HARD HITS: Blue Jackets prove you don’t need a high priced goalie to have success

AP Photo credit Russell LaBounty of USA Today via Getty Images

Like most observers, I didn’t have many expectations for the Blue Jackets. They lost star forward Artemi Panarin to the Rangers. Let Sergei Bobrovsky go to his destination of Florida. They knew they would lose Matt Duchene, who chose the Predators. Even Ryan Dzingel changed teams by opting for Carolina.

What exactly did Columbus have left? Entering the season, they didn’t know about their goalie situation. Joonas Korpisalo was a backup and Latvian import Elvis Merzlikins was unproven.

The way it started, it looked like it would be a long year for veteran coach John Tortorella. They predictably weren’t scoring much either. It was a hard adjustment going from puck wizard Panarin and rental Duchene to relying on young center Pierre-Luc Dubois, defense tandem Seth Jones and Zach Werenski along with remaining finishers Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand.

Making matters worse, the Blue Jackets had injuries to key players. Veteran leader Brandon Dubinsky hasn’t played a game. Defenseman Ryan Murray can’t stay healthy. Josh Anderson went from a good goalscorer to a non-factor before going down. Then both Atkinson and Bjorkstrand were out for a while.

The biggest injury was one to Korpisalo, who was finally hitting his stride as the starter. It forced Tortorella to go to Merzlikins in net. Having struggled mightily to that point, there seemed to be doubt about whether the unknown they took as a 20-year old could take over and keep the suddenly resurgent team afloat.

Not only has he done that. Now, the quirky Elvis is a unique personality and crowd favorite at home games due to his fun celebrations following wins. He recently had his first three career shutouts over a four game stretch. The winning has continued with his 27 saves in a come from behind 4-3 home victory over the slumping Winnipeg Jets extending their winning streak to six at the All-Star break.

Two more goals from Bjorkstrand including another game-winner in the third period put Columbus back into the first wildcard with 62 points in 51 games. One up on the Hurricanes for the second wildcard and two up on the Flyers. They’re five clear of the underachieving Maple Leafs, whose play has dipped after such a nice turnaround under new coach Sheldon Keefe. If the season ended today, Toronto would miss the playoffs. They trail Bobrovsky’s new team the Panthers by four points for third place in their division.

Here’s an interesting fact. Prior to taking over the Columbus net as starter, Merzlikins had yet to record a win in his first 10 appearances (8 starts). He was forced into action versus Chicago on Dec. 29. The crazy overtime where Toronto messed up on the clock that resulted in a torn meniscus for an unlucky Korpisalo in a crushing shootout loss where Tortorella fumed. The clock issue cost his team an overtime win and his goalie. He predictably was fined by the clueless NHL.

Merzlikins took over as the number one goalie on New Year’s Eve. He posted 36 saves in a home win over the Panthers. Since Dec. 31, he’s 9-2-0 with a 1.65 goals-against-average (GAA) and .951 save percentage. Those numbers are remarkable for a first-year player who took over a tough situation. It’s why he should get consideration for the Calder Trophy. The leading Rookie of The Year candidate remains Colorado defenseman Cale Makar. The chief competition is coming from Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes and emerging Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik. Rangers defenseman Adam Fox is a darkhorse. Keep an eye on Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov. He’s 15-2-1 with a 2.06 GAA and .927 save percentage plus a shutout in 19 games (16 starts).

With both Atkinson and Bjorkstrand back delivering the two primary right shots that can give a boost to the offense, things are falling into place for Columbus. They’re also getting contributions from rookie Emil Bemstrom, veteran forward Gus Nyquist, captain Nick Foligno, center Alex Wennberg, center Boone Jenner, defenseman David Savard and rookie blueliner Vladislav Gavrikov.

It’s typical of a Tortorella coached team to find key contributors that nobody would ever expect to do anything. It’s easy to forget what a job he did coaching the Rangers during ’11-12 to the East’s top seed. Even with established stars Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, they weren’t supposed to wind up where they did. As much as Henrik Lundqvist carried them with his best season to win the Vezina, it was getting the most out of Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust that made that team so good.

Ditto for then rookie Carl Hagelin. Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky were good players along with Artem Anisimov. Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider were key parts too. But nobody figured he could turn Dan Girardi into a shutdown defenseman alongside Ryan McDonagh while discovering how valuable Anton Stralman was along with the established Marc Staal. Had Mike Sauer not had his career ended by Dion Phaneuf, maybe that team wins a Cup. Without him, they weren’t as tough. Glen Sather didn’t make any upgrades either. It cost them.

A year later after Dubinsky and Anisimov were sacrificed for Rick Nash in a blockbuster trade with Columbus ironically enough, Tortorella was out of a job due to Lundqvist’s criticism following a second round defeat to a much better Bruins roster. Funny how that works. At the time, Lundqvist was a year away from free agency. He sounded noncommittal. That was the end for Torts. He got a raw deal.

It all worked out for the Blueshirts, who hired the polar opposite of Tortorella by bringing in the much easier going and offensive minded Alain Vigneault. He went on to be very successful on Broadway guiding the ’13-14 roster that added Martin St. Louis for Callahan, to its only Stanley Cup appearance since winning in ’93-94. After falling short against the Kings, they won a President’s Trophy in ’14-15. However, it ended somberly by getting shutout at home in Game Seven by the Lightning in a bizarre Conference Final. It went downhill from there.

Tortorella made a mistake by taking the Vancouver job after they dismissed Vigneault, who had similar results. But it had run its course. Both coaches joked about replacing each other. However, it was apparent that AV fit in New York City a lot better than Torts did in Vancouver. A Chris Kreider hat trick against his former coach in a November meeting seemed to break the Canucks. The Sedins were overused by the reliant Tortorella, whose shot blocking style was a bad fit. They wore down. He had a near fight with Calgary coach Bob Hartley in a brawl that turned ugly. After missing the playoffs, he was fired along with top assistant Mike Sullivan, who went onto coach the Penguins to consecutive Cups.

Tortorella wound up in Columbus taking over for Todd Richards. Since then, they’ve made the postseason in the last three seasons. The 0-7-0 start in ’15-16 didn’t help Torts get them back to the playoffs initially. But their recent success which included the franchise winning its first playoff series by stunning the league-leading Lightning in a sweep last Spring, was a big step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, despite going all in with the Duchene addition and Dzingel along with Panarin, they were soundly defeated by the Bruins in the second round. When all three skaters departed including the Bread Man along with Bobrovsky, things looked bleak. They weren’t expected to compete for the playoffs.

Nobody told Tortorella or his team. He reminded them early in training camp that whoever made the roster was going to play. They didn’t want players who didn’t want to be there. Something GM Jarmo Kekalainen reminded them as well.

It was the right approach and attitude. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. At 27-16-8 with 62 points, they’ve earned respect. They are right there in playoff position with 31 games left. They still have good players who are becoming leaders on and off the ice.

It’ll be interesting to see what Tortorella decides once Korpisalo is ready to return. He was expected to miss four to six weeks. So, he should be nearing a return once February rolls around.

Of all the great stories, the Jackets are the best one of the first half. We’ll see if that continues following the long break.

Body Checks

In a hectic year that’s already seen seven coaches fired, we could have one more before hockey returns next week. After playing well and probably overachieving considering the state of their defense, Winnipeg has lost four in a row. The tough one goal defeat on Wednesday night at Columbus was the only game of the four they were competitive. The other three losses came by three goals or more.

In fact, they’ve dropped six of seven and enter the break with 54 points. That’s still only three out of the wildcard and four behind Dallas for third place in a competitive Central Division. The Blackhawks have caught them in points with the Wild two behind and Predators at 51 points. If they do replace Paul Maurice, the schedule won’t be no picnic. The first four are against Boston, St. Louis, Nashville and at St. Louis. Nine of the first 10 games in the second half are at home including a six-game homestand versus Ottawa, Chicago, the Rangers, Sharks, Chicago again and the Kings.

The Jets have gotten good production from top scorers Mark Schiefele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Nik Ehlers and former Ranger Neal Pionk. However, they need more out of Blake Wheeler. He hasn’t been as consistent. Fifteen goals and 43 points are respectable. But a minus-10 rating isn’t. The defense gets very thin after Josh Morrissey and Pionk. They’re relying on Luca Sbisa and Dmitry Kulikov. Tucker Poolman is in his second year and has been out with a lower body injury as has depth D Nathan Beaulieu. They have been without Bryan Little for most of the season due to a perforated eardrum and vertigo. The forward depth isn’t strong.

Despite getting mostly solid netminding from starter Connor Hellebuyck, they rank 24th in goals against and 28th in penalty killing. Even the offense hasn’t been consistent with the Jets 19th in goals for and 15th on the power play. If they don’t improve in these key areas, no playoffs in Winnipeg. In my original prediction, I had them just missing with the Coyotes beating them out. Arizona might do better than that. They’re currently tied with Edmonton, Calgary and Vegas with 57 points. One behind first place Vancouver in the crazy Pacific.

The Canucks are interesting because they weren’t expected to contend. Elias Pettersson is a star center already and Brock Boeser continues to establish himself along with captain Bo Horvat. JT Miller has made a big difference playing on that top line as the net front presence. He’s fit in much better than the Lightning, who gave him away despite a reasonable contract. Jacob Markstrom has finally become a reliable starter and is in his first All-Star Game. Quinn Hughes continues to be among the top rookies to boost a defense that includes Alex Edler and Tyler Myers. Jake Virtanen is now a solid secondary scorer and former King Tanner Pearson has been a pleasant surprise. If they can get more out of grinders Antoine Roussel and Micheal Ferland if he returns, that could give them a boost. Coach Travis Green has done a good job and could also be a Jack Adams candidate.

The Hart race is too close to call. While most observers including his peers put leading scorer Connor McDavid at the top, it’s hard to see him as the best option if the Oilers don’t make it. He’s a wunderkind that flies like a jet for highlight reel goals at lightning speed the likes we’ve never seen. If he played in the wide open era of the 80’s, McDavid would challenge for 200 points like Gretzky and Lemieux. He’s that special. Having Leon Draisaitl as a sidekick makes them fun to watch. However, it’s hard to believe they still may not have enough to make the playoffs. Zack Kassian fits in on the top line due to his size and grit. James Neal has been a good addition, but has cooled off. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins remains a overlooked two-way player who can be trusted in key situations. Secondary scoring is an issue along with goaltending. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are probably one of the worst tandems in the game. The defense relies heavily on Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom. They might need a trade.

If we’re being honest about MVP:

1. Nathan MacKinnon 30-42-72

2. Connor McDavid 27-49-76

3. David Pastrnak 37-33-70

4. Artemi Panarin 26-42-68

5. John Carlson 13-47-60

Alex Ovechkin seems to get better with age. Well, maybe not. But the electrifying Russian superstar finished the first half in style by scoring eight goals in three games. That included consecutive hat tricks against the Devils and in a come from behind win at the Islanders. So, he went from 26 to 34 goals that quickly to put himself right back in the Rocket Richard race. He’s tied with Auston Matthews for second, trailing Pastrnak by three. Nobody has won more Richards than the Great Eight. Even better, he passed both Mario Lemieux and tie Steve Yzerman for ninth all-time with 692 goals. Mark Messier is next with 694. By the time the season concludes, Ovechkin could pass Mike Gartner (708) for seventh all-time. At 34, he shows no signs of slowing down. Can he catch Gretzky? The Great One finished with an NHL record 894 goals. If he can stay healthy and produce at least 40 goals a season over the next five years, Ovechkin would break the record. There’s still a long way to go.

