Zuccarello leads the Rangers to important 5-2 win over listless Devils


Mats Zuccarello celebrates one of his two goals in a satisfying 5-2 Rangers win over the Devils at MSG on Saturday night. AP Photo via Getty Images

Maybe I should call out more players. In one of their better efforts, the Rangers rebounded from a tough loss Friday by soundly defeating the listless Devils 5-2 at The Garden.

The win allowed them to improve to 16-11-2 with 34 points in the chaotic Metro Division. With the Pens falling short in a comeback attempt against the Leafs and the Islanders losing to the Bruins, this is a good night. They gained ground by closing within a point of Pittsburgh and the Islanders while pulling within two of the suddenly slumping Devils. Columbus won again via a 1-0 shutout of lowly Arizona to move into sole possession of first place with 39 points.

It was vital for them to bounce back and do it in regulation over their close Hudson rival. It’s the first time the Devils have lost back to back games in regulation all season. They’ve lost three of four and fell to 16-9-4 with 36 points.

The Rangers know how crucial every game is. Especially inside the division. Ryan McDonagh emphasized that point to MSG’s Dave Maloney in a pregame interview. To win a four point game in such a tight race already means plenty. If it’s going to be a battle all the way to Game 82, they have to take advantage of these opportunities.

In the second game of five against the Devils, they largely dominated with superior five on five play. Taking advantage of some lackadaisical mistakes by a opponent also playing a back to back, the Rangers were sharper throughout than Friday’s incomplete loss in Washington.

They got goals from some of the players I called out in my game preview. In particular, Mats Zuccarello keyed the victory by scoring twice. He was splendid in all facets including defensively. There was a big moment where he saved a goal with the puck heading towards the goal line before a hustling Zuccarello saved Henrik Lundqvist. There was another funny moment where he almost beat his own goalkeeper, who rescued him. They shared a chuckle during a stoppage.

Alain Vigneault made one change to the lines. Let’s call it a good adjustment that impacted the match up he wanted. Sensing that the hard working two-way ability of Jesper Fast could help win the game, he moved Fast up to the checking line with Kevin Hayes and Rick Nash. That’s the line he feels most comfortable with matching against top scoring lines. It was a brilliant move which worked with the new Hayes unit shutting down the Devils top line of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Taylor Hall. They went a combined minus-eight with five shots.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Vesey was moved down to the fourth line with Boo Nieves and Paul Carey. That worked out well too with Carey and Nieves perfectly setting up Vesey for a nice finish at the side past Keith Kinkaid for the game’s first goal at 6:14 of the opening stanza. That line has been working hard and finally is getting rewarded. Nieves scored his first NHL goal in a win at the Pens. Carey also scored recently. They just click. Carey is proving critics wrong with his grit. He fits in since returning to the lineup with Nieves.

The Rangers controlled most of the first with their forecheck. When the puck wasn’t bouncing around due to college basketball played earlier in the day, they were forcing turnovers and forcing Kinkaid into tough saves. They outshot the Devils 13-7.

New Jersey came out better in the second as expected. They started to generate a few scoring chances and finally make Lundqvist get into the game. He did just that turning aside Jimmy Hayes on a tough deflection and not allowing a rebound.

With the score still 1-0 due to the Rangers unable to do anything on the power play (0-for-3), they capitalized on some awful coverage by the Devils to go up two. Nash passed for a wide open Fast, who took his time before wristing one past Kinkaid at 9:42. It was a terrific play by Nash. For Fast, that’s three straight games with a goal and he’s up to seven. His career high is 10 established in ‘15-16. That same year, he tallied a career best 20 assists and 30 points. With a goal and assist tonight, he’s already up to 15 points in 24 games. Don’t forget he missed the first four recovering from offseason surgery.

The two-goal lead lasted 4:03. A mistake by Fast led to Damon Severson cutting it in half. After he failed to clear the puck, Stefan Noesen and Blake Coleman got the puck over to a open Severson. He fired a quick wrist shot through a McDonagh screen past Lundqvist to get the Devils back in it. McDonagh went for the shot block and instead hurt his own goalie from seeing it.

A bad Brendan Smith delay of game minor nearly cost them. But Marcus Johansson had his try go off the goalpost. It was that close to being tied. Instead, as often happens, the Rangers came back and scored the fateful next goal. Ironically, it was Severson who fell asleep at his own blueline. Handling the puck like a grenade, he had Zuccarello completely strip him and break in on Kinkaid going stick side on Kinkaid with not much real estate for a 3-1 lead with 3:57 left in the second. A splendid play by a dedicated guy who just finds a way to impact these games out of his pure hustle and heart. That was a huge goal.

The Devils trailed by two instead of being tied with one period left. Pavel Zacha had some near misses. He came in for Drew Stafford and probably should stay in their lineup. He was effective and later had a assist on the Devils’ second tally. He also played over 16 minutes which is about the only positive I would take from this game if I were Hasan.

As the third began, I wondered why Devils coach John Hynes didn’t give Cory Schneider another start in the second game of a back to back. I get that he was bad Friday. But at what point do they let their top guy try to come back and see if he can play better. That’s the odd part of the Devils. Kinkaid played well making several outstanding saves including robbing Nash on a two on one with a quick glove.

What doomed the Devils were their defensive breakdowns. Never was that more evident than on Zuccarello’s second of the game. On a great rush with little resistance, J.T. Miller made a bullet pass across for a unchecked Zuccarello, who beat Kinkaid for the second time to make it 4-1 at 6:21. McDonagh notched a assist on the well executed play.

But the three-goal lead lasted only 12 seconds. On a rare occasion where they weren’t going against the Hall line, the Hayes unit fell asleep. A sloppy turnover resulted in Zacha setting up Miles Wood at the doorstep for his seventh to make it 4-2 with 13:26 remaining. Will Butcher netted a assist for his first point in six games.

It almost got hairy. Hynes was able to get his dangerous top line out against the Rangers’ fourth line with Marc Staal and Smith caught out. Hischier, Bratt and Hall skated circles around them. They certainly had some quality chances but were unable to score. Instead, a desperate Staal sacrificed himself by making a crucial block. The kind of heart and soul defensive play he’s known for. He may not be the fleetest of foot anymore. But he makes up for it with determination and grit. That was the biggest play of the period.

Not long after, the Rangers got out of trouble and put the game away. It was Hayes who found the back of the net with a backhand from Nash and Fast at 11:59. That made it 5-2, erasing any thoughts of a Devils comeback.

Notes: Rangers held a 39-28 edge in shots. Attempts were much closer with the Rangers holding a slim 59-58 edge. The Devils missed 12 shots to the Rangers’ 4. Blocked shots were 18-16 Rangers with McDonagh pacing them with three. Andy Greene and Brian Gibbons each had four for the Devs. … New Jersey was stronger on face offs going 36-and-22. Brian Boyle dominated winning 9 of 10 while Hall went 10-and-5. Nieves went 4-and-6 for the Rangers while Hayes won 7 of 17. … Giveaways: Devils 14 (4 with 2) Rangers 13 (4 with 2). … Lundqvist made 26 saves while Kinkaid turned aside 34 of 39.


