the team and building. That in your face style is gone.

The Isles have changed in ’16-17. And not for the better. They aren’t as hard to play against. How inconsistent have they been? This is a team that can beat quality opponents such as the Capitals, Rangers, Bruins and even the Penguins. But they’re also the same team that scored one goal in frustrating consecutive losses to the lowly Avalanche and Coyotes. They then lost at home by an identical 2-1 score to the Panthers.¬†Right there is where I would’ve pulled the plug on Capuano.

Prior to recording his sixth career hat trick to reach 501 career points in a 5-2 win at Florida, Tavares had only 11 goals in his first 39 games. That right there tells the story. Snow has failed to provide one of the game’s premier scorers with a strong supporting cast. He deserves the blame for this mess. He made some horrible decisions. How much of a role new owners Jon Ledecky and Scott Malkin have is hard to say. Former owner Charles Wang was more hands on. But he let Snow run the team.

Aside from Tavares who is up to a team best 16 goals and 32 points along with Bailey (6-23-29), Anders Lee has 15 goals. It took him a while to get going. But he’s been finishing. The 26-year old former ’09 sixth round pick is a key piece of the future. What it comes down to for players such as Lee and Nelson is consistency. Finding it will help the team grow.

Ryan Strome is perhaps the club’s biggest disappointment. In his third full season, he’s regressed. When Snow took him fifth overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, more was expected. In ’14-15, he looked to be on track posting career highs in goals (17), assists (33), points (50) and games played (81) while contributing two goals and two assists in the first round. But he struggled mightily last season scoring just eight times with 20 helpers in 71 contests. The Isles even sent him down to Bridgeport for a stint. Strome totaled a goal and three assists in eight postseason games last year. Not the most reliable defensive player, he’s continued to struggle offensively with only six goals and eight assists in 39 contests.

Maybe the coaching change will help. It’s odd because the Islanders offense currently ranks eighth in the league averaging 2.83 goals-per-game. A big reason for that is the balanced scoring from the blue line with Nick Leddy leading the way with 21 points including seven goals. Under Capuano, that was one of the team strengths. The back end has a combined 25 goals. That includes Johnny Boychuk with five and the one good Snow move Dennis Seidenberg with four while leading the team in plus/minus (17).¬†Calvin de Haan is a good defensive defenseman whose nine points, plus-seven and 111 blocked shots are solid numbers. Travis Hamonic has been the biggest disappointment with a team worst minus-14 rating.

The biggest issue for the Islanders is their team defense which has nights where they give up too many scoring chances and shots leading to games where they’ve allowed six to seven goals. It happened as recently as 1/14 in a 7-4 loss at Carolina following the 5-2 win at Florida. There’s no consistency. How else to explain chasing Tuukka Rask on Martin Luther King Day in a 4-0 shutout? The first of the season for starter Thomas Greiss. Speaking of him he’s had a good year with 11 wins in 21 games with a 2.41 goals-against-average and .925 save percentage.

One issue which made no sense was Snow’s insistence on keeping three goalies on the roster. Until December 30 when they waived former starter Jaroslav Halak, they were basically holding onto Jean-Francois Berube despite him barely playing. When they picked him up on waivers from the Kings last year, you figured the 25-year old would be in their future plans. They couldn’t send him down without exposing him. At one point when the team had injuries to its blue line, they went with six D. About as perplexing as how long they waited on former 2015 top pick Mathew Barzal before sending him back to Seattle. He had a good World Junior Championship posting eight points (3-5-8) in seven games for Canada, who fell to USA in the gold medal game.

Speaking of poor decisions, how about the contracts Snow handed out to former Leafs Nikolay Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski? Kulemin gets over $4 million thru 2018 to be a secondary player. Following a decent ’14-15 in which he registered 15 goals and 16 assists, he dropped down to 9-13-22 in ’15-16. Thus far in Year 3, he’s 7-6-13.

As for Grabovski, it’s a shame what’s happened to him. Post-concussion symptoms have his career in jeopardy. After totaling 44 points in 109 combined games due to injuries, he has yet to play this season. The 32-year old from Belarus is a gifted player with skill who has had a solid career with the Leafs, Capitals and Islanders totaling 296 points in 534 career games. He has one more year left on a deal that pays him an average of $5 million per season. Grabovski is on long-term injured reserve. It remains to be seen if he’ll ever play another game.

Sometimes, injuries do play a role in what happens with players. When Snow signed both Kulemin and Grabovski, it was with good intentions. Thinking they could play together and be on a third line, it wasn’t bad by any stretch. But he overpaid.

Snow gets credit for trading Nino Niederreiter for Clutterbuck. El Nino didn’t want to remain an Islander. So, Snow went out and sent him to the Wild for the gritty Clutterbuck, who’s been a good player for the Islanders. He’s hit double digits in goals twice including 15 last year with 23 points to go with two markers and a helper in the playoffs. He continues to be a big hitter with his 137 pacing the club. However, his production has dropped off. With only two goals and a helper, the 29-year old misses sidekick Martin. Along with Cizikas, they were inseparable.