A team that’s flying under the radar in the East are the Penguins. Despite not having Sidney Crosby until a few games ago and being without top finisher Jake Guentzel, they’re up to 67 points. Only four behind the Capitals. Bryan Rust has become a legit scoring threat hitting 21 goals with 43 points while playing with Evgeni Malkin. In 37 games, Malkin quietly has 50 points (15-35-50). He really picked it up when Crosby was out. Then Sid came back and immediately put up eight points in his first four contests highlighted by a four point night in a win over Minnesota. Even now, he reminds us why he’s still considered the best player. Don’t crown McDavid yet. Crosby is better overall and is a proven winner who’s done it all.

This time, it’s the steady play of Tristan Jarry in net. He’s supplanted Matt Murray as the number one goalie for the Pens. With Murray a two-time Cup winner, they have one of the best tandems. Maybe only the Bruins featuring Tuukka Rask and Jaro Halak are better in the Conference. The Isles tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss is up there too. So too will be Columbus once Korpisalo returns to team with Merzlikins. The Caps boast rookie Samsonov and veteran Braden Holtby. These teams have an edge on the Lightning who rely heavily on last year’s Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Speaking of the Bolts, they’re a hard team to read. They’ve recovered nicely from a bad start and rank second with 62 points in the Atlantic to trail Boston by eight. However, Nikita Kucherov hasn’t dominated like last year and Brayden Point has been inconsistent. While both Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are over a point-per-game, it’s been the contributions of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat that have made a difference. Their secondary scoring has helped Tampa become more balanced offensively. Both Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde have underachieved. Former Blues Cup hero Pat Maroon has been a solid addition. So has Kevin Shattenkirk even though his production has tailed off. Victor Hedman remains an elite defenseman who can do it all. Mikhail Sergachev has shown improvement in Year Three. Ryan McDonagh has focused on defense. They still have as much talent and depth as anyone. But the pressure will be squarely on Vasilevskiy to deliver.

At what point does Bobrovsky remind Florida of the goalie who won a pair of Vezinas with Columbus? If they’re gonna make the playoffs and beat out Toronto, they need the vintage Bob.

The Blues still look like the class of the NHL. Even without top sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, they’re rolling with the best record out West. David Perron is a point-per-game player to pace them in scoring with 49 points. One of five Blues with at least 40 points or more. That includes Ryan O’Reilly, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and Jaden Schwartz. Boasting good depth in underrated forwards Robert Thomas, Oskar Sundqvist, Ivan Barbashev and Zach Sanford, St. Louis should be tough to beat. Veteran Tyler Bozak plays a secondary role. The D remains big and tough featuring Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Vince Dunn, Jay Bouwmeester and Justin Faulk. Jordan Binnington has proven he isn’t a fluke. Jake Allen is a good backup. Yes. This team is capable of a repeat.

The top threats likely will come from division rivals Colorado and Dallas. The shame of it is you could have another one of those second round scenarios where the two best Western teams face off. All due to the crazy playoff format.

Of the teams bunched up in the Pacific, I like Arizona. They’re down to Adin Hill for now in net with Antti Raanta getting healthy. Once Darcy Kuemper returns, they’ll boast the best goalies. Adding Taylor Hall as a rental should help. I have them as a playoff team and believe they’ll win that division. I don’t believe Vegas has the right mix due to a weakened blueline that’s hurt Marc-Andre Fleury. I’m also not a big believer in the Flames due to the defense and goaltending. Vancouver could challenge if they are ready. Edmonton needs to make a trade.

Can the Blackhawks make it? Probably not. But Patrick Kane is again proving why he’s one of the game’s biggest stars. He recently became the fastest American born player to 1,000 career points. Jonathan Toews has rebounded from a slow start. Kubalik has put himself in the rookie convo with 21 goals. Robin Lehner has proven he isn’t a product of Barry Trotz by posting a .921 save percentage on a defensively challenged team. Corey Crawford is the backup in another tandem. They need more goals from Alex DeBrincat and Brandon Saad. Dylan Strome should be a key once he returns. Is there enough defense with an aging Duncan Keith still logging big minutes while getting some help from Erik Gustafsson and Olli Maatta? Adam Boqvist is a rookie and third overall pick Kirby Dach has run into similar issues as Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.

The Rangers must make key decisions on who to keep. Is Chris Kreider a goner or is it wiser to keep him due to what he brings? It largely depends on where they are a few weeks from now and what teams are offering. Not unproven prospects or low first round picks. They need a good roster player plus more. Ryan Strome seems like a good fit playing center with Panarin. If they subtract him, then only Mika Zibanejad is left that’s dependable on face-offs. They rank near the bottom due to the inexperience of Filip Chytil and Brett Howden. Center is already weak. They might want to hold onto Strome, who has proven himself under David Quinn.

Tony DeAngelo is probably the hardest one. All that production at such a cheap price. He won’t be that this summer. Do they really think Nils Lundkvist at 20 will be NHL ready to replace DeAngelo for a much more affordable salary? They’ll lose a lot of offense if they go that route. You can’t ask for draft picks if you move him either. I’d love to see DeAngelo stay and go into next year with the him, Fox and Trouba on the right side.

There’s also the goalie quandary. What to do with Alex Georgiev with Igor Shestyorkin looking ready. That Henrik Lundqvist contract is a nightmare. At least it’s only one more year like Marc Staal, who brings more value at this point. Tyler Wall is a Hobey Baker candidate too. Goalie is the least of their issues.

You won’t find many worse fourth lines than what the Rangers have. Even Greg McKegg has only a goal and three assists despite being a solid worker. You’re telling me Lias Andersson couldn’t do that? John Davidson has been in communication with Andersson, who’s gotten the okay to play back home in Sweden. That’s positive.

Will the Sabres ever make the playoffs again? Or are they going to continue to waste emerging star Jack Eichel? They still lack a true number one goalie. Linus Ullmark hasn’t proven himself. Carter Hutton has been a bust. In many ways, Buffalo is a lot like Edmonton except Eichel isn’t McDavid because nobody is. They don’t have a Draisaitl, but Sam Reinhart is good. They definitely miss rookie Victor Olofsson. Jeff Skinner had been a colossal disappointment in the first year of a huge contract. Marcus Johansson has six goals in 42 games. Yikes. They also had to send down Casey Mittlestadt. Buffalo continues to have a logjam on D that features Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen. Expect some moves soon.

So, Mat Barzal is the current NHL’s fastest skater. Yet didn’t see a shift during the third period of the Islanders 4-2 win over the Rangers. He set up two goals and is their best player. Trotz disciplined the talented third-year center. The issue is he’s coming up on Group II free agency this summer. The Isles have the advantage due to Barzal having no arbitration rights. They can either bridge him or go long-term. I think I’d prefer the latter if I’m an Isles fan with the franchise over a year away from moving into their new arena at Belmont.

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Game #48: Costly mistakes hurt Rangers in 4-2 loss to Islanders without Panarin, hit All-Star break on sour note

You had to figure the Islanders would come with more urgency. Having dropped the first two meetings over the last week and then blowing a home game to the Caps while only getting a point in Carolina via a shootout, they needed the third match-up with the Rangers badly.

It didn’t matter that the shots wound up in favor of the Blueshirts by a wide 42-18 margin. They weren’t good enough to make it a clean sweep of the three matches over nine days. Instead, an opportunistic Islanders made the most of their chances by converting on a pair of power plays and got the bounces in a 4-2 win at Madison Square Garden.

Thomas Greiss made 40 saves and Josh Bailey had a goal and two assists as the Isles spoiled the Garden party. They also dashed any hopes of the playoffs. As I’ve echoed from the beginning, that was always unrealistic. However, had the Rangers not screwed up the end of the Columbus game along with some costly mistakes last night, they sure could’ve made it interesting.

The truth is this. Through 48 games, they’ve only had one three-game win streak. That was before Thanksgiving. There’s a reason they’re on the outside looking in with a 23-21-4 record and 50 points. As the legendary New York Giants coach Bill Parcells says, “You are what your record says you are.”

Save me the excuses on Artemi Panarin not playing for the first time all season. As valuable as he’s been, this was a winnable game. The wounds were self inflicted. The Rangers went from leading in shots 9-1 to being down by a pair rather quickly. It was depressing. After outplaying the Islanders at even strength, some undisciplined penalties proved fatal.

Ryan Strome took a needless hi-sticking minor on Brock Nelson in the offensive zone. As good as he’s been during the first half, he does have a tendency to take ill advised penalties. Sunday’s goat due to a very mistimed change that allowed Oliver Bjorkstrand to score the winner with 26.5 seconds left, Strome helplessly sat in the penalty box for a dumb infraction that killed his team’s momentum.

It was on a Jordan Eberle slashing minor a few minutes earlier that Greiss made some key saves with none bigger than getting a piece of a Pavel Buchnevich one-timer on a good set up from Chris Kreider. He got just enough to keep the puck out. Unlike the first two meetings, Isles coach Barry Trotz went to Greiss over Semyon Varlamov, who the Blueshirts had their way with. Always a Ranger killer, Greiss again did it by stopping the first 29 shots including 14 in a busy first period. He improved to 5-0-1 versus the Rangers in six starts and eight appearances.

Even though the first Ranger power play created chances without Panarin, who sat out with an upper body injury that will keep him out of the All-Star Game, they didn’t capitalize. Instead, they had some bad luck when Islander rookie defenseman Noah Dobson had his shot redirected by Bailey off Alexandar Georgiev and then take a funny hop off Ryan Lindgren before deflecting off Georgiev and in. The goal came with 6:25 remaining in the first.

Georgiev was making his third straight start against the Isles. How could you go with anyone else? The way he’d stopped the puck for his career vs them, it was easy to ride the hot hand. Trotz basically played the same game finally by going to Greiss. Even though he only made 14 saves on 18 shots, Georgiev was largely blameless. He had two goals against go off Lindgren and another came off a Brady Skjei misplay that resulted in a tap in for Brock Nelson a few minutes into the third that wound up proving vital.

Sometimes, these games are anti stats. What I mean is if you didn’t watch and just looked at the total shots which were 24 in favor of the Rangers with the beloved attempts one sided by a ridiculous 71-40 margin, none of it mattered. You can take your beloved Corsica, charts and graphs and burn them Freddy Krueger style. He would’ve laughed at these nerds. How I miss Wes Craven. What a genius. I liked Shocker too. How good was Mitch Peleggi as Horace Pinker? A very underrated flick with my bit of crazy in it.

If everything was predictable as these birds would tell their blind followers, life would be pretty boring. It sure applies in sports. I just watched the epic conclusion to a five set men’s second round Australian Open match won by a weary American Tommy Paul over Gregor Dimitrov in a super tiebreaker. He was trailing 4-5 and Dimitrov led 30-0 only two points from elimination. The gritty and younger 22-year old showed so much heart by taking the next four points and eventually the match to reach the third round for the first time in a grand slam. What a good young talent.

Gee. I wonder what the expected winning percentage was when he was looking like burnt toast two points from defeat. I don’t think Paul cared what the odds were against him. He took the match from Dimitrov, who also gave it away and pretty much tapped out in the 10 point tiebreak.

That’s the thing. Anyone would think the Rangers won easily last night. Instead, it was a game they never led in and once trailed by four before a last ditch effort that came up short. They nearly rallied due to idiocy from Scott Mayfield.

Despite having no Panarin, they didn’t play badly by any stretch. They outshot the Isles in every period. The difference was special teams and face-offs. An area statistical bloggers ignore despite it being an important stat when it comes to puck possession. So do zone starts. But you never hear anything about that. Just some stupid charts that no normal hockey fan or player gives a hoot about.