3rd Star ⭐️ Rick Nash, NYR (2 assists, 5 shots in 16:21)

2nd Star ⭐️ Jesper Fast, NYR (7th of season, assist, 3 shots in 15:09)

1st Star ⭐️ Mats Zuccarello, NYR (2 goals-6, 7, 3 shots, +2 in 16:48)

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Big Saturday Showdown between Hudson rivals as Rangers/Devils look to rebound

It’s been a great start for the rebuilding Devils. They enter tonight’s match against the Hudson rival Rangers with only eight losses in regulation. One coming last night to the first place Blue Jackets, who earned a split of a home and home series with a 5-3 win at The Rock. Artemi Panarin victimized the Devs for five assists. A rare off night for them. They’ll be ready later when the Rangers host the Devils.

The Devils bring a 16-8-4 record with 36 points into the second match against the Rangers. Astonishingly, they’re in third place due to one loss putting them a point behind Columbus and Washington, who prevailed over the Rangers 4-2 to deal them a brutal loss. After they rallied to tie it thanks to Jesper Fast, they allowed the Caps to score twice in the final 3:32. They enter at 15-11-2 in sixth place with 32 points.

That explains how crazy the Metropolitan Division is. One regulation loss and you fall down a couple of spots. It’s wild. I detailed in a recent piece how one of the crowded six in the best division in hockey could get screwed due to the current playoff system. They’ll be jockeying for position all year. The fun part is it’s not even Chanukah or Christmas. A day following my birthday, it’s snowing on December 9. These teams have barely played 30 games and already every one means so much. Especially when it’s a potential four point swing as was the case for both the Devils and Rangers yesterday and today if there’s no overtime.

Who rebounds at 33rd and 8th Avenue? It’s sure to be a good environment. The last meeting came early in the season with the Devils scoring three in a row and holding off a last second Rangers comeback prevailing 3-2 at MSG on Oct. 14. A game so bad it drove us to the exits before it became 3-2 as a tease. They were playing miserable hockey. It made them 1-5-0. A 5-4 overtime loss to the Pens didn’t help. Neither did a exasperating one goal loss to the despised Islanders. It got so bad in that first month that it looked like the end for coach Alain Vigneault. Had they not responded with a huge home third to defeat Vegas on Halloween, he was likely gone.

It never materialized. The prideful Rangers skaters wouldn’t let it happen. They played for their coach saving his job. A six-game win streak into November turned it around. They would win 10 of 12 to get back in it. The play of the KZB Line carried them for a stretch until top center Mika Zibanejad suffered a concussion. While Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich have continued to produce, they are missing their center. David Desharnais has done a admirable job but it’s not sustainable.

Neither can playmaking pivots J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes totaling a combined nine goals. Miller has 17 assists with four goals. Hayes has five markers and six assists in a two-way role. His line was benched in a big 4-3 road win at Pittsburgh. Buchnevich getting the winner with under minutes to play when his pass banked in off Kris Letang. The thing is the Rangers need more goalscoring from Miller and Hayes. Sure. The offense ranks seventh. But the centers can’t be predictable with Zibanejad out.

Boo Nieves scored his first career NHL goal in the win over the Pens. The rookie is improving but along the way come bumps and bruises like failing to absorb Kevin Shattenkirk’s pass that would’ve cleared the zone prior to Matt Niskanen’s game-winner. To be honest, Shattenkirk stunk in his return to D.C. He went minus-three and got victimized on the first shift leading to a Caps goal 14 seconds in from Jay Beagle. Maybe Shattenkirk tried too hard after Bruce Boudreau’s criticism that he wasn’t a 1-2 but a 3-4 referring to his defense as a rental for the Caps last Spring. Shattenkirk is worth his contract due to the offense he provides. Five goals, 15 assists, 20 points and nine power play points in 28 games is fine production. His D remains sketchy.

Ryan McDonagh also got badly beaten by Tom Wilson on the finisher. At times, the captain looks like his old self making the defensive plays and skating we’ve come to appreciate. However, there are other ugly moments mixed in like last night that are more common. He’s the workhorse of a still weak defense. Mac continues to work with the imperfect Nick Holden, who wasn’t supposed to be on the top pair. Shattenkirk works better with budding sophomore Brady Skjei, whose skating makes him a two-way threat. Marc Staal fits perfectly on the third pair in a defensive role playing shorthanded where he excels. He teams with Brendan Smith, who has been wildly inconsistent after signing his contract. You never know.

The Rangers are still competitive due to Henrik Lundqvist. He was disappointed with allowing four goals last night but made 36 saves. He can’t continue to be peppered by opponents. The 2.72 GAA, .916 save percentage are respectable in a higher scoring league. He’s been there when his team’s needed him.

They need more goals from Mats Zuccarello, who like Hayes and Miller is a playmaker who thinks pass first. His 17 assists and 22 points are tied for the team lead. Since being moved down to the third line with Miller and Michael Grabner’s, he’s fit in. With a goal again yesterday, Grabner is up to a team best 14. He’s more than done his part, making him a valuable asset. At this point, the Rangers need to find a way to keep him. He’s so effective with his deadly combo of speed and defensive acumen causing breakaways and odd man rushes.

Rick Nash only has seven goals on a team high 86 shots. He might be the most snake bitten player. Nobody creates more chances off their skating and forecheck. At some point, they have to go in. He plays with Hayes and Jimmy Vesey, who only has five goals himself. It’s all about finding more production from that line. Granted. They take on the tough assignment. But they need to bury some chances.

The fourth line is now trusted by Vigneault, who’s been more patient and more willing to make guys accountable. He wasn’t afraid to play the cohesive trio of Nieves, Fast and Paul Carey in the final minute at Pittsburgh. It’s nice to have four lines you can rely on.

As for the Devils, they are led by Taylor Hall. He’s had the bounce back needed to make them much improved. He leads them in scoring with 29 points including a team high 20 assists to go with nine tallies. His playmaking has been on display. He’s also been more aggressive looking for his shot. That’s the sign of a confident scorer who’s just over a point-per-game clip. Hall is playing with gifted rookies Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt on the top line. Hischier was the first overall pick in the recent draft. He’s been more playmaker with 15 helpers along with five goals for 20 points. Not for lack of chances. He’s gotten plenty. The first-year teenager will continue to improve. Bratt is a great story making the Devils as a 2016 sixth round pick. A two-wavy threat who plays penalty kill, he has a shorthanded goal and shorthanded assist. A gritty player, he’s fun to watch unless you’re playing him. With nine goals and 10 assists, Bratt continues to impress.

With the emergence of Brian Gibbons, whose 11 goals and plus-11 lead the team, they moved Adam Henrique to Anaheim for defenseman Sami Vatanen. A good trade that should benefit them long term. Vatanen plays with captain Andy Greene. It allows for less pressure on Damon Severson, Steven Santini and offensive minded rookie Will Butcher, whose 18 points have been impressive. The former Hobey Baker winner is showing why he belongs. He’s cooled off lately. But must be accounted for on the rush and on the power play.

The Devils boast emotional inspiration Brian Boyle. Bravely battling Leukemia, #BoyleStrong has come back with a vengeance scoring five times including last night. Coach John Hynes has used him also on the power play with Boyle using his size in front to score twice. There’s no bigger fan of him than me. I will never forget what he did here in helping our team become a playoff contender. His primary assist on Dominic Moore’s series clincher near the end of the second period against Montreal to win the Wales Trophy will always be etched in my memory. I’m rooting for him as are all hockey fans, players and coaches. He’s easy to love. A glue player who does anything to win.

Marcus Johansson is finally healthy. After missing significant time with a concussion, he scored in yesterday’s 5-3 home loss. That will aid them without Kyle Palmieri. Miles Wood has been a solid fit on the secondary lines with six goals and six helpers. He isn’t the prettiest skater but somehow makes it work due to extra effort. Keep him away from the net.