That’s why we have no idea why Snow decided to extend Clutterbuck for five years, $17.5 million. It seems like a stretch to give a grinder who will be 30 in the Fall five more years at $3.5 million on average. The deal made no sense. While it’s true he could’ve become unrestricted this summer, it looked like a panic move by Snow. Not to take away from Clutterbuck, who’s a team guy with character. But that’s a contract that will probably be a bad one.

If there is a bright spot, it’s been the play of rookie Anthony Beauvillier. Also a first round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, the 19-year old has shown some glimpses. A good player with superb speed and someone they can plug, he’s done okay with four goals and seven assists in 29 games. If there was one bugaboo with Capuano, it’s that he didn’t play him enough. Beauvillier needs consistent ice-time. He was scratched at times which left Islander fans up in arms. We’ll see what Weight’s plan is.

A big part of the team’s struggles is its special teams.¬†The Islanders rank 26th on the power play (13.6 percent) and are 21st on the penalty kill (80.0 percent). Combined with allowing the second most shots per game giving up a whopping 33.2 which is only ahead of the dreadful Coyotes (33.6), it’s no wonder the team is closer to a lottery pick than the playoffs. Only Arizona (32 points) and Colorado (27) have fewer points than the Islanders (42). Their goal differential is minus-eight with 120 goals for and 128 goals allowed.

If you’re big into puck possession, the Isles don’t have the puck enough. As evidenced by the 29.9 shots they average and over 33 given up, it’s not conducive to winning consistently. It further explains why they are where they are. Most of the teams in the negative shots differential column rank near the bottom overall including the Devils, who allow nearly four more shots than they get. Yet they’re up to 45 points and only five out of a wildcard due to mediocrity in a bunched up conference that has an Atlantic Division with only Montreal and Boston ahead of second wildcard Philadelphia. The Leafs, Senators and Panthers are all tied in points (48) with the Lightning at 46 and the Wings at 44. In the Metro, the Hurricanes are at 49 only one behind the Flyers with three games at hand.

Basically, you can go up in the standings very quickly if you put together a winning streak. That was Snow’s reasoning for the coaching change. It still doesn’t fully explain a tenure that’s seen his team advance past the first round once. It doesn’t explain failing to sign 2008 sixth round selection Jared Spurgeon. A good defenseman who has become a staple on the Wild blue line. Minnesota leads the West with 61 points.

If he doesn’t turn it around, Strome will go down as a bust. He was taken before Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele, Sean Couturier, Dougie Hamilton and J.T. Miller. Other notables include Richard Rakell, Boone Jenner, John Gibson,¬†Brandon Saad¬†and Islander killer Nikita Kucherov. If you’re wondering, the last four went after defenseman Scott Mayfield in the second round. Current Islander Shane Prince went number 61 to Ottawa. If you go through the remainder of the 2011 Draft, it doesn’t get any better. They missed out on some good players including Vincent Trocheck and Johnny Gaudreau.

Snow’s best work came in 2009 when he took Tavares first overall and traded up for de Haan. He also grabbed Cizikas and Lee late. It looks like he swung and missed on Josh Ho-Sang, who remains a puzzling player that is late to team meetings at Bridgeport and has only three goals and 13 assists in his first pro season. The jury on Michael Dal Colle remains to be seen. Defenseman Ryan Pulock has potential but must stay healthy. Devon Toews has been good for Bridgeport with 24 points in his first pro year. Unless Berube or Christopher Gibson pan out, the club doesn’t have a goalie for the near future. However, there is 2014 third rounder Ilya Sorokin, who at only 21 has fared well in the KHL with CSKA Moscow posting 21 wins with a 1.54 GAA and .931 save percentage. But how soon will he be ready to come over?

When looking at the Islanders from the outside, it’s hard to believe they’re not further along. Tavares is in his eighth season and has only made the playoffs three times. He’s played in four series posting 11 goals and 11 helpers in 24 games. Coming off last year’s dramatic first round win over the Panthers in which he scored the tying and winning goals at home in an unreal Game 6 at Barclays Center, more was expected from the team. Instead, they have taken a significant step back.

Unless the coaching change works, they’ll miss the postseason for the fifth time in Tavares’ eight-year career. That’s unacceptable. It’s not just the coach here. It’s Snow, who’s been given plenty of time to put together a roster Islander fans could be proud of.

Where’s the identity? Until they clean house entirely, the Islanders remain a franchise in limbo playing in an arena that isn’t great for hockey. Their attendance remains an issue with the team ranking 29th with an 81.1 percentage drawing 12,819 per ESPN.com. Only the Hurricanes rank worse. Moving from Long Island to Brooklyn hasn’t been a smooth transition. The franchise belongs on Long Island.

There is more at stake than just the current roster here. The team’s future remains cloudy. A better product would definitely help. Management must make more changes to restore order.

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