Analytics are a lie. They are everywhere including the dopey Baseball Hall of Fame. As huge a Derek Jeter fan as I am, and I’m very happy he’s going into Cooperstown, these writers are complete hypocrites. I was a fan of Larry Walker, but he was the Hall of Very Good. The same as Craig Biggio. Neither would be in if these cynics, who made money off PED users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, were consistent. Both belong in along with Albert Belle, Don Mattingly and Jeff Kent. That’s my baseball rant for the blog.

David Quinn went with these lines for Tuesday night without the Wonder Bread Man:

Kreider-Zibanejad-Lemieux

Fast-Strome-Buchnevich

Howden-Chytil-Kakko

Haley-McKegg-Smith

The D pairs remained what they always are. Skjei and Jacob Trouba. Marc Staal and Tony DeAngelo. Lindgren with Adam Fox. Georgiev in net with the $8.5 million 👑 backing up. Igor Shestyorkin was up in the press box. He would later be sent down to Hartford despite another blog jumping the gun. That’s the thing about blogging. At least wait and make sure to get it right. We’ve all done it. Shestyorkin is an AHL All-Star. I would love for him to get that unique experience. He deserves it. He will get more work in Hartford during the preposterous week long break. It’s ridiculous. The Rangers don’t play again until January 31 against the Red Wings.

It would be easy to point out the obvious. No Panarin. No chance. In the games he doesn’t record a point, their record is 1-9-1. In Game 48, they played without him. It wasn’t like the Isles dominated. They didn’t. However, they cashed in their chances. Two power play goals from Bailey and Ranger killer Anthony Beauvillier (9th vs NYR). An Anders Lee tally that banked in off Lindgren, who did his best Skjei impersonation. I’m surprised that didn’t merit a 🌟. Plus an easy Nelson put away from Bailey, who was the Isles’ best forward. He had three points.

Following the Bailey power play goal off Lindgren, Skjei hooked Beauvillier 3:01 after the idiotic Strome penalty. So, that gave the Long Island rivals back-to-back power plays. This time, the attacking Ranger penalty kill went for it. Having scored eight shorthanded goals this year, why not? The Islanders power play had struggled coming in. Strome tried to atone for his bad penalty by rushing up ice with Trouba. They nearly connected down low, but a sliding Greiss denied the Strome bid for Trouba.

As usually happens when you take that kind of chance, it causes an immediate transition in the opposite direction. Like a bunch of killer bees, the Isles countered quickly to create a chaotic odd man rush. Bailey fed Mat Barzal, who circled around with the Rangers penalty killers scrambling back. He made the right play by finding Beauvillier wide open in the slot. The trailer then moved in and snapped a laser past Georgiev high glove right inside the goalpost for a 2-0 Islanders lead at 16:35. A well executed play that put the Rangers in double trouble.

The second period was almost exclusively played at five-on-five. Only a very foolish boarding penalty on Isles tough guy Ross Johnston, who leveled Lindgren from behind, sent the Blueshirts to their second power play. On it, nothing of consequence happened. It was lethargic and passive. At one point, you had Mika Zibanejad with the puck in the circle with a great opportunity to shoot on Greiss. Instead, he tried a low percentage pass that was intercepted and cleared down the ice by the Isles kill. Mind numbing. What was he waiting for? Panarin to magically come out of the sky in a Superman cape.

Not long after the successful penalty kill of Johnston’s mindless action on Lindgren, who’s becoming a target due to the big open ice hits he makes, Jordan Eberle and Barzal combined to set up Lee. On the play, all five Rangers were back. This was a simple case of Lee having enough room to fire a wrist shot that deflected right off Lindgren’s shin and in for a 3-0 Isles lead at 9:52 of the second.

It looked like it was over. The Rangers hadn’t shown much in the first part of that period. However, they picked it up after falling behind by three. The whole second half was played almost all in the Islander zone. They forechecked and created good opportunities on Greiss, who stood tall. In a period his team was outshot 15-5, he stopped everything that was thrown at him. Even if the Trotz Islanders do a good job limiting the shots to the outside, they leaned on their netminder to maintain a three goal lead.

It nearly became two. Strome thought he had one with under two minutes left. On some good work down low with Fast and Buchnevich, who I felt played well, the former Islander center circled around the net and put in a rebound past Greiss upstairs. It felt like it was 3-1 and a game again. The crowd was finally awake after having nothing to get up for. Kinda like Freddy’s Nightmares.

But the MSG cameras zoomed in on Trotz discussing the play with the officials. It was obvious they were going to challenge. But it wasn’t for goaltender interference. Rather offsides. One of those challenges I hate. I knew by how quickly they challenged, they must’ve had indisputable evidence. Why risk a power play if you lose? You’re still up two likely going to the third.

Sure enough, they made a fast decision to overturn the goal due to Fast not being able to keep his skate on the ice at the blueline. It was one of those tacky rulings that had no effect on the play. But that’s what the rule is for. Fast couldn’t get his skate down due to it accidentally touching an Islander. It stunk. But that’s how the game was going. They made the correct call.

Before anyone could still get their hopes up for a third period comeback due to how mediocre the Islanders had played, a Skjei mistake early on put the disengage button on. He went for a steal to start a rush, but over skated the puck. Instead, Ryan Pulock’s pass for Bailey down low created a problem. He faked shot and then made a smooth pass for a Nelson tap in at 3:13. The overlooked Isles second line center had just enough space to get free of Strome and put in his team-leading 20th from Bailey and Pulock. He’s really earned his new contract to prove me wrong. A better bargain than Kevin Hayes.

There really wasn’t a whole lot going on during the first half of the third that told you it could get interesting. The Isles were comfortably in front by four doing what they had to do. Quinn finally mixed up his lines. Kaapo Kakko finally found himself with Zibanejad and first-time NHL All-Star Chris Kreider. He was announced as the team’s replacement for Panarin after the game. I guess they didn’t want to mess up Zibanejad’s vacation. I am happy and excited for Kreider, who continues to play well. He would record his 11th goal and 18th point over the last 19 games since Dec. 8.

I thought Kakko was much more noticeable once he was bumped up. He saw some shifts late in the second. Without Panarin, this was the game to do it. He had one strong shot that Greiss stopped and then covered the rebound before Kreider could bury it. It was a close call. Hopefully, the break will do Kakko some good. He’s going home to Finland to be with family and friends. I think that can help. Maybe the time off will allow him to come back stronger. The rest of the season is really about his progression.

It wasn’t until a stoppage with 7:21 remaining that Mayfield got goaded by Brendan Lemieux into a foolish spearing penalty. Lemieux was doing what he does best. Talking trash I’m sure. Mayfield gave him a chop and he went down like he was shot. Believe it or not, they assessed a double minor to Mayfield for a call they rarely make. Yet boarding someone from behind is only two minutes. Some league.

Even if I thought the Rangers caught a break, they still had to score on the first half of the four minute power play. Sure enough, Fox skated to the middle and took a smart wrist shot that Buchnevich was able to redirect through a Kreider screen to end Greiss’s shutout bid with 6:15 left. Zibanejad got a secondary helper on the simple play. Simple is better. They need to remember that.

Now came the second half. This is where Quinn took a big risk by pulling Georgiev for a six-on-four still trailing by three. I’m not a fan of this strategy. Too often, we see it lead to a shorthanded goal into an open net to finish off games. Patrick Roy started this dumb trend. Every coach does it. More often than not, it backfires. I would love to know the percentages.

The only reason Quinn’s risk worked was due to the Isles inability to hit an empty net. They missed it like five times. It was insane. Eventually, a Zibanejad point shot never made it to Greiss. Instead, it hit Casey Cizikas and then Kreider picked up the loose change and buried his 17th to make things interesting. Suddenly, it was 4-2 with still 4:28 left in regulation.

Even crazier, the Islanders let Kreider get a step on an outlet. He was flying down the left wing, but when he went to shoot the puck from the circle, his stick failed him. Who knows what happens if his twig didn’t break. He might’ve scored. I’ve seen him make that shot enough. We’ll never know.

With over three minutes remaining, Quinn had Georgiev on the bench for a six-on-five following an Islander icing. A funny thing happened. With the Isles in delay mode, Trotz tried to pull a fast one on the refs. You must have the same players on for the defensive face-off. They went over to the bench and checked it out. Sure enough, the Isles got nabbed for a delay of game. Matt Martin served the unnecessary penalty.

Were they trying to give the game away? It was strange. The issue the Rangers ran into on the six-on-four was they couldn’t set up quick enough for shots. The Islanders were very disciplined on that penalty kill. They wouldn’t allow any dangerous shots to get through. I felt the two-man advantage was too predictable. You’re still down two goals. Move the puck quicker and get shots through with traffic. They were too deliberate.

Once the penalty was killed, the Islanders had a few more cracks at the empty netter. Only it never came. Mayfield flat out missed from his own end while still on the penalty kill. Then, you had Tony DeAngelo playing goalie by blocking one shot on his knees and then another. It was insane. The crowd that was left over cheered the effort. Filip Chytil also made a great backcheck to prevent a goal prior.

It was honestly unbelievable that the Islanders couldn’t score on an open net. They might want to practice that. I legit laughed while watching the wacky ending at my friend Jonathan’s. We both admired the effort from our team. They never quit. That showed me something.

If you’re looking for a depressing blog or aggravation, you’re in the wrong space. I love what I saw at the end. Some hustle. If only they had played with the same urgency earlier. Not that they were bad. But weren’t good enough to win.

There were three statistics that mattered.

Islanders 4

Rangers 2

Power Play: Isles 2/2

Rangers 2/5

Face-offs:

Islanders 35

Rangers 19

That’s why they lost this game. Not due to the total shots or attempts. And definitely not the beloved Corsi and Fenwick. Until this team improves on draws, they’ll never be able to compete seriously. Only Zibanejad and Strome are reliable enough to take the bulk of the key draws.

That’s gonna do it. No highlights. No stars. They’re self explanatory. Not one Blueshirt deserves a 🌟 anyway. It’s Greiss, Bailey and Nelson. Oh. And good on Trotz for benching Barzal. If he can do that to Barzal, Quinn can to Strome. I am a fan of his, but his last two games weren’t good enough.

It’s break time. Anything I put up will not be over the top. Stay tuned.

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Hot Blueshirts Topics as they face Islanders before All-Star Break

Without the Wonder Bread Man, the Rangers would be one of the league’s bottom feeders in the Lafreniere Sweepstakes. That’s how much value Artemi Panarin has in Year One on Broadway.

With less than a day away from some time off, the Rangers will once again do battle with their biggest rival, the Islanders later tonight at Madison Square Garden. It’ll be the third game between the teams over nine days. At least it makes up for having no meetings over the first three months.

For the Blueshirts, who lost a crusher to the sizzling Blue Jackets on Oliver Bjorkstrand’s game-winner with 26.5 seconds left in regulation Sunday night, they’ll look to bounce back. As much as that 2-1 defeat hurt, these are the kind of games they can learn from. Ditto for the hard fought 3-2 victory in their return to NYCB Live aka Nassau Coliseum last Thursday. A similar tight checking game won by Chris Kreider with 24.6 seconds remaining.

You can be negative and sound ridiculous as some of NYR Twitter was following the gut punch against Columbus, who improved to 6-1-1 versus the Rangers in the last eight. That includes a perfect 4-0-0 in the last four meetings at 33rd and 8th Avenue. I guess it doesn’t matter if they have Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. They’re still having success under John Tortorella.