The Devils also boast the reliable Travis Zajac. He doesn’t score much these days. But still is a solid all around center who can forecheck and kill penalties as well as play power play. They count on him for face offs along with Boyle.

Pavel Zacha has struggled mightily but gets a opportunity in place of slumping vet Drew Stafford. How much will he play?

Don’t forget John Moore, who has a penchant for scoring big goals in overtime. Without Cory Schneider, the Devils aren’t where they are in the standings. He faces a lot of rubber and has done well making critical stops. With 11 wins, a 2.72 GAA and .919 save percentage, he’s had the bounce back needed. It’s a good goalie match up between him and Lundqvist. Cancel that. It’ll be Keith Kinkaid.

It should be a good game. Round two starts now.

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Road warriors become home clowns

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to expect from this Devils team period to period anymore let alone game to game.  Just this last week has been a prime example of that.  Start the mini-West Coast swing off strong with a 2-1 win in Colorado.  Follow that up with a frighteningly incompetent 5-0 loss against Arizona (who hadn’t had a home win all season).  Then go to Columbus and dominate a good Blue Jackets team in a 4-1 win that caused the always calm and reserved John Tortorella to cancel a day off and bag skate his players the next day.  Finally the team comes back home today, again looks dominant against the Jackets early and jump out to a 2-0 lead after one…before the roof fell in in the final forty minutes.  If I didn’t know better I’d swear I watched two different games tonight.  Not only did the Devils lose after jumping out to a lead, it really wasn’t even that close in a 5-3 meltdown that was worrisome for a number of reasons.

Going back to an old Lou Lamoriello saying (or maybe I just know the saying from Lou and it’s older than that) – your best players have to be your best players.  Tonight, our best players, or at least our veteran leaders were actually our worst players by far.  After a recent stretch where he’d played better and almost given me confidence back in him, again Cory Schneider gave up a game-changing soft goal in the second period that tied the game.  I wouldn’t say any of the other goals against were soft but I wouldn’t call a couple of them completely unstoppable either.  And Cory was only the third goat of the game.  Instead of stars of the game, I’m giving out goats of the game tonight.

Second goat of the game was Travis Zajac, who’s not only been clueless offensively since returning from injury – just one goal and no assists in eleven games – but has even been a shell of himself defensively and in puck possession, two areas where he normally excels blindfolded.  His perfect screen on goal #3 would have been laughable if it wasn’t sad and his hideously failed attempt(s) at a clear on the momentum-changing PK early in the third period led to a minute long shift in the Devils’ zone that finally resulted in the inevitable go-ahead goal that gave the Jackets a 4-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish and took my level of worry over Travis to highly concerned.

Even with those wonderful performances the goat of the game was none other than the captain Andy Greene, who looked drunk or stoned giving the puck away left and right so badly it looked like he was one of Santa’s elfs tossing around Christmas presents.  You get a puck, and you get a puck…everyone gets a puck!  His giveaway on goal #2 made him every bit as culpable as Cory on that one, and his perfect screen on goal #4 probably should get him promoted to the power play, if Travis didn’t beat him to it earlier.  Too bad none of our players can screen the other goalie that well.

Of course getting guys in front to screen the goalie is the only justification for having Jimmy Hayes on the power play.  I sort of get that on one hand…if you have four skill guys and one screener in front, that’s understandable.  But why oh why oh why does John Hynes (or assistant Geoff Ward, whoever’s running the power play) insist on having BOTH Hayes and Brian Boyle on the top power play line?  If you want to throw out two cement-footed guys at even strength and slow the tempo down that’s one thing, but having both guys on the same power play just saps all the skill from it, and the power plays tonight – including a four-minute double minor in the third period – were horrifically bad, in no small part due to the lack of skill or speed up front.  I don’t want to slag on Boyle who frighteningly enough has been our best center not named Nico Hischier, and did score the first goal tonight at even strength.  Hayes almost at this point seems like the coach’s pet or the team mascot.  A guy who’s more or less in the lineup cause he’s a ‘good chemistry guy’.

That said I’d still rather see Hayes in the lineup over Drew Stafford at this point.  Talk about a one-week wonder, Stafford’s completely shut down and looked like the guy I always knew he was in Buffalo, streaky but whose bad streaks last a lot longer than the good ones, and he just doesn’t add anything to the team when he’s not scoring.  It would be nice to get Pavel Zacha in the lineup for Stafford next game but he’s still on the back of a milk carton somewhere.  If I have one issue with team management (whether it’s Hynes, GM Ray Shero or some combination) right now it’s the continued strange marginalization of Zacha.  If you don’t want him in the lineup because he isn’t playing well I can understand that, especially on a team that is still in a playoff position for the moment.  But sitting out three straight games is a bit excessive at this point.  Either he’s a part of your lineup or he’s not and send him down to the AHL.  Of the three options available to the Devils – play in the NHL, play in the AHL, sit in the NHL – the latter is the most undesirable but now the one management’s taking.  And when Zacha does play he rarely gets above twelve minutes anymore.

Funny thing is I’ve calmed down a bit since the game ended although I was so frustrated by this loss I actually left early which I never do in a competitive game.  But at 5-3 late in the third after the failed four-minute power play and after Columbus scored quickly on one of their own, you knew it was over and that was the final backbreaker.  It was the worst loss of the season from my standpoint, worse than even the stupid no-shows against the Panthers and Coyotes last week.  Worse cause of how they had the lead then completely shut off mentally after the first period, and worse cause now you have to seriously worry about vet leaders Greene and Zajac, who were both actually demoted late in the game – though it was too late by then at least it showed Hynes wasn’t blind to all the ills of the team tonight.  Just the ones on the power play.

In many ways it could either be the best thing or the worst thing to have the Rangers come up tomorrow night at MSG.  Either the Devils are able to flush this loss quickly or they lose another big division game and face the danger of enough of a losing streak to take them from first to on the playoff bubble entirely based on how tight the East is – and in particular the Metro.  One thing that worries me and has for a while is that we’re due for a market correction on the road.  10-3-2 away from the Prudential Center is just unsustainable even for elite teams, I’m sorry.  In contrast the team needs to improve on their 6-5-2 record at home if they’re going to maintain their current position or anything close to it in the standings.

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Islanders late comeback nets point in 4-3 overtime loss to Penguins

Matt Hunwick celebrates his overtime winner much to Joshua Ho-Sang’s dismay as a Islanders rally fell short in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins. AP Photo via Getty Images

In a wild and crazy game between old Patrick Division rivals, the Islanders rally fell just short. However, they were able to come back and score twice in a 3:43 span late in the third period to gain a point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins on the road.

They persisted and that paid off. It was a entertaining game between two high scoring teams who can ramp it up.  The Pens did half their damage on special teams scoring two power play goals. Jake Guentzel got the scoring started when he was able to redirect a Kris Letang point shot past Jaro Halak for the lone goal in a first controlled by Pittsburgh. Evgeni Malkin added a assist.

After being outshot 15-6, the Islanders picked it up in a much stronger second. They began to dictate the play with their forecheck. They generated quality chances and more shots (13-7) on rookie Tristan Jarry. However, the Pens 22-year old netminder made some key stops. The only goal he allowed was on a follow up by the red hot Jordan Eberle (12th) during a mad scramble in front. The former Oiler was able to steer in a Ryan Pulock rebound from Nick Leddy at 5:53.

But in a period where the Pens took the only three penalties, the Islanders weren’t able to capitalize enough. It almost cost them.