Here’s the point. Would you prefer our team get their doors blown off in these big divisional match-ups? At this stage of the season, it’s nice to know that the Rangers are playing important games. They aren’t expected to make the playoffs. Especially with rookie Kaapo Kakko continuing to struggle. Who had both Kakko and Devils top pick Jack Hughes with less than 20 points at nearly Game 50? Exactly.

Not every hyped prospect that goes number one overall or in the top three take the league by storm like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid. Some young players take more time to develop into dominant stars we are seeing with Nathan MacKinnon, Jack Eichel and David Pastrnak. Even Leon Draisaitl wasn’t what he is today right away. It’s going to take longer for both Hughes and Kakko to develop for their respective Hudson rival teams.

At 23-20-4 with 50 points in 47 games, the Rangers are about where I expected them to be. Out of playoff position, but not out of contention. I predicted them for 85 points before the season. That looks like a good prediction right now. They’re here mostly due to the elite play of Panarin.

As the evidence mounts, they have definitely benefited from the key addition of the Wonder Bread Man. Facing his former team the other day for the second time, Panarin didn’t record a point. His line with Jesper Fast and Ryan Strome, whose lousy change cost the team at least a point, were shutdown by the tenacious checking of the Blue Jackets. In the first meeting at Columbus, Panarin got the winner on Dec. 5. There’s more.

When The Bread Man doesn’t record a point, the Blueshirts are 1-9-1. The lone win came on Nov. 30 over the Devils. A game that wasn’t competitive. In losses, Panarin has 17 points (7-10-17) with a minus-11 rating. Including overtime defeats, he is a goal and three assists. In victories, he’s 18-29-47 with a plus-33 rating. So 47 of his 68 points have come in wins.

Nobody has more even strength points than the Bread Man, who paces the NHL with an incredible 52 (20-32-52). That’s why he should get MVP consideration even if the Rangers don’t qualify for the playoffs. I don’t expect him to win the Hart. That’ll probably go to one of McDavid, MacKinnon or Pastrnak. John Carlson should also get votes. He’s running away with the Norris with an astounding 60 points.

To the original point regarding Panarin. Where would they be without him? Near the bottom of the league. Maybe not quite Red Wing bad. However, they’d be right in the thick of the Lafreniere Sweepstakes. The gallows humor Blueshirt fan might ask, “Would that be so bad?”

It would and wouldn’t. Would because the team lacks enough scoring depth on the wing. Would not because it speaks to just how far away they are despite promising young talent such as Kakko, Filip Chytil, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shestyorkin. They’re still waiting on Vitali Kravtsov, who’s been alright at Hartford since returning. The 2018 first round pick hasn’t proven he’s ready yet. More potential exists in the organization featuring future pros K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, Lauri Pajunemi, Morgan Barron and yet another goalie prospect in Hobey Baker candidate Tyler Wall.

From the looks of the prospect pool, the organizational strengths are defense and goaltending. Boasting the depth they have at those positions could make some current Rangers with upcoming free agency expendable. I’m not going to get into the particulars. It’s been repeated all over social media and the blogosphere, which in some cases is unrealistic. See my commentary on that issue here.

It’s interesting to note that aside from the performance of Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Strome, Chris Kreider and Fast, it’s been the heavily critiqued defense that’s been responsible for a lot of the team’s offense. In fact, despite their youth aside from grizzled vet Marc Staal, that blueline leads the NHL in scoring with 133 points (38-95-133). That includes 37 points (12-25-37) from Tony DeAngelo, 26 (6-20-26) from Fox, 23 (7-16-23) from $8 million man Jacob Trouba and 21 (7-14-21) from Brady Skjei.

For all the constant complaints over what the defense can’t do under overly criticized assistant coach Lindy Ruff, that sure is a lot of production. Maybe the cynics are wrong. Oh. The D isn’t perfect. We’ve seen Skjei have some brutal nights and even Trouba get victimized. But who else should we have high expectations for? Staal continues to play solid physical defense yet is a frequent target among biased chart bloggers, who don’t watch each shift.

If you want to point out that the back end can use a little more size and physical edge like Lindgren provides, you’re correct. The problem is neither Lundkvist or Miller are those type of style players. Former prospect and current Avalanche defenseman Ryan Graves is. Oops.

The focus needs to be more on the lack of scoring depth to help Panarin and Zibanejad, who’s over a point-per-game with 37 in 34 games. As good as he’s been, Strome only has 12 goals despite playing mostly with Panarin. By now, he should have 20. After Kreider, whose 17 points in the last 18 games, moved him up to 16-15-31 in a contract year, it dramatically falls off.

Pavel Buchnevich has been a huge disappointment. While the 18 assists and 25 points aren’t bad, the top right wing has only seven goals in 47 games. That’s unacceptable. So are some of his defensive issues due to not always being willing to pay the price. He’s not a small guy. Mats Zuccarello played way harder despite his smaller frame. By now, Buchnevich should have figured it out. If his production doesn’t improve, look for the Rangers to listen to offers and try to free up the $3.5 million cap hit which expires after next season.

With 22 points (8-14-22) including two shorthanded goals and a plus-15 rating in 46 contests, Fast has done all David Quinn has asked for. While the well respected hardworking Swede will never be a big scorer, he’s a perfect complementary forward due to his two-way capability and high work ethic. Look for the Rangers to re-sign him. He won’t be as costly as the other key free agents.

Until he figures it out, Kakko remains a work in progress. With just seven goals and nine assists for 16 points in 43 games with a club worst minus-17, the teenager is still learning in his first NHL season. He hasn’t earned a spot in the top six. For now, he should remain with Chytil and either Brett Howden or Brendan Lemieux on the third line. While I still believe a stint with Hartford could give a confidence boost to the second overall pick, it appears Rangers brass is fearful of taking that risk due to how young Kakko is. He has Type 1 diabetes and also suffers from Celiac Disease. They probably would prefer to manage him up close without the Hartford distraction.

If you combined the totals of the NYR right wings including Brendan Smith and Micheal Haley, it’s pretty bad. Not one right wing is a consistent scoring threat. The only way for that to change is to see dramatic improvement from Kakko and Buchnevich. They definitely need better production to become a playoff team again. That also includes Kravtsov.

If they subtract key performers like Kreider or Strome, they have to replace that production. The same applies to DeAngelo if he becomes too expensive this summer. They better get a good young scoring forward back.

AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

If they decide to trade Georgiev, who will be in net again versus the Islanders later tonight, he can’t net only a draft pick or unproven prospect. It has to be a young forward that’ll help the roster. They can’t just give away the wins leader who seems to get the bulk of the tough assignments over Henrik Lundqvist.

Speaking of Lundqvist, he will not play again barring the Islanders finally getting to Georgiev. He hasn’t played much this month. Does he really want to be in this complicated situation for one more year due to his love of the Big Apple? It’s his call. There’s nothing that can be done unless he changes his mind. Blame Sather.

At some point, you’re not going to see three goalies on the NHL roster. Expect the Rangers to designate Shestyorkin to Hartford so he can stay sharp. He was selected as an AHL All-Star. He deserves to get that cool experience with forgotten D prospect Joey Keane. He’s handled his three starts and everything else thrown his way extremely well. He seems very mature and looks to have a bright future in NYC.

In terms of this third installment on Tuesday at MSG, my family will be attending. I sure wish I was. I can’t contain my excitement. The idea of potentially beating the Islanders three times in just keep a week is crazy. This is a team that’s given us fits. Don’t believe me? Go look at Lundqvist’s record since he signed his big contract extension. Sean McCaffrey (NYCTheMic) has you covered. Maybe I’ll put something up about it later.

We’ll see if Alexandar The Great can keep it going against what should be a desperate Islanders.

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Watch “Rangers lose to Blue Jackets 2-1” on YouTube

Rather than do a lengthy game review like usual, I actually recorded Vlog above on my YouTube channel. You can Like, Comment or even Subscribe. Though I’m not exactly a expert by any stretch at this yet. 😁

I attended Sunday night’s game against the Blue Jackets. It was an opportunity for the Rangers to register their second three-game winning streak of the season. But it wasn’t to be due to the attention to detail from a focused Jackets, who rallied from a goal back to pull out a 2-1 win over the Blueshirts at Madison Square Garden.

Oliver Bjorkstrand spoiled Igor Shestyorkin’s shutout bid by beating the Rangers rookie netminder twice top cheese in a better third period by the Blue Jackets. It marked his return to coach John Tortorella’s lineup. They recently also got back top right shot Cam Atkinson.

Brady Skjei had the lone tally for the Rangers late in a bland first period where not much happened. He took the game’s only penalty and then came out and scored on a one-timer high glove. It was a Jack in the Box goal with Skjei almost getting a breakaway, but wisely using a Jacob Trouba pass off the boards to fire a one-timer past first-time starter Matiss Kivleniks at 18:23. It was the defenseman’s seventh. He’s been picking it up offensively.

But in a tight checking game where there weren’t many pointblank chances either rookie goalie had to contend with, it favored the Blue Jackets. The shots were only 8-7 Columbus in the second. Even though they weren’t able to test the 23-year old Latvian Kivleniks as much as they would’ve preferred, the Rangers misfired on a few opportunities. Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome were unable to connect in this one. Neither was Mika Zibanejad or Chris Kreider.

The closely fought game became a battle of the neutral zone in the third period. Of course, that went in favor of the more battle tested Jackets, who don’t forget made the second round a year ago. However, that was with Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and former two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. Astonishingly, they haven’t missed Bobrovsky, who’s been playing better of late while trying to get the Panthers back into the postseason.

Somehow, Tortorella has taken a team that’s still marred with injuries and key departures, by getting them to buy into the team concept. Sure enough, they’re the hottest team right now. Elvis Merzlikins recently won his fourth straight decision by recording a third career shutout in four games on Saturday night in a 5-0 win over the Devils. Joonas Korpisalo remains on the shelf.

In the third, crucial mistakes by Rangers proved costly. A Jesper Fast drop to nobody along with a miscommunication with Panarin led directly to Bjorkstrand stealing the puck and beating Shestyorkin top shelf at 6:08. The unassisted tally swung the momentum.

Even though they weren’t badly outplayed in the third with shots dead even at 14 apiece, you never got the sense the Rangers were winning this game. When I go see hockey live, I usually pick up on things. As the period wore on, the puck management through the neutral zone wasn’t as good. The disciplined Jackets started to create chances off sloppy turnovers.

In the final minute, I sensed doom. I don’t know why. But I told my Dad, Justin and our friend Tommy that I thought either the Blue Jackets would come down and score or the game would go to overtime. Not long after, they made me prophetic by taking advantage of a bad change by Strome to set up Bjorkstrand for the game-winner with 26.5 seconds left.

Pierre-Luc Dubois made a nice drop for Bjorkstrand on a three-on-two rush. I originally thought it was Zach Werenski, who had an excellent game logging over 26 minutes while teaming with partner Seth Jones to shutdown the Panarin line. Werenski was in on the play, but he didn’t pick up a point.

Basically, Trouba and Skjei were left to fend for themselves with no forward support. It created a perfect screen for Bjorkstrand to fire a rocket in the high slot past Shestyorkin top shelf. He missed almost a month, but stayed hot by getting both Columbus goals in the win. Jones added a secondary assist to help set up the winning play.

As soon as Bjorkstrand had the puck on his stick in the middle of the ice, I knew what was coming. Obviously, a crushing way to lose for the Rangers. But these are the type of games they can learn from. Ditto the more thrilling 3-2 win at Nassau Coliseum over the Islanders in Thursday where Kreider scored with 24.6 seconds left.