In the first part of the third, it was the Isles aggressive forecheck that kept the Pens pinned in for a couple of extended shifts. The John Tavares line with Anders Lee and Josh Bailey had some close calls along with the second line centered by rookie Mathew Barzal. At the end of a shift, Barzal blocked a shot and came in two on one with Joshua Ho-Sang. But Jarry shrugged off Barzal’s point blank shot to keep it tied at one.

With Scott Mayfield off for tripping, the Pens went to work. It took less than a minute for the sizzling Phil Kessel to take a Letang pass and rifle home a laser top shelf for his 14th at 7:29. Sidney Crosby helped set it up. Letang got the puck to Kessel and he stepped around and used his lethal wrist shot to beat Halak for a 2-1 lead.

Halak made things worse when his misplay behind the net led directly to Riley Sheahan beating him top shelf from Carl Hagelin to give Pittsburgh two goals in a 32-second span. They had a two-goal lead with less than 12 minutes to play.

But the Isles have been resilient all year. Just when it seemed they had nothing, Barzal threw a innocent backhand on net that fooled Jarry to cut it to 3-2 with 4:53 remaining. A smart play by a polished freshman who now leads all rookies with 27 points. His emergence is the biggest difference for why the Islanders are near the top of a crowded Metro Division. Mayfield and Casey Cizikas notched assists.

Trailing by one, the Isles put on a all out attack to find the equalizer. After a near miss from Kessel which would’ve sealed it, Brock Nelson banged one home from Andrew Ladd and Thomas Hickey with Halak pulled at 18:50. He got loose in front and put in his eighth to force extras. On a good shift by Tavares, Ho-Sang and Lee, Lee nearly won it with his backhand narrowly missing to send it to OT.

Not astonishingly, the three on three didn’t last long. After the teams traded chances, the Pens caught Ho-Sang out for a long shift. It was Matt Hunwick who played the unlikely hero putting in a Bryan Rust rebound at 1:29 to give the Pens the win.

The point earned gave the Isles 35 putting them in a four-way tie for second place with idle Columbus, the Capitals and Pens. They all trail the Devils by a point. New Jersey hosts the Blue Jackets Friday. The Rangers visit Washington and sit four back of the Devils with 32 points.

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Deeper Metro Division will likely get screwed by current playoff format


Buch Celebrates! Pavel Buchnevich enjoys his game-winning goal in a important 4-3 Rangers win over the Penguins. In a tight division where six teams are battling for position, one team could be left out in the cold due to the current NHL playoff format. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy sny.tv

By show of hands, how many people like the current playoff format? You won’t find me as one who agrees with it.

The idea of reestablishing the old divisional playoffs for the first two rounds sounded good in theory. But it was always flawed. In guaranteeing the top three in each division automatic entry, it didn’t account for the awkward situation that this season could present. One look at the standings in the Eastern Conference is reason for concern.

In what’s now the best division in hockey, the Metro has six teams with over 30 points. First place New Jersey is separated by four total points from the sixth Rangers, who posted a 4-3 win in regulation Monday night at the Penguins. A game that wasn’t their best but they got the bounces with Pavel Buchnevich’s pass banking in off Kris Letang for the game-winner with 8:48 left in regulation. Ondrej Pavelec made it stand up with 41 saves including over half in a weird second period (22 of 23) that saw the Blueshirts get two of the three goals on Tristan Jarry despite being largely outplayed.

That’s hockey. What isn’t is the actual chance that one team in the loaded Metro Division will likely get screwed by the current playoff format. You have the surprising Devils first with 36 points followed by the Blue Jackets at 35. The Islanders behind John Tavares and emerging Calder front runner Mathew Barzal are third with 34. The Capitals are right behind in fourth with 33. Then come the defending champion Pens with 33 followed by the Rangers at 32.

It’s impossible for one division to get six teams into the NHL Playoffs. Not with the final two spots granting wildcards. At best, a division can get five in. Each is guaranteed three due to the top three automatically qualifying. A look at the thinner Atlantic is reason for perplexment. The Lightning lead the East with 40 points. A 6-2 win at home over the Islanders yesterday in which they scored four unanswered after Barzal and Jordan Eberle tied it is proof of how lethal the Bolts are. It’s not only Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov but Brayden Point, Tyler Johnson, Ondre Palat, Yanni Gourde, Vladislav Namestnikov, Alex Killorn, Chris Kunitz, Ryan Callahan, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev who can beat you. They’ll be very tough to beat next Spring.

After the Lightning come the Maple Leafs with 35 points. They don’t have much D but are lethal offensively led by Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. They count on clutch saves from Freddy Andersen. Toronto will get in. The Canadiens have rallied since Carey Price returned to move up to third with 29 points. Even with how putrid they were, all they had to do was reel off five straight to move up. Brendan Gallagher is on pace for a career year with a dozen goals. Even with a lower body injury sidelining disappointing Jonathan Drouin, Montreal is getting clutch performances from Paul Byron and Andrew Shaw. Alex Galchenyuk has scored recently and Max Pacioretty is still doing okay in the goal department. With Price back to his old dominant self, they should be in contention. Shea Weber scored a pair with the first goal giving him 500 career points.

The thing is Montreal is only 13-13-3 with 12 ROW (regulation overtime wins). They’re one up on a talented but weird Boston team with the struggling Red Wings somehow only two out at 27 points. Last year’s story Ottawa continues to puzzle with poor play. Their 24 points are tied with the Panthers. Ever since they acquired Matt Duchene, they have lost a lot of games. Maybe he’s a jinx. I would expect the Senators to figure it out. They’re only five out due to the division they play in. Only lowly Buffalo with 18 points following a rare win over Colorado doesn’t look like they have a chance. They’ve struggled mightily under new coach Phil Housley.

If you counted the Hurricanes who have 27 points and the Flyers with 25, they’re better than Florida or Ottawa at this point. However, they’ll be hard pressed to make the playoffs in the loaded Metro. What if the sixth place team finishes with more points and ROW than the third place Atlantic participant? A distinct possibility. If you’re the Rangers, that’s gotta be in the back of your mind. Only the top five can qualify due to points and ROW. If the Devils are for real and there’s no reason to not think otherwise given the offensive improvement due to rookies Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher and the bounce back from Taylor Hall with Cory Schneider picking up his 100th career win as a Devil in last night’s impressive 4-1 road win at Columbus, then the margin for error is very little.

The Islanders score a lot of goals due to the Tavares line with Anders Lee and Josh Bailey along with the brilliance of Barzal along with steal Eberle (for Ryan Strome folks), Brock Nelson, Andrew Ladd, etc. Even with their unique platoon goalie situation between Jaro Halak and Thomas Greiss with a mediocre defense led by Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, there’s enough talent and scoring depth to make it. Whether it’s as a top three seed or wildcard remains to be seen. But they’re a very exciting roster.

You have to think the Pens and Caps will improve. TMT. Too much talent! That leaves Columbus, who boast arguably the top goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky. They don’t score like the other teams but the Artemi Panarin addition is beginning to help. The blueline is strong with Norris caliber sophomore Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchoring a corps that includes rough and tumble Jack Johnson and David Savard. With improvement from young forwards Josh Anderson and Oliver Bjorkstrand added to a nucleus featuring Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner and Alex Wennberg, they should be tough all year long.

What it boils down to is a flawed playoff system. The poor 3-7-1 start by the Rangers may come back to bite them. At 15-10-2 with 14 ROW and 32 points in 27 contests, they’ve recovered well. Even with flu ridden Henrik Lundqvist a scratch and Pavelec making a rare start, it worked out for the best.

Nothing surprises me with this team. If you’ve followed them intently through the years, they win when you least expect it while losing games they should win. They know by now how important the remaining 55 games will be. It’ll be the toughest challenge yet just to make the postseason.

If they don’t get in, don’t blame the messy playoff format. That’s been there and was before they made the switch in the 90’s under commissioner Gary Bettman. The divisional format emphasizes play in your division. The win over the Pens was the Rangers’ first of what need to be many against quality competition. With a visit to Washington coming up on birthday Friday and a quick turnaround in Newark Saturday, this is a early litmus test to see where they are before Christmas, They passed the first part.

As far as whether a Metro team finishes sixth with more total points or an identical amount and higher ROW than a third place Atlantic team who qualifies automatically, only time will tell. For now, it’ll be a huge battle till next Spring. With the cold weather and snow around the corner, there’s plenty of time for teams to jockey position.

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Despite frustration, going to games still fun for this Ranger fan who sits in the Blue Seats

For those of you who enjoyed Friday night’s Rangers 5-1 win over hapless Carolina at MSG, it was fun to be at. It’s always nice to attend home games. These days, I don’t get out to as many as my family and brother’s friend.

So, my fourth Ranger game of the season evened my record at 2-2-0. I also went Tuesday. A frustrating 5-4 loss to a bad Florida team with a no name winning it with 1:09 left in regulation. That’s hockey.

The loss to the Panthers was more entertaining. The Rangers rallied twice from three goal deficits as I accurately predicted to my Dad and Tommy. Sometimes, you can just tell. Florida is poor defensively. By the cruel ending ruined it.

Truth be told, last night’s game wasn’t as entertaining. Sure. The Rangers won despite playing down to their opponent. They took advantage of Canes’ miscues. None bigger than fraud Scott Darling fanning on a pass which resulted in a easy David Desharnais power play goal that tied it at one. It was one of the worst plays I’ve ever seen from a goalie. The same one who flat out missed a Mika Zibanejad shot from center ice in a Rangers blowout win at Carolina.

The Canes had more shots and better chances. It didn’t matter due to Henrik Lundqvist recovering from allowing a soft goal to Justin Williams 56 seconds in. He finished with 32 saves in a much needed bounce back win.

Michael Grabner not only got the game-winner on a nice one timer in front off a brilliant Kevin Shattenkirk pass. But recorded the oddest hat trick by scoring not once but twice into a vacated net. One of our buddies remarked that it was the cheapest hat trick ever to which we chuckled. It was definitely bizarre.

Here’s a stat for you. Grabner has now scored seven empty net goals. He leads the team with 13, meaning over half his production has come with the opposing net vacated. Even crazier, the seven empties match Sabres third-year center Jack Eichel’s season total. That speaks to how much a struggle it’s been for Buffalo and Eichel.

But it’s also signifies how important Grabner has become. He’s so reliable defensively that Alain Vigneault trusts him on the penalty kill, five on five and at protecting leads. His game breaking speed and defensive acumen are factors when the Blueshirts win.

If you were the Rangers, how do you not bring Grabner back? His price tag has increased. He could ask for a significant raise going from a $1.65 million salary to possibky double next summer. Much depends on where they are in late February around the trade deadline.

As I noted earlier, live games are always fun. Hockey is a great spectator sport. I’ve been going to Ranger games for over 20 years. We’ve always sat in the famed Blue Seats. From the glory days of Section 411 in the old Garden to the current ones in Section 419 right beneath the Chase Bridge where beer costs at least 12 bucks and a hot dog will run you seven dollars.

Gone are the days of being able to spend decently at a game. Much has to do with the renovation. The World’s Most Renovated Arena isn’t as fan friendly for loyal blue seaters. A fan that is almost extinct in Jim Dolan’s new M$G. Many have already been priced out. But if you sit in the last two rows with a obstructed view due to the angle and overhang from above, you still get to attend games for less than 40 bucks. It’s 35 for season ticket holders. My father shares one with a friend and they split it up.

In the days where it costs more to go, we decide which games we’ll attend. Busy work schedules help determine it. You can take advantage of the Ticket Exchange and make your money back.

The Garden is still a main attraction for newer fans and tourists who love going to see a match. I always meet some of the nicest couples from other countries who are visiting New York City. On Tuesday, it was a couple with a young one from Switzerland. On Friday, they were from Australia. A place I would love to visit. But that can only happen when I am more secure financially and have enough saved up. It costs a lot. For now, I’m looking at a more affordable range for a possible winter vacation around Christmas.

Our section used to be pretty strong with regulars. Some familiar faces still exist. That’s part of the appeal of going. The fans we see become part of our extended family. There are plenty of jokes and fun banter exchanged during play. Not to mention some old fashioned dry wit usually aimed at the two refs (blind mice) for how bad they are at their jobs. The “interference” penalty on Desharnais wasn’t. I could tell live. The replay confirmed it and I had a few choice words from my perch above. To the NHL and their ridiculous rule book which only confuses the officials more. You can’t fool us.

The thing about change is it isn’t always good. Sure. I’ve had the pleasure of walking around the Chase Bridge and taken plenty of cool shots of the live action and the legendary banners that hang above. That is quite a attraction.

But when you have so many newbies who don’t understand that people who are already in their seats want to watch the live action, it frustrates us. There is a unwritten rule.

Wait for the whistle. Garden security used to enforce it before the renovation. They don’t anymore because they’re hardly around. If fans get there late while play is going on, they should have the common decency to wait for a stoppage. It’s the right thing to do. You can still see the action. It is downright rude to go to your seats when they’re in the middle below and block our view. This is a regular occurrence.

Unless you have an end seat or are at the top, it would be nice if you realized you’re not the only person in our section. It would be even better if MSG realized we still exist. I don’t mean for one of the cheesy Papa John’s promotions. I am from Staten Island. We have some of the best pizzerias around. I eat real pizza. Does anyone want this?


I am nice enough to give it away to anyone who wants Papa John’s. They only want us to get excited for this promotion or the all too predictable tee shirt toss. No shirt is making it to Row 6 or 7 in Section 419 or the others adjacent to us. They used to actually hand out shirts for a home playoff game. That was cool.

There aren’t many free giveaways. It’s also become harder for fans who use the Chase Entrance to get upstairs. The set up they had before with metal detector checks was better. They did it when you came in and it went faster. Now, they moved it upstairs. So, it turns into a unnecessary traffic jam. You’re lucky to make your seats in time for puck drop. I like to get there for the anthem. Now, I’m lucky if I don’t miss a couple of minutes.

Sadly, I don’t care. I missed the Williams goal in the first minute. After asking my brother and he told me without much description, I guess I was better off. Hey. Look a the bright side. They outscored the Canes 5-zip once I watched!

The great thing about going to so many games is you pick up on things. Especially from the Blue Seats. I can see more action. I’m able to call goals before they happen. I’ve seen so many plays develop that it gets easier. You can tell. It’s the same with penalties or stuff behind the play that can lead to old time hockey.

The distractions are there. The long wait for beer now takes almost a whole intermission. I can’t believe they got rid of Molson Canadian. If not Guinness, that was my go to. I don’t drink much anymore due to being older and the cost. But occasionally, I want to have fun. A good cold one is still nice at a game with your classic hockey discussion which can range from the game to the old days.