I quickly climbed over the railing due to being in the last row of our section. Headed downstairs with my father and walked several blocks to the car. Those stairs feel like they added several flights. Ever seen Vertigo? 😉 Jesus.

It’s always harder going downstairs when you lose. We didn’t need to see the final 26.5 seconds. No way were they tying it. Not against that team. For all the teams he’s coached, this is Tortorella’s best coaching job. If the Blue Jackets make the playoffs, he should win a third Jack Adams. Nobody will want to play them either.

I don’t have much else to add. See my commentary above which includes some Islanders insight as well as why I enjoyed the Rangers’ successful return to the old barn. There’s also a preview of Islanders vs Rangers Part 3. Plus more observarions on the Blue Jackets and the game.

I’ll have something else up later.

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The sheer lunacy of some Ranger fans

AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

As they prepare for battle tonight against the sizzling Blue Jackets on Championship Sunday, the Rangers face a dilemma in net. The three headed goalie monster won’t last forever. Eventually, management will be forced to make an uncomfortable decision.

The disturbing part is that they’ll likely choose poorly like in that funny scene near the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. With Henrik Lundqvist barely playing these days due to younger netminders Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shestyorkin, you would think his days would be numbered. But with the power of a no-movement clause, the soon to be 38-year old franchise leader in victories, shutouts and games played doesn’t have to leave. He can stay for another year with the now bad $8.5 million cap hit hindering the team’s ability to keep key players.

You can either see the collective writing on the wall, or be blinded by what one of the all-time Rangers has accomplished. Nobody is denying how special Lundqvist once was. His shutout of the Canadiens in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Final in 2014 to clinch the franchise’s first Stanley Cup appearance in 20 years was memorable. It remains my favorite game ever attended followed up by the Game Five miracle in 2015 to stun the Capitals on the precipice of getting eliminated. There are others such as the Martin St. Louis goal on Mother’s Day to help the Rangers come back from a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in their history while beating the Penguins.

When they host Columbus later right around the time the 49ers take on the Packers in the NFC Championship Game, it’ll be Shestyorkin in net for his third career start. He won his first two by allowing three goals in each while making plenty of key saves. Now, he’s back after over a week off. The only loss in the previous five games was to Lundqvist, who allowed five in a 5-2 defeat at St. Louis. Alexandar Georgiev won the last two games against the Islanders by continuing to play well. He’s 4-1-0 against them with a 1.40 GAA and .955 save percentage.

Of course, Alexandar The Great could be the odd man out despite owning the most wins this season. He’ll soon turn 24 next month about two weeks leading up to the trade deadline. A good goalie who no one knew about due to being signed by the organization, he’s affordable like Shestyorkin. Of course, Igor has the pedigree and is expected to be the heir apparent to Lundqvist. He could supplant him as the next star netminder on Broadway.

But what about Georgiev? Is he really an afterthought due to the uncomfortable Lundqvist situation that now is becoming impossible to ignore. Even if some Ranger fans choose to live in an alternate universe. The trade proposals I’ve seen on Twitter are outlandish. They’re supposed to just move Georgiev for any forward when he is increasing his value. Unless it’s a player who can definitely play top nine and improve the roster, I have to be very careful. Yes. I too have pondered if Kasperi Kapanen would be enough in a swap with the interested Leafs due to their uncomfortable backup situation. Why not trade with Detroit instead? They have no number one goalie with apologies to the well respected Jimmy Howard.

With Tyler Wall named as a Hobey Baker candidate for top collegiate player, he will have a future. The Rangers boast goalie depth which bodes well. But there’s nothing wrong with having a rotation of two 24-year olds in Georgiev and Shestyorkin for ’20-21. The issue is Lundqvist. Unless he does a 180 and accepts a trade to say Colorado or Calgary, he will stay until the end of his contract.

That poses a problem for GM Jeff Gorton and Team President John Davidson. They can’t keep everyone. As well as Chris Kreider is performing entering tonight’s match with 17 points over his last 17 games, he will cost a pretty penny this summer. I’ve seen some unrealistic proposals. Kreider isn’t taking less than $6.5 million. He’s worth at least $7 million over six years. If he wants full security, he can ask for a seventh year. The value he brings to the roster isn’t just on the score sheet. But off the ice on the bench and in the room where he provides leadership. He’s a good example for younger teammates to follow.

Unless Lundqvist comes off the books with even a potential buyout an option, they can’t keep Kreider, Ryan Strome, Tony DeAngelo and Jesper Fast. Brendan Lemieux is also restricted, but will be cheaper. It creates a dilemma for management, who can’t just subtract players without replacing them. They don’t want to weaken a roster that prominently features Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Shestyorkin, Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko. Who will they choose?

It can’t be a giveaway if they decide to retain Kreider and move on from leading scoring defenseman DeAngelo and Strome. Draft picks won’t work because they won’t improve the current roster. They need good young NHL players in return. No bull.

Try telling other fan bloggers that. It’ll fall on deaf ears. These people are blind. They don’t get the big picture. That is to still improve without making the rebuilding process even longer. If the organization listens to these people, it could be years before they see the playoffs. If you thought the Dark Ages of ’97-98 to ’03-04 was bad, this could be worse.

There can’t be any missteps. The Rangers still have two games to play both at home before the All-Star break. One tonight versus John Tortorella’s hot Blue Jackets and a third meeting over nine days against the suddenly sliding Islanders this Tuesday at MSG.

They can make things more interesting with two more wins on home ice. No matter what, it’ll be interesting what they’ll do in a month with big decisions on key players.

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Devils hit the break in bad fashion

Elvis Merzlikins shutout the Devils with 41 saves in a Columbus 5-0 win that sent New Jersey into the break on a three-game losing streak. AP Photo credit Columbus Blue Jackets via Getty Images

Let’s give them credit for winning games against elite teams in the Lightning and Bruins with both looking like the class of the East. That’s an accomplishment of sorts for the Devils under interim coach Alain Nasreddine.

Since he took over for current Nashville coach John Hynes in this wild and wacky NHL season, the Devils have improved. They play harder since former GM Ray Shero dealt distraction Taylor Hall to the Coyotes. First-time All-Star Nico Hischier has reemerged as their top player with injured top right wing Kyle Palmieri and classic overachiever Blake Coleman being constants on a roster that obviously will change at next month’s trade deadline and beyond.

New Jersey can beat good teams like most, but remain inconsistent due to not enough secondary scoring and a immobile defense that struggles. Interim GM Tom Fitzgerald is in a tough spot with ownership. They must decide on key unrestricted free agent defenseman Sami Vatanen, who will be an attractive piece for interested suitors if he hits the market. With Wayne Simmonds and PK Subban not performing up to expectations, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.

For now, the Devils find themselves headed for a second consecutive playoff miss. Despite dominating early on at Columbus, they couldn’t get a shot past red hot goalie Elvis Merzlikins. The 25-year old Latvian rookie who’s admirably filled in for injured starter Joonas Korpisalo, stopped 21 Devil shots in a busy first period en route to his third NHL shutout in four games. He finished with 41 stops altogether in a Blue Jackets 5-0 home win to send the Devils to a third straight defeat at the All-Star break.

In 48 games, New Jersey is 17-24-7 with 41 points to rank last in the Metro Division. Even with some improved play which also included a win over the Islanders while earning a point in a tough 3-2 overtime loss in the rematch, they only have more points than NHL doormat Detroit. The Red Wings have only 28 points following their latest loss to the Panthers. Detroit is the worst team by far and will be front and center in the Alexis Lafreniere Lottery. The Devils’ 41 points are tied with the Kings for the second fewest with the Senators at 42 and Ducks at 43. Even the underachieving Sharks are in the mix with 46. At last check, they were losing 4-1 at Vancouver late in regulation.

When you outshoot a good opponent as hot as the Blue Jackets 41-31 and out-attempt them 69-48, you have to take advantage of your scoring chances. Facing the suddenly emerging Calder candidate Merzlikins, they couldn’t. Nothing went in for the Devils. Even a Subban shot that had the Columbus goalie beat late in the third period clanged off the far goalpost. It was that kind of night as former Devil Stanley Cup hero Ken Daneyko summed up during the telecast.

Instead, it was the Jackets, who were opportunistic. Cam Atkinson continued to stay hot by beating Cory Schneider from distance for the only goal in the first period. He just returned the other day, recording a goal and assist in a win over Carolina. Atkinson had another good game tallying twice and assisting on another Columbus goal. His three points paced them as they continue to defy logic by winning games despite having some players out under coach John Tortorella. The veteran coach who’s won the Jack Adams twice, could be doing his best coaching job. He has a team written off by everyone in playoff position with 58 points. They’re in the first wildcard with the Flyers. One up on the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs.

For Schneider, who recently returned from AHL Binghamton, it was his first start since Nov. 8. He came in relief in appearances at Toronto and Washington. After only permitting just the Atkinson goal on 10 shots in period one, he was chased by three more Columbus goals in a 3:34 span during the second period.

First, Atkinson got his second off a lead pass from rookie Emil Bemstrom at 8:40 for a 2-0 lead. Then, some sloppy play allowed Jakob Lilja to beat Schneider for a unassisted goal at 11:58. On the next shift, no Devil took Nick Foligno in front to put the Jackets comfortably in front 4-0. Vladislav Gavrikov set up the play with the goal coming only 16 seconds later to end Schneider’s night.

Mackenzie Blackwood relieved him. The rookie netminder gave up a late goal to Alex Wennberg that was set up by Atkinson and Zach Werenski for a 5-0 deficit with 1:06 left in the disastrous second. Blackwood came in and stopped 13 of 14 Columbus shots including a couple of strong denials in a lackluster third.

The Jackets continuously forced turnovers and came in transition for good chances against Blackwood, who was equal to the task. It was a nice return for the 23-year old who previously had played in a loss to the Rangers on Jan. 9. Even though it’s been a tough season, he’s proven capable of taking on the challenge of becoming the new Devils starter. He has 14 of the club’s 17 wins in 35 appearances (31 starts). The second half will continue to be all about Blackwood getting valuable experience.

The only thing noteworthy that happened in the third was a dust-up between Damon Severson and Nathan Gerbe. The smaller Gerbe didn’t take kindly to a couple of crosschecks from a frustrated Severson, finally engaging him with 2:35 left. Both received matching roughing minors and misconducts for 12 penalty minutes apiece to end their nights.

When the buzzer sounded along with the loud cannon that plays after goals, Merzlikins had his third shutout in his last four starts. A intriguing personality, he gave a huge fist pump as teammates congratulated him. The goalie was a virtual unknown the Jackets took in the third round number 76 in the 2014 NHL Draft as a 20-year old overager. Since Korpisalo went down, the rookie has delivered the same type of goaltending for one of the league’s biggest surprises.

This is a team that lost top five leading NHL scorer Artemi Panarin to the Rangers while Matt Duchene went to Nashville. Somehow, Columbus continues to win consistently despite injuries to Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Korpisalo, Ryan Murray, Alexander Texier, Brandon Dubinsky and Dean Kukan. They do it by outworking opponents and getting great goaltending. Having top defensemen Seth Jones and Werenski, whose 15 goals pace all NHL defensemen, helps. A credit to Tortorella.

For the Devils, they have to hope top pick Jack Hughes can be helped by the time off. Injuries have limited him to 17 points (6-11-17) in 39 games. An upper body injury kept Hughes out until Jan. 12. He had an assist in a 3-1 win over Tampa to stop a 10-game winning streak. Hughes went without a point the last three games. Rangers second pick Kaapo Kakko hasn’t been any better with 16 points (7-9-16) across the Hudson.