One thing I never do is wait to use the restroom. You’ll never find me stuck on a ridiculous line after a period. The wiser fan uses it at a stoppage. You get three. That’s the best time to go. No wait. And back in time for the action. Once, I made the mistake of using too close to opening faceoff in the Spring of 2012. As soon as I heard the noise and excitement, I knew what happened. A fight had broken out between blood rivals, the Devils and Rangers. I rushed back in time to catch the line brawl.

It’s stuff like that that makes going to games so much fun. The crowd loves hockey fights. Even though the day is coming where it could be gone due to the long term effect due to health risks. We understand what brave warriors these guys are. Maybe that’s lost in translation. Sometimes, criticism can be too much on players from us. I realize that. We don’t play and aren’t in the locker room.

Games like last night still give me enjoyment with my hockey family. Even if the renovated Garden isn’t as accessible, we deal with it. Note to Dolan: Escalators should never break down. Not in your expensive arena. Inconveniencing paying customers can cause more problems.

The energy of the building isn’t the same because it’ll never be. That’s the harsh reality of the new stadium era. Games are still what makes it worthwhile for us. The hockey fan remains passionate and unique. We’ll always have that no matter what.

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The Rangers have no backup goalie

By now, it’s fairly obvious that the Rangers are a one goalie team. Based on the current situation, they’ll go as far as Henrik Lundqvist takes them.

Thus far, he’s started 22 of 25 games including 13 straight. The recent good stretch since Halloween got the team back in the Metro Division. A tight race where no one has really separated themselves from the pack. Ten total points separates first place Columbus from last place Philadelphia.

Until Tuesday’s tough 5-4 loss to Florida, the Rangers had been playing better winning 10 of 12 on the back of Lundqvist. But a couple of breakdowns in a disjointed first period saw him allow three goals on six shots to be replaced by Ondrej Pavelec. The backup made a rare appearance. He’s only started three games.

If there was a area that was a cause of concern entering the season, it was the lack of a quality backup. Let’s face it. Pavelec doesn’t come close to Lundqvist’s last two. In Antti Raanta and Cam Talbot, the Rangers knew they could trust each to come in and give Lundqvist some much needed rest. That came in handy when injuries and struggles resulted in Talbot and Raanta holding down the forte.

There isn’t that same confidence in Pavelec, who once was Winnipeg’s number one before falling from grace. He spent part of last year in the AHL. That’s why there was a roll of the eyes at GM Jeff Gorton’s signing. Goalie coach Benoit Allaire has been a miracle worker with even current MSG analyst Steve Valiquette crediting him for extending his career. But sometimes, you can push the envelope too far.

While a easy schedule has allowed coach Alain Vigneault to ride Lundqvist, it will pick up. Of course, the King always wants to play because it allows him to find a rhythm. He had his save percentage up to .918 recently. But it went back down to .914. Three goals allowed on six shots in less than 20 minutes of action will do that.

At 35, Lundqvist can’t be everything to the team every night. Or as Sam Rosen proclaimed in a recent win, “It’s all Henrik Lundqvist!” That followed a series of big saves.

With him older and the game opening up, he can’t be as consistent anymore. The odd goals are more frequent. When they come, we shouldn’t be surprised. Without Lundqvist, there is no Rangers renaissance post lockout. There are no three trips to the Conference Final and the franchise’s only Stanley Cup appearance since I was still in high school.

We have been lucky and privileged to have such a classy star athlete to root for. A prideful man who understands how hard it is to win a Cup. Will he ever get another opportunity? 2014 came and went. He can’t do it all alone. The team must play well.

That includes the rarely used Pavelec, who stopped 19 of 21 shots in relief the other night. But he couldn’t prevent the game-winner with 1:09 left. More the product of awful defense from Brendan Smith and Nick Holden.

Do they have full confidence in Pavelec? There isn’t anyone in Hartford coming. Gorton needs to consider making a trade for a better backup. It can’t be a one man show in net. They won’t survive.

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Devils trade Henrique, Blandisi and pick for Vatanen and conditional pick

Despite being off for the last couple days, things are still never dull for the 2017-18 Devils, as they pulled off a major trade this morning, dealing popular forward Adam Henrique, AHL forward Joseph Blandisi and a third-rounder to the Ducks for defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional third-rounder (basically based on whether Henrique re-signs in Anaheim after next year, and when he does).  Whatever you may think of the trade as a Devils fan – and I’ll get into that in a bit – emotions have to be mixed at best based on Henrique’s six plus seasons of service on and off the ice, not to mention being responsible for one of the best non-Cup moments in the history of the franchise, with his OT dagger against the Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012.  Figured I’d have a little mercy on Derek and post the clip of Adam Henrique’s OTHER big overtime goal in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.  After all if not for that goal in double OT of Game 7 in the first round against the Panthers, there is no ‘Henrique, it’s over!’ moment later on – which could have made a decent title for this post.  After all…

Even Adam couldn’t resist harkening back to that famous call of the ECF winning goal from longtime Devils legend Doc Emrick when saying goodbye on Twitter.

Usually these days you find out about a big trade through Twitter and one of the many writers (or the team itself) that post it, but I happened to not check Twitter for at least a half hour this morning – oh the horror! – when I got a text from a friend that said simply:

HOLY ****

Henrique and Blandisi to the Ducks for Sami Vatanen

That was pretty much my reaction too upon reading it.  Not that I was really all that stunned Henrique was traded at ‘some’ point.  After all it seemed as if once we traded for Marcus Johansson this offseason and drafted Nico Hischier, Henrique’s days were pretty much numbered here long-term with Hall and Johansson having top six slots at left wing, and Hischier doing more than enough to stick with the big team as an eighteen-year old, it really made little sense to commit big money and years to Adam after next season when he (along with Johansson) was due to be a free agent.  With Johansson set to return from a concussion on the upcoming road trip, the timing fit for this move in-season.  Especially after the end of Movember, which ironically enough was a charitable campaign Henrique had become the face of the last few years.

Still, trading one of the last links to our last playoff run, and a guy who had some productive years including a 30-goal season in 2015-16, and had become a good-will ambassador for the franchise on and off the ice during some lean years is going to sting on a personal level for many fans.  In that vein I’m glad the GM and coach were both available to speak about the trade and talked of and to Henrique respectfully.  That’ll go a long way I believe, to appeasing the fans who are upset on a personal level (a mistake another area team made this week botching the Eli Manning benching).  Yes we root for the crest first but sports is still entertainment.  Sometimes, you like the guys wearing the crest too – even if I’ve had my issues with Adam’s consistency and effort level on the ice at times, he never truly embarrased the franchise on or off the ice, and today’s not the day to get into criticism of him as a player anyway.  Not to mention it’s been a while since the franchise made a huge in-season trade like this.  You probably have to go back to Ilya Kovalchuk to find a bigger one during the season, and even that was ostensibly a rental trade since nobody dreamed we would re-sign him or be in for all the drama that ensued after 2009-10.  I digress though.

Yet, as a sports fan I also know all too well you have to give to get and top four defensemen in the NHL are the most valuable trading commodities for GM’s.  You’re just not finding top four defensemen in Woolworth’s or Dollar General.  We didn’t exactly give up chopped liver, but Blandisi also didn’t seem to fit in the future plans of the team and had already been passed on the depth chart by several other younger wingers.  So even though Adam’s a top six winger who can play center and Blandisi is a young winger with talent – for his dissapointing camp this year and inconsistencies so far in his career is still 23 years old himself – Vatanen fills a big need for the team at a less than a prohibitive cost, adding another top four defenseman to the starting lineup, and allowing guys like Damon Severson and Steven Santini to slot in on more reasonable pairings with reduced expectations.

I’m not going to give too much more analysis of Vatanen than that cause let’s face it, I hardly ever see him play being on the West Coast, although he was one of the names the internet GM’s would constantly kick around as a possibility to trade for with the Ducks’ alleged surplus on D and need at forward.  From what little I’ve been able to ascertain he’s struggled last year and this, in part due to injury (last year) and recovering from it (early this year) but given he’s signed for the next 2.5 years hopefully we’re getting him just as he finds his game again.  Vatanen also adds another option for the power play and provides more help on the blueline at breaking out of the zone which is a neccesity for the ‘fast, attacking, supportive’ system.  I’ll let the GM and the coach speak about Vatanen (via Chris Ryan of NJ.com):

“At 26, he’s not old, he’s not young,” Shero said. “He’s good experience, he’s played with good players and has played very well in the playoffs for a good team in Anaheim and won a bronze medal at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 with Finland — over the United States unfortunately.”

Vatanen will meet the Devils in Denver, where they will play the Colorado Avalanche on Friday. Assuming Vatanen arrives without any hiccups, Devils coach John Hynes plans on getting him right into the lineup.

“One of the things we really like about him is he’s a high hockey IQ guy,” Hynes said. “So lots of times when you get a player like that that’s got a lot of experience, maybe we’ll have some quick pointers that we want to do defensively, but other than that, it’s letting him play his game and we’ll work with him as we go forward. But we want him to not overthink. We want him to play and compete.”

With Johansson returning and Vatanen arriving, it’ll be a very different Devils team in Denver tomorrow night than the one that left New Jersey on Monday.

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Frustration, Elation and Damnation: Rangers waste comeback in frustrating 5-4 loss to Panthers


Chris Kreider stands over James Reimer. He scored twice and had a asssist in a dominant performance despite the Rangers falling short to the Panthers 5-4 at MSG. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy The Herald 

This is one they may look back on if the playoff race does go down to the final week. In all likelihood, it’s gonna. With the Metro Division very tight, the Rangers hope a gut wrenching 5-4 loss to the Panthers on home ice won’t cost them.

Ultimately, it was a disappointing result considering how much they exhausted coming back from two three-goal deficits. Especially against a bad opponent who was clearly on fumes in the second game of a back to back. It should’ve been a win. Case closed.

Instead, the Rangers had their eight-game home winning streak end due to too many breakdowns. They outshot and outattempted the Panthers and outplayed them. But it didn’t matter. They were their own worst enemy. Done in by glaring mistakes that finally caught up following a few imperfect wins where Henrik Lundqvist bailed them out.

Another slow start put them behind by three after a bad first period. The Panthers scored three times on six shots chasing Lundqvist before the period was out. Yes. Ondrej Pavelec made a rare appearance. He was fine but couldn’t make that final stop on Denis Malgin with 1:09 left in regulation. Another household name who victimized the Rangers.

In a bizarre game where Michael Haley scored a goal and not a knockout, the Blueshirts dug themselves a hole with inconsistent play. They allowed a power play goal to Aleksander Barkov on a odd tip of a Jonathan Huberdeau shot that took a funny hop over Lundqvist.

After a big saves from James Reimer, Jamie McGinn went high glove on Lundqvist from Nick Bjugstad. It came off a sloppy turnover. One of many in a brutal first.

The Rangers had stretches where they controlled play in the Florida end but Reimer made a couple of more huge stops including getting a piece of a point blank opportunity with his glove. It was Haley who was allowed to skate in like he was a skill guy before he beat Lundqvist at 16:47 to end his night. He’s been so great lately that it’s hard to fault him. Maybe he could’ve had one of the three. He’s been starting every game due to the schedule and Alain Vigneault reluctant to use the backup.

Anyone with a pulse knew the game wasn’t over. The Panthers are a bad hockey team. They pulled the same dog and pony act at Newark Monday. They’re not good at protecting leads and poor defensively. Roberto Luongo wasn’t in net. Reimer played well. He had to.

J.T. Miller got the Rangers on the board early in the second when he was able to get to a deflected Mats Zuccarello shot and fire his fourth past Reimer at 4:04. His play at center is continuing to improve. There’s no reason to switch him back to wing. He’s found chemistry with Zuccarello and Michael Grabner.

Before they made the full comeback, a bad shift from Nick Holden resulted in Huberdeau getting two whacks at a Mike Matheson rebound past a outstretched Pavelec to restore a three goal lead for Florida.

On the next shift, Chris Kreider started his big night by holding the puck behind the net, skating out and finding  cutting Pavel Buchnevich for a slam dunk that cut it to 4-2 at 9:26 from David Desharnais. To his credit, he played well recording three assists centering the top line in place of injured center Mika Zibanejad. He suffered a upper body injury in warmups. Vigneault said he would have a update tomorrow.

A couple of minutes later, it was that trio which combined for another beauty with Desharnais working the puck to Buchnevich, who made a bullet pass across for a Kreider tip in at 11:16 which cut the deficit to one. Every shift Kreider took was exciting with the power forward using all his tools. He played arguably the best game of his career recording two goals and a assist while playing defensively responsible. He was terrific.

The line of Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Hayes and Rick Nash were a force. They controlled long shifts and forced Reimer into some difficult stops. All three skated with purpose while getting good shots through and dangerous chances. Hayes had a apparent tying goal offset by a goalie interference call on Nash for bumping into Reimer. It was controversial with Nash bumped. There wasn’t much room. His skate contacted Reimer as Hayes skated circles around the Florida D and beat the Panthers goalie. But it was waived off. Vigneault did the right thing challenging but of course it was not overturned. Gotta love Toronto. Where nobody knows what is goalie interference anymore. Similar to what’s a catch in the NFL.

With it being my third game, the crowd booed the decision and chanted, “These refs suck!” This was a more lively crowd than most games at MSG. They didn’t sell it out. But the fans were into it. It was a good atmosphere.

Even though Florida was clinging to a 4-3 lead after two, you knew it was a matter of time before the Rangers tied it. The Panthers were in a conservative defensive shell. It’s no wonder they’re struggling to win under Bob Boughner.

The play of Vesey with Hayes and Nash in the third was dominant. He skated circles around Florida on some extended shifts. They just didn’t have any puck luck. They were splendid 5 on 5. Vesey was so good, he drew a penalty. He looks on the verge of breaking out. Keep him with Hayes and Nash.

After a bogus interference call on Kreider for being bigger and stronger, they missed one call on Florida but got them for tripping making it even up. There were Bronx cheers.

They still hadn’t beaten Reimer, who did his best Houdini act to keep his team in front. Eventually, another jaw dropping moment from Buchnevich and Kreider tied the game. On a rush, Buchnevich centered for Kreider, who buried his second of the game to tie the score at four with 6:32 left. Kreider is suddenly up to 10 goals. He gets them in bunches. This is the most confident he’s ever looked. Maybe 30 goals and 60 points finally happen.

As well as they played offensively and with puck possession, the Rangers couldn’t avoid the crucial mistake. Pavelec fought the puck when it was tied struggling to cover up a couple of routine saves. That was worrisome.

With 90 seconds left, Vigneault had the top line out. For some reason, Holden and Brendan Smith were the D pair. It made no sense. Granted. Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk played a lot. But that late in a tie game with a lot riding, you better have your best pair out. They didn’t and got burned.