The biggest difference is Hughes doesn’t have much help in Newark. With possible moves coming by next month’s deadline with potential UFA’s Simmonds, Andy Greene and Vatanen all likely available, it’ll be interesting to see what the Devils organization decides. They already got rid of Hynes and Shero. The ownership is actively involved.

What is the plan of attack moving forward? One thing is likely. They should be competing for another top pick. That can only help the franchise in the future.

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A Georgiev Statement: Islanders mastery continues for Rangers wildcard, Kreider wins it with 24.6 seconds left

Rangers hero Chris Kreider wears the Broadway Hat after scoring a clutch power play goal to beat the Islanders 3-2 with 24.6 seconds left in regulation. He’s making a strong case to stay. AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

If this were a prize fight, the Islanders would’ve won by technical knockout in a dominant first period. If they didn’t play close to their best in a 6-2 humiliation on Monday night at MSG, the Islanders brought it in the anticipated rematch in Uniondale.

They fired shots from everywhere in an avalanche against Alexandar Georgiev in a lopsided period they controlled. It didn’t matter. The 22-6 edge in shots didn’t buckle the poised 23-year old Bulgarian netminder, who continues to be the wildcard for the Rangers. He stopped 21 of 22 and 38 of 40 overall in improving to 4-1-0 versus the Islanders, who have to be devastated after losing it crushing fashion, 3-2 on a Chris Kreider goal with 24.6 seconds left in regulation at Nassau Coliseum.

This was a statement game for Georgiev and the Rangers. They knew the Isles would come much harder after what happened Monday in Manhattan. Unlike the match three days ago, there were no fights. However, you had your share of physicality, battles and plenty of penalties. Each team was penalized six times for a game total of 24 penalty minutes. Both had five power plays. In a key part of the latest installment of the Battle Of New York, the Blueshirts won the special teams battle and took the second game of the season series thanks to a former player losing his discipline at the wrong moment.

Derick Brassard is no stranger to Ranger fans. We loved him for how clutch he was in those memorable postseason runs. Then, we appreciated what he brought back in current top center Mika Zibanejad. Still GM Jeff Gorton’s best trade to date. A close second is Rick Nash to Boston for current Blueshirts Ryan Lindgren and Ryan Strome (formerly Ryan Spooner)

Getting back to Brassard AKA Big Game Brass. He also is no stranger to taking bad penalties. At times, he can be overly aggressive. Unfortunately for the Islanders, he picked a bad time to lose his discipline. You have to be really foolish to take a crosschecking penalty in the final minute of a tie game. That’s exactly what Brassard did by delivering repeated cross checks to Jesper Fast. Did he sell it as Brassard contended? Perhaps. But he should know better.

It cost the Isles. Artemi Panarin came down and gained the zone. Tony DeAngelo passed for Panarin, who threaded the needle for a quick Zibanejad one-timer that Semyon Varlamov couldn’t quite handle. The loose puck came right to Kreider, who delivered the clutch game-winner at 19:35. It was his 16th of a season that’s completely turned around. Since he scored his seventh on my birthday Dec. 8, he’s a point-per-game with 17 points (9-8-17) over 17 games. Most of it coming since being reunited with Zibanejad, who continues to play at over a point-per-game clip. He scored his 18th in this one while recording the primary assist on Kreider’s game decider to break Islander hearts.

Let’s get back to where the game was lost for the Isles and stolen by Georgiev, who in five career appearances including one in relief, has now stopped a mind-blowing 128 of 134 shots. That translates to a dominant 1.40 GAA with a .955 save percentage. He put on a show in the first period. At one point, the shots were 7-5 in favor of the home team. But following a Marc Staal slash that knocked down Scott Mayfield, they ramped it up.

Even though the penalty kill was strong, Georgiev faced an onslaught. The shots went from 7-5 to 18-5 rather quickly. In fact, he stopped them in their tracks on just about everything. There was a three save sequence like Monday along with a flat out denial on Casey Cizikas, who returned after missing the last two games. The save came earlier in the period. With an Islander pushed in, a sprawled out Georgiev somehow kept the puck out. That more than any stop should’ve told the Isles something.

Only a brutal miscue by Jacob Trouba allowed tough Islanders enforcer Ross Johnston to retrieve a loose puck freed up by a forechecking Tom Kuhnackl, and set up a wide open Josh Bailey for his 10th with 51 seconds remaining in the period. It was a terrible play by Trouba, who didn’t take a hit and rushed a reverse that went nowhere. It was easy pickings as no one picked up Bailey in front. Trouba struggled throughout at even strength. More so than much critiqued partner Brady Skjei, who always gets bashed. They were on for both goals against. However, they were large factors on the five successful penalty kills.

Despite being severely outplayed and outshot, the Rangers had Georgiev to thank for still just trailing by one following the period. For a while, each team played at five-on-five to start the second. Unlike the opening stanza, the Rangers tightened it up defensively. In fact, they didn’t allow an Islander shot until 14 minutes had passed. In the mean time, they picked it up offensively by using better skating legs to test Varlamov. It was his turn to make the big saves. He looked very sharp unlike Monday when the Rangers chased him for six.

Varlamov had much better rebound control. He also was strong down low denying Brett Howden with a great pad save where he stretched out to rob him. Howden was all set up, but couldn’t lift the puck. He put himself in the right position, but didn’t finish. There’s a reason he has six goals. The effort from the second-year forward is unquestioned. Playing wing on a line centered by Filip Chytil has helped him get more opportunities. As for Kaapo Kakko, he had another chance to shoot but didn’t. No shots on goal in 12:19 of ice time including 2:34 on the power play. A couple of attempts were blocked.

The Islanders ran into penalty trouble. After killing off a Devon Toews hold on Zibanejad, Mayfield tripped up Panarin to put the Rangers on their third power play. This was the odd part of the game. On a broken play in front, the Blueshirts thought they scored following a Zibanejad rebound that was very close. Only Strome thought it was in. Play continued. With them still on the man-advantage, the whistle finally blew.

As it turned out, they had reviewed the previous play where it originally looked like Ryan Pulock rescued the loose puck from crossing the goal line. However, video review indeed confirmed that the puck was entirely over the line. Zibanejad got credit for a weird unassisted power play goal to tie the score at 12:46. The refs explained that it happened with 7:14 left in the period.

Before they could get full control, it was the Blueshirts who lost their cool. Consecutive minor penalties to Adam Fox and Lindgren handed the Isles a golden opportunity to claim back the momentum. However, it was the aggressive penalty killing from Zibanejad, Fast, Strome, Howden and defensemen Skjei, Trouba, Lindgren, Staal and Brendan Smith that kept the Islanders power play off balance. The two units got their sticks and equipment on a lot of passes and shots to make big defensive plays. The effort of both Zibanejad and Lindgren in particular was Herculean. They were magnificent.

So, even when Georgiev had to make the stops, his penalty killers were tremendous. They really limited an Isles attack that loves to look for tips in front from net front presence Anders Lee. It was actually a scrum with Jordan Eberle searching for a rebound that led to a bad Lindgren crosscheck minor penalty where he shoved Eberle right into the Rangers net. The forward left the ice to get checked for concussion protocol. And no. He didn’t embellish it as some of our fans felt. Even though he was cleared to return for the third, I have nothing obligatory to say.

The way some fans of both teams act or react, you’d think there was a conspiracy theory when calls go against them. In most cases, that’s not true. There have been moments where I was up in arms over the officiating. Not last night. They called it consistently for both sides. Enough already.

Despite a much stronger effort in which they held a 12-5 shots advantage, the Rangers remained tied at one with their biggest rival at a lively Coliseum that was almost 14,000 strong. Yes. They were well represented in Long Island where the Islanders should remain. It’s too bad they will eventually move to Belmont for the start of 2021-22. I’m glad the rivalry returned to the old barn . It was the first time in five years. The last meeting was a 2-1 win by the Rangers on March 10, 2015. Rick Nash got the winner on a goal assisted by Staal. One of a few players left from that game.

For many younger Blueshirts including Lindgren, Kakko, Howden, Georgiev and Jericho native Fox, it was their first time playing a NHL game at Nassau Coliseum. Even though it’s now called NYCB Live with the rest, it will always be Nassau War Veterans Coliseum to everyone. This was the 117th meeting off the Southern State. Staal leads all active Rangers skaters with 56 career games versus the Islanders. A veteran of 13 years, he continues to get unfairly criticized for what he can’t do by a bunch of chart bloggers. He was solid in his 19 shifts including some key ones on the kill. He only took the one penalty while finishing with two blocks and a plus-one rating in 16:24 including 4:12 shorthanded.

Earlier in this recap, I referenced how special teams hurt the Islanders. It really bit them in the you know what this game. A undisciplined reactionary interference minor on an incensed DeAngelo a couple of minutes into period three handed the Isles another big chance to seize control. Instead, they butchered it. With the lone exception of a gigantic pad save by Georgiev to deny Mat Barzal, he didn’t have to do much. While he would go on to make 12 saves in a very competitive period that saw his team get 10 shots themselves, he didn’t do it alone like the 21 save first.

Had the Isles scored, DeAngelo was likely facing pine time for the foolish reaction to Eberle knocking his stick out. They always get the reaction. In a tie game which felt like a playoff game, you have to avoid those undisciplined penalties in the third period. However, something funny happened. An Isles misplay at the blueline allowed DeAngelo to come out of the box and two on one down the ice. He made no mistake by firing his 12th unassisted at 4:16 past Varlamov short side top cheese. It was a great shot because he looked pass to Fast and beat the Islanders starter for a 2-1 lead.

A minor penalty for closing his hand on the puck out Pulock in the box. However, the Rangers were unable to capitalize. I knew if they didn’t put it away with a better forecheck and another goal, they were running the risk of the scrappy Islanders tying it.

A key sequence between Cizikas and Panarin changed the tone. With the Bread Man having a step on the Isles’ solid two-way checking pivot, he was taken down from behind by Cizikas. I thought Panarin helped it along at the moment. So, I wasn’t surprised that they decided to take both of them. Cizikas for hooking and Panarin for embellishment at 12:29. That was a great trade for the Isles.

It didn’t take long for them to tie it. On a smart dump in from Anthony Beauvillier, the puck took a favorable home carom off the back boards right to the rushing Ranger killer where he was able to beat both Skjei and Trouba to a loose puck and slide it between Georgiev’s legs for his 12th with 7:20 remaining in regulation. It was a fluky play for sure. But the Isles got one like that in their predictable 8-2 rout of the lowly Red Wings on Tuesday. It took all of 11 seconds for him to score. Pulock and Brock Nelson, who otherwise was noticeably quiet, got the assists.

If there was one factor in taking these first two games with the third installment next Tuesday back at 33rd and 8th Avenue, it was the Blueshirts stifling Barzal. He’s the leading scorer and lone All-Star for the Islanders. The third-year playmaking center leads them with 39 points (17-22-39) in 46 games. He doesn’t have as many helpers due to the team lacking consistent finishers. In fact, it’s Barzal who has thought shot more with his 17 goals ranking second right behind Nelson’s 18. He needs six more to set a new career high. If he had more help, the Isles could become more of a threat this Spring. Lou Lamoriello needs to make a trade.

If you can limit Barzal the way the Rangers were able to, you have a pretty good chance of winning. He has no points in the two losses with a minus-five rating and five shots. Lee was also held off the score sheet again while Eberle had tough luck clanging a power play chance off the crossbar. He’s been their best forward in the two games, getting two points (1-1-2) on Monday. Leo Komarov also hit the post on a point blank opportunity in the second that Trouba got a piece of.

With the game hanging in the balance, the two teams played a tight checking affair at even strength. It seemed like this one was destined for overtime. Neither goalie budged. Both had strong rebound control. Particularly Georgiev, who seemed to have velcro on his pads. He was very good. If he is the “third goalie” in this bizarre rotation that still features Henrik Lundqvist and patient rookie Igor Shestyorkin, he’s proving that he could be capable of starting in the NHL. It just won’t be on Broadway. I know I’ve voiced my opinion plenty about what’s going on. This tweet isn’t going to change things.

Unless Lundqvist wakes up with a bad hangover, he’s not gonna change his mind. He loves it in NYC. He has a family and enjoys the surroundings along with the royal treatment he receives from the Rangers organization. They treat their players well. That’s why it’s a marquee attraction despite it still looking like they’ll be on the outside of the playoff picture for a third straight year. They’re up to 50 points, but with the Blue Jackets continuing to win and the Hurricanes, Panthers, Flyers and Penguins all ahead, it’s hard to see such a transitional team making the postseason.

Ultimately, they have to do what’s best moving forward. I know it sounds like a broken record. But they cannot keep everybody. The contracts of Lundqvist and Staal expire next year. Unless something unforeseen happens, Gorton and John Davidson will have to choose between team leader Kreider, Fast and rising restricted free agents Strome and DeAngelo. The latter two both with arbitration rights. The price is rising. You could be talking a figure of $10 million for both. That never seemed possible. Now, it’s reality. And the way Kreider is playing, how do they say goodbye? I wouldn’t want to be Gorton.

Getting back to the dramatic conclusion. It was moments prior when Kreider took a knee from Johnny Boychuk while trying to skate out of his end. He limped to the bench. Fortunately, he was okay and returned. Boy, did they need him. While on a sustained cycle, Fast was crosschecked twice by an overly aggressive Brassard. At that point, I wasn’t expecting any arm to go up. But Brassard pushed it. He took the same bad penalties for our team.

I still didn’t believe they would win in regulation. Following an Islander clear, their crowd had to be feeling pretty good about the prospect of getting a point and playing for overtime. However, a quick Ranger transition changed matters. Suddenly, DeAngelo got the puck back to Panarin, who had enough time to feed Zibanejad for his heavy shot. As fate would have it, Kreider put home the rebound with Boychuk the closest to him.

Poetic justice. He is a solid defenseman. I respect his game. But he was lucky not to be called for a trip which could’ve injured Kreider. It felt damn good to see Kreider bury that and break Islander hearts. The game wasn’t over yet.

A tricky backhand which looked like a centering pass in search of a rebound had to be nervously kicked out by Georgiev with a few seconds left. One more clear down the ice clinched the hard fought win. If Monday was a nice treat, this was way more. To see them win a tightly played game like this was fun. This is exactly what the rivalry is all about. It’s why fans get pumped up for these games and debate each key play. Look what it meant to Kreider.

Not to forget, but Kreider also had a goalie interference minor with 6:09 left in the period when the game was tied. He had a good chance and his speed carried him right into Varlamov. Even though Pulock gave him a shove, it was the right call. It was nice to see his teammates pick him up. It was one of those plays where Kreider had a step and when he gets going like that in close, his momentum is going to take him right into the goalie. There’s nothing dirty about it. He doesn’t do it much anymore. I’m glad he wound up the hero.

Nobody has been more misunderstood than number 20 for these Broadway Blueshirts. They take him for granted. I debated some good respectable fans on why I’d like to keep him. Is he a superstar? No. However, is he a good player who can impact games by using his big frame to create havoc? Unequivocally, yes. Combined with the intangibles and leadership he brings, that’s an important player. He might not always score like he has been the past five weeks. But he is irreplaceable.

If they choose to keep him, it’s going to run Kevin Hayes money. Are they willing to do it for say at least six years at an average cap hit of $7.25 million? This is his age 29 season. He’ll probably want that seventh year. Would he take a discount to stay? Why should he?

They have to seriously explore what his worth is on the trade market. If they cannot get a young NHL forward back that can be a good player on this roster, I don’t know if I move him. This cannot be a repeat of Ryan McDonagh and JT Miller to Tampa. Even if Howden is an NHL player, he hasn’t proven to be a top nine guy yet. The jury remains out on Libor Hajek, who got sent back to Hartford. I remain optimistic over Nils Lundkvist.

I’m very curious to see what they’ll do. The organization still has a month to figure things out. Remember. If you subtract good players off the roster, you have to replace them. That won’t be easy. The key to this will be the continued emergence of Chytil along with the development of Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov, who are both not where they need to be yet. That’s okay. They’re teenagers. I still think Kakko would be better suited with a stint at Hartford. He’s too indecisive. Confidence is lacking.

Is rising prospect Lauri Pajunemi (2018 Round 5) someone they can count on? He has 21 goals for TPS-Turku in SM-liiga in Finland. That’s 21 goals and 30 points in 35 games in a good professional league. I don’t want to go overboard.

Some of the European NYR fans have a better knowledge here. I’m curious to see what Steven Voogel thinks. He knows these kids. I trust him. He can be followed on Twitter (StatBoy_Steven). I met him at a preseason game. He was wearing a Kakko jersey. They’re close. He’s a good bloke who knows his hockey. The rest I won’t comment on. Not everyone is respectful when it comes to following this team.

With the Blueshirts at 50 points through 46 games, they are giving themselves a chance here before the All-Star break to make up ground. On Sunday, they got the red hot Blue Jackets who are playing remarkably well under John Tortorella with backup goalie Elvis Merzlikins. It’s astonishing what they’re doing with key players still out. Cam Atkinson just returned and had a goal and assist in a big 3-2 win against Carolina. They both have 56 points. So do the Flyers. Florida is at 55 and Buffalo is up to 51. Even the Maple Leafs aren’t safe at 57.

These are strange times in this league where seven coaches have now lost their jobs. Gerard Gallant was the latest casualty when the Golden Knights shockingly dismissed the same coach who guided them to a Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. A four game losing streak was enough for them to make a very odd decision by replacing Gallant with former Sharks coach Pete DeBoer. That still is one I cannot understand given the history between the archrivals. Wow.

John Hynes also reemerged with Nashville after they mysteriously decided they had enough of proven winner Peter Laviolette. I bet Hasan had a good chuckle. Holy crap. There’s never been a stranger time in the NHL. Proven coaches are an endangered species. One losing skid can get you fired. Somehow, Jeff Blashill still has a job for now until Gallant replaces him. So too does Jeremy Colliton. It is crazy to think Chicago has crept within five points of a wildcard. Two total points separate first place Calgary from fifth place Edmonton. Winnipeg is at 54 points and out of a playoff spot. Is Paul Maurice next to walk the plank?

You can’t use that without a Goonies reference. Classic. Anyway, I’ve blogged for way too long. I went extra due to the craziness of the NHL. A lot can happen between now and late February. Teams are going to make tough decisions on whether to buy or sell. It won’t be easy.

The Rangers wrap up with the Jackets and Islanders before the break. Maybe then, Kakko can go down and work on his game.

Battle Of Hudson 3 Stars:

3rd 🌟 Chris Kreider, Rangers (16th of season for PPG winner with 24.6 seconds remaining, 16:57, 9-8-17 since 12/8)

2nd 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, Rangers (18th of season plus primary 🍎 on the Kreider winner, 5 shots, 23:14 including 3:52 PP & 5:15 PK)

1st 🌟 Alexandar Georgiev, Rangers (38 saves including 21 of 22 in a statement 1st period, remarkable stuff by Georgie)

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Bread Man dominance of Islanders latest example of how great he is, Rangers send message to blood rival in 6-2 domination

The Bread Man Delivers by dominating the Islanders with five points in the Rangers’ best win of the season. AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

By show of hands, who had the Rangers getting six past Semyon Varlamov? Better yet, who had the Bread Man absolutely humiliating the Islanders with a signature two goal, three assist, five point performance? Who saw this coming? Admittedly, I sure as heck didn’t. Look at my prediction:

At least I can mock myself when I’m totally wrong. 😃 The first official meeting of the Battle Of New York wasn’t low scoring and definitely didn’t go in favor of the second place Islanders. Instead, it was total domination by a focused Blueshirts, who saved their best game of the season for tonight. The end result was a well deserved 6-2 home victory over their biggest rival at a lively Madison Square Garden.

Even though I wasn’t there along with Justin, our Dad was and got to enjoy an old fashioned rivalry in a rare ass kicking by our team. Let’s face it. The Islanders are a very good team under a great coach in Barry Trotz and legendary Hall of Fame GM Lou Lamoriello. They usually get the better of the Rangers on Broadway. So, I was realistic about the game. They’re very detail oriented due to a tight defensive system they play under Trotz. Not the highest scoring team, that’s how they must play.

Funny enough, it was already 1-0 Islanders before I walked in to watch after making a smoothie. Jordan Eberle was able to come off a face-off win and maneuver around and tuck the puck in by Monday’s starter Alexandar Georgiev. The forgotten 23-year old made his first appearance since losing a tough decision at Vancouver 2-1 on Jan. 4. Following the loss, Igor Shestyorkin was summoned from Hartford. He then impressed everyone by winning his first two starts. Both at MSG. Then Henrik Lundqvist returned to the net and was less than stellar in a 5-2 loss in St. Louis.

The goalie situation is something that’s being discussed by everyone right now. There’s been rumors of Georgiev being the odd man out. The well respected Elliotte Friedman had a recent report on Saturday night that the Rangers are open to listening to offers on Georgiev. However, they don’t want to give him away. A second or third round pick isn’t what they want back.

Prior to coach David Quinn wisely announcing that he would get the start versus ah opponent he’s had success against, I wasn’t sure if we’d see Georgiev again in a Rangers jersey. Having three goalies all up with the team isn’t easy for anyone. However, I am not in favor of trading him.

I prefer John Davidson have the talk with Lundqvist. This isn’t an ideal situation for him. Regardless of where he is career wise, he’s an all-time Ranger who’ll have his number retired. Does he want to stay in a rebuild without any likely playoffs due to his loyalty and love for being a popular New York figure? Would he reconsider waiving the big No Move Clause to chase a Stanley Cup? It isn’t happening here.

If they cannot convince him to leave, they’re on the hook for one more year at the unfriendly $8.5 million cap hit former architect Glen Sather generously handed out when Cam Talbot was still here as the dependable backup. The back end of such long-term contracts almost always turn out this way. Look at what’s happening in Chicago with core defensemen Duncan Keith and most notably, Brent Seabrook. At least they won three Cups. Even what they pay captain Jonathan Toews is insane. He is still productive. But only Patrick Kane is aging gracefully.

If Georgiev does go, it better be for an NHL forward who is a equally young, up and coming player. Not any pick or fourth liner either. That’s the only way a trade is acceptable. They have over a month still to determine what happens. With the Bulgarian playing well despite a nine day layoff, does he get the rematch on Thursday night at the Nassau Coliseum? I don’t see how they can go back to Lundqvist when he looked out of sorts this past weekend. Either give Alexandar The Great another start or let Shestyorkin get his first taste of the unique rivalry, which didn’t disappoint at 33rd and 8th Avenue.

Well, unless you were an Islander fan. As I was told unsurprisingly, there were plenty of dark blue and orange in the crowd of 17,403 which at last check, isn’t even a sellout. Sad times for Dolan. That’s what he gets for jacking up prices at M$G. When a beer runs basically 19 dollars, that sums it up. I think the cost of a hot dog is like eight bucks. Are you kidding me?!?! I don’t eat at the Garden on the rare occasions that I go. Unless it’s a pretzel, save your money.

It’s always interesting to see how this team will respond to some adversity early on. They got scored on 18 seconds in on a simple Nelson face-off win to Eberle, who had way too much daylight to score his fifth. That was the only bad moment for the Panarin line with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast. Same for Brady Skjei and partner Jacob Trouba, who got faked out by Eberle on the game’s first goal.

Rather than hang their heads and let the Isles take over, the Blueshirts stood up and fought back literally. On a face-off in the neutral zone, Micheal Haley stood in and took his lumps against Islander heavyweight Ross Johnston. One of the toughest fighters, he got some good early shots in. But Haley did a good job coming back to earn a draw. This told you it wasn’t going to be one of those games.

Then, before the linesman even dropped the puck for the next face-off, Brendan Smith fought Matt Martin. He didn’t do as well as Haley. But the confusing part was when both participants got automatic game misconducts due to a NHL rule. Apparently, there can’t be two straight scraps unless the puck is dropped. Blame the linesman. They delayed and then Martin and Smith went at it. This wasn’t quite the classic line brawl. Can you believe it’s almost eight years since that happened? I ran out of the bathroom to see the three fights. Unreal scene and a much different crowd.

Only Brandon Prust should’ve been a regular when the Rangers and Devils faced off in the disappointing Conference Final. That would be the one I left the house following the Adam Henrique overtime goal and walked to my old grammar school yard and sat in the darkness quietly thinking to myself for an hour before calling up Robert “Kraze” Davis to congratulate him on his team’s revenge. I am a good sport. He called it prior to the playoffs too. But his team didn’t quite get it done against the Kings. A team both Devils and Rangers fans hate equally.

Following the consecutive fights, it was all Rangers. They were the aggressor throughout. Playing a more straight ahead style that included a consistent forecheck along with players thinking shot first, they made life extremely difficult on the Islanders and Varlamov. Following a good stop on Panarin, Fast beat Nick Leddy to a loose puck by getting his stick on it to rebound it past Varlamov for a tie score at 8:14. Despite mild protests from both Leddy and Trotz that Fast knocked his stick out, it wasn’t that. He got the puck for his eighth. Part of a three point night (1-2-3) that earned him the game’s Second Star.

After the goal, the Rangers really started to control the flow. They used their skating to pin the Isles in for long stretches. One such sustained shift earned cheers from the home fans. The other noticeable difference was how they defended. They didn’t back up like usual. Rather they took away time and space by standing up at the blueline while getting their sticks on Islander passes and shots to go the other way. This was a focused team. Every defenseman got the job done along with willing forwards.

Despite a 17-7 edge in shots, they still were tied after a period. Give Varlamov some credit for keeping his team in the game. Eventually, the Isles starter would crack. The relentless pressure from the Blueshirts was too much. Trotz also didn’t have his best night behind the bench. He waited too long to pull Varlamov.

It was a very good shift by the top line that led to the go-ahead tally from the now on fire Chris Kreider. On some excellent puck possession from Skjei, he set up a Panarin shot from the point that Kreider was able to redirect home for number 15 at 5:06. The refs said it was a good goal despite Kreider’s stick being dangerously close to crossbar height. If it had been over, there could’ve been a reversal. Following a video review, they confirmed the goal as called to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead. Had it gone the other way, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Usually, it’s all about the original ruling. That’s what happened.

With the Islanders reeling, it was the Blueshirts who continued to be a couple of steps ahead. They kept firing shots at Varlamov, who did a good job. They were up to 26 halfway through the contest. In particular, the 21-year old rookie tandem of Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox had a superb night. Quinn matched them for a majority against the superb Mat Barzal line. Barzal is the Isles best player and leading scorer. They really did a good job against him.

While they took care of their end, that allowed the ultra talented Fox to step up offensively. On another dominant shift by Panarin and Fast, Fox hustled to keep a puck alive at the Isles blueline. He then maneuvered around and totally faked out Varlamov by surprising him with a sharp angle shot to catch the Islander netminder off his near goalpost for a crushing goal that made it 3-1 with 8:49 left in the second period. The assist gave Panarin three points for the fourth consecutive home game. He was just getting started.

After toying with a bewildered rival, they took their foot off the gas pedal the last few minutes. Suddenly, the Islanders mounted their best attack on Georgiev. Having not been tested frequently, it was surprising how composed the second-year goalie was. His best sequence came on a crazy flurry started by Derick Brassard. He made four saves in a row including one on Josh Bailey. That was tremendous goaltending from the Rangers wins leader this season. He got plenty of love. If he doesn’t make those big saves, the game could’ve swung. Altogether, the game’s Third Star finished with 32 saves to improve to 11-9-1.

After being outshot 16-8 due to the late Isles’ onslaught, it was important for the Rangers to realize they couldn’t get away with that to win this game. The Islanders are a resilient hockey club that doesn’t quit. They had to reestablish momentum. They did and showed up with a terrific third that reinforced why this was the best game so far.

This period was all about Panarin. A player the Islanders targeted last summer by even offering him more money, he chose the Rangers and Manhattan over Long Island. I thought they’d make life difficult on him. Instead, they could be seeing the Bread Man in their nightmares until Thursday’s rematch off The Meadowbrook Parkway. That should be interesting.

A bad turnover inside their own blueline allowed Panarin to break away from a training Scott Mayfield in the first minute of the third. Even with Mayfield hustling back, Panarin faked out Varlamov by looking forehand and then going backhand to create an angle that didn’t seem possible. The puck beat Varlamov high to the short side for a 4-1 lead at 49 seconds. That gave him four points. He wasn’t done.

On some splendid hustle from Fast on a back check in the neutral zone, he moved the puck up to Strome, who in turn found a cutting Panarin alone where he beat Varlamov through the five-hole with a simple wrist shot for his fifth point. It was his team best 26th goal and gave him a jaw dropping 67 points over 45 games. There’s never been a better free agent signing by the Rangers in franchise history. He’s doing things I didn’t think were possible. This still isn’t a playoff team. The man is putting himself into the MVP conversation. It’s truly amazing.

Only Jaromir Jagr was like this in the record breaking ’05-06 season when he led the team to its first postseason since ’96-97. That year, Number 68 had a single season franchise record 54 goals with 69 assists and a single season best 123 points in his age 33 year. He turned 34 on February 15. If ever a player deserved the Hart that didn’t get it, it was Jagr that special season. Joe Thornton won it after dominating for San Jose following a trade from Boston. Astonishingly, Jagr is still scoring goals back home at 47 going on 48 in Kladno, Czech Republic.

With 37 games remaining, how many more goals and points does Panarin have on his sizzling hot stick? He has 21 points over his last nine games. We’re talking Connor McDavid level here. Almost NHL ’94 video game stuff. What if they were a better team? The Wonder Bread Man is fast approaching his previous career bests in goals (31), assists (59) and points (87). Both the apples and points were achieved under John Tortorella last season in Columbus. The 31 markers were with Chicago in Year Two during ’16-17. With this being his age 28 season, there should be more exciting years to follow. For what they’re paying him ($11.64 million AAV), he’s worth every penny.

There aren’t enough adjectives to describe Panarin right now. He’s making Strome a whole bunch of money. Speaking of which, he hit 30 assists with the primary helper on the Bread Man’s second of the game that shouldn’t been the end for Varlamov. Strome BTW needs four more assists to set a new career high. His 42 points are eight off his career best set with the Isles in ’14-15. A restricted free agent, Strome is going to command a lot more than the $3.1 million he is listed at. Maybe he can hire Panarin as his agent. I don’t think Fast would protest. He’s benefitted too in a contract year. Do they re-sign him? Many tough decisions loom ahead.

It was a point blast from Trouba on the power play that put a then down Varlamov out of his misery. Fox (goal, two helpers) and Filip Chytil set it up. Even though he only had one assist, Chytil played one of his best games. He was flying all night long and could’ve had a pair of goals if not for Varlamov earlier on. He really is blossoming into a good young player with promise.

I wish I could echo the same for Kaapo Kakko. The 18-year old Finnish right wing continues to look green due to his style of holding onto the puck too long. He passed up on some more shooting opportunities again. Instead, he aimlessly carried the puck behind the net which didn’t lead to anything. Confidence remains an issue. I know they don’t want to do it. However, I really feel a stint in Hartford could do the kid wonders. As long as he understands why. They don’t want to further damage his confidence.

Even though Nelson was able to deflect in a seeing eye Eberle shot for a power play goal two and a half minutes later with Marc Staal in the box for tripping, it didn’t matter. They didn’t celebrate the goal as it came with the game already decided. That didn’t mean there wasn’t some unfinished business.

A Nelson hit on a crouching Mika Zibanejad drew a crowd very quickly with 5:09 left in the action. He knew where Zibanejad was and came high to deliver the check. That led to more fisticuffs between the rivals. A aggravated Kreider quickly grabbed Nelson and roughed him up. Somehow, he got four minutes for roughing with a misconduct while Nelson received only two despite an illegal cross check to Zibanejad. While that was going on, you had Johnston punching away at the much smaller Tony DeAngelo. Despite the size differential, DeAngelo wanted more of Johnston. He sometimes is too brave. I like the bravado. Just be careful. For their part, both Johnston and DeAngelo received 12 minutes each. Matching roughing minors and misconducts to end their nights.

Afterwards, the teams skated out the remaining five minutes without anymore chaos. What about Thursday? We’ll just have to wait and see. I’d imagine Thomas Greiss will be in net for the Isles. He relieved Varlamov. It could depend on how they do against the lowly Red Wings later tonight.

For the Blueshirts, it sets up perfectly. They don’t play again until the rematch. Then, have Columbus and the Islanders again next Tuesday. It couldn’t set up any better. What will happen in the next two meetings? Hopefully, more fun and excitement for our fans. Winning at their arena would be perfect.

If you want to follow a passionate Rangers fan blogger with a different perspective, please give Sean McCaffrey a follow. A thank you to Sean (NYCTheMic) for plugging our blog on the sheer lunacy of a biased and out of control blogger, who crossed the line. We’re all fans of this team here. Even though he is the biggest proponent or opponent of Lundqvist referring to him as Lundswiss (hilarious), McCaffrey would never root against Henrik in a game. That’s the difference between our blogs and the other one that for now on shall remain nameless due to their agenda. We support the team no matter who wears the Ranger logo. Even Pavel Buchnevich, who I’ve critiqued.

If you’re a true fan, you root for whoever puts on that sweater. Go read Sean’s latest on BlueCollarBlueShirts.com. An avid and great campaigner of forgotten legend Frank Boucher along with the Cook brothers, etc., he has a unique perspective on the history of the franchise. It didn’t just begin in 1994 as MSG (Dolan) would have you believe. They seem to only go back to 1971. Why is that? Thankfully, they honored Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell before they passed away. What’s the deal with Boucher? Or is this something to do with the last No. 7, Rod Gilbert? I’m afraid to ask.

Tonight was great for many reasons. So, I went a bit longer on it. And paid back Sean McCaff. Thanks for your support.

Battle Of Hudson Three Stars:

3rd 🌟 Jesper Fast, Rangers (8th of season plus 2 🍎, +3 in 18:46)

2nd 🌟 Adam Fox, Rangers (6th of season plus 🍎, +3 in 18:20)

1st 🌟 Artemi “Bread Man” Panarin, Rangers (goals 25 & 26 with 3 🍎, becomes first NYR since Bathgate with four straight games of 3 points or more on home ice, 6 shots, +4 in 18:57 with the best leg kick since CM Punk