Smith fumbled a puck failing to keep it in. He also fell down. This indirectly caused the Florida goal. A Holden giveaway cost them with Malgin left alone on the off wing to bury a Mark Pysyk pass across for the game-winner at 18:51 to collective groans.

Even with Pavelec pulled for a extra attacker, the Rangers had trouble getting out of their zone and teased us by making a couple of saves to keep the game alive. They didn’t get it done.

It was a missed opportunity.

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Boyle Strong, Kids and Gibbons underdog story make Devils fun again


Boyle Strong: Brian Boyle is a courageous story in a exciting year for the improved rebuilding Devils. AP Photo via Getty Images

It’s been quite some time since the Devils were good. Most of the names on the backs of the jerseys have changed since the ‘11-12 run to the Stanley Cup Final. Only captain Andy Greene remains. Long gone are Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise along with David Clarkson’s NHL career. Former coach Pete DeBoer has since guided the Sharks to a Stanley Cup appearance also losing. He’s still in San Jose.

These days, the Devils are coached by third-year man John Hynes. Martin Brodeur has since had his Number 30 retired and moved onto a management role with the Blues. Patrik Elias will have his number 26 retired in what’s turning out to be a promising season.

As Hasan has documented, every time it looks like the Devils are about to go into a slump, they respond. They have something special going. With a hard fought 4-3 overtime win at Detroit, they won their second straight to move back into first place in the Metro Division. Sure. They blew a 3-1 lead. But once again, their resilience paid off. Unsung hero Brian Gibbons scored his team-leading 11th at 2:32 of OT to improve New Jersey to 14-5-4 through the first 23 games. They lead a crowded division with 32 points. One up on idle Columbus with the Islanders and Capitals also winning to stay right behind. The Pens leapfrogged the idle Rangers with a badly needed win over NHL leader Tampa. Updating the story, the Devils remain in first due to Columbus losing Monday night despite a home loss to the Panthers.

The race should be fun to follow all year long. The Devils are proof that anything can happen. Written off by many due to a rebuild featuring first overall pick Nico Hischier along with first-year players Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher, they’ve proven to be much better than expected. The dynamic rookie trio advantage a big part of the Devils revival.

Butcher tops all freshmen defensemen with eighteen points (2-16-18) to rank fourth in rookie scoring. A smooth skater who is dangerous in transition, The Butcher has been especially good on the man-advantage putting up 10 power play points for over half his production. He plays on the third pair with Ben Lovejoy posting a solid plus-7 rating.

Hischier hasn’t finished as much as expected. But he’s quietly gaining steam. With a goal in a recent win, he’s up to four goals and 13 assists with his 17 points ranking fifth among rookies. As he continues to adjust, look for more progression from the gifted 18-year old playmaking pivot. Update: He scored his fifth on Monday in a 3-2 loss to Florida. That gives him 18 points.

Bratt was the biggest surprise in the first month. A former 2016 sixth round pick selected 162nd overall, the 19-year old Swede impressed in preseason enough to make the roster. He then got off to a hot start scoring big goals and proving to be a dependable penalty killer with a knack for scoring shorthanded. Though he’s cooled down, his 14 points (6-8-14) rank ninth among rookies. He notched his seventh goal last night. That gives New Jersey three young talented players who have a bright future.

With team speed improved along with depth, it’s allowed Hynes to balance out his lineup. They’ve gone from a anemic offense to one of the game’s best averaging 3.22 goals-per-game which ranks seventh.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is 29-year old veteran Gibbons. A player who’s bounced around having spent much time in the AHL, he made the team out of camp and has been clutch. His 11 goals lead the Devs. That included his overtime winner against the Red Wings. With 15 points and a team best plus-12 and two shorthanded goals, Gibbons has been a godsend. It’s a great story.

The story of proud vet Brian Boyle is one of perseverance. Diagnosed with Leukemia prior to the season, Boyle has returned with a vengeance. Always well respected by his peers and fans for his tenacious work, he now is the most popular player everyone is rooting for. Devils fans gave him a loud ovation for his first game back. There was a special moment where he scored and shed some tears as he celebrated with teammates along the boards.

It’s obviously been a whirlwind of emotions for the 32-year old big checking center. He’s scored three goals including a huge one on the Devils’ Hockey Fights Cancer night. The goal brought more cheers and a “Brian Boyle,” chant from supportive admirers who understand the ordeal he’s going through. He again was emotional talking to MSG’s Deb Placey about how much the overwhelming support meant. It really is touching. He’s a likable guy who I still root for even if he wears the Hudson rival jersey. I love him. The Rangers don’t advance to the Stanley Cup Final without him in 2014. It was his pass to Dominic Moore for the only goal in the clincher over Montreal. Still the best game I ever attended. We are all #BoyleStrong.

In order to be successful, your best players must be your best. For they Devils, Taylor Hall has rebounded with a much improved second year after coming over from the Oilers for Adam Larsson. While it’s been a struggle for Edmonton unlike last season, it’s been a role reversal with Hall leading the way with 26 points (8-18-26). In particular, his passing has been on full display with some excellent set ups for open teammates including Boyle for his third goal over the holiday weekend. Hall is scoring too. His eight goals place second on the club behind Gibbons. The 18 helpers pace all skaters. With Hall performing, it’s made everyone better.

They’ve gotten good contributions throughout the lineup with Miles Wood supplying six markers including his first career hat trick. He’s similar to David Clarkson in that he’s not the best skater, but is always around the net. That grit and hustle has paid off.

Hynes deserves credit for not being afraid to send messages. Henrique was in a November funk. So, the third-year coach put him on the fourth line. He responded well posting a goal and assist while earning a promotion in a win. The four goals is low but 14 points is alright in more of a supporting role. He kills penalties and is a shorthanded threat.

That the Devs have done this without Kyle Palmieri (4-5-9 in 13 GP) and Marcus Johansson (concussion) speaks volumes about the job Hynes has done along with the players. Every time they’re doubted, someone steps up.

They have also gotten solid goaltending from Cory Schneider. At times, he can still give up the odd goal but for the most part, has bounced back. There have been moments where he’s had to stand on his head. He’s come through with clutch saves to the tune of nine wins, a 2.76 GAA and .918 save percentage. Keith Kinkaid has won six games but in many cases, he’s gotten offensive support. He can play better.

Steven Santini has formed a solid top pair with Greene going up against quality competition. While Greene logs the tough minutes, Santini is the physical element the team has lacked in recent years. He delivers big hits and blocks shots. That’s taken some pressure off of Damon Severson, who is a better fit on the second pair with Moore.

Hynes has Zajac back. He hasn’t gotten on track offensively with no points in seven. But he remains a important cog due to his checking ability and face-offs. He also plays penalty kill. The elder statesman of the group, the younger Devs can look to him for leadership.

GM Ray Shero added vets Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes. Stafford still brings some scoring touch and skill. He plays in the top nine. After a good start, Hayes has fallen out of favor. He’s been a healthy scratch lately. He’ll have to earn his keep. Blake Coleman’s been a surprise as a solid fourth liner along with Stefan Noesen.

They’re still waiting on second-year center Pavel Zacha to find consistency. His assist of Hischier’s goal yesterday was only his sixth point. It’s about untapping his potential. Hynes has scratched him four tunes making the kid accountable. He knows he must be better.

Overall at 14-6-4, the Devils remain a great story. They play a exciting style and have good chemistry. It’ll be interesting to see if they can sustain it. They haven’t always been effective at even strength with the power play ranked in the top eight. But there’s no doubting the improvement. We’ll see if it continues.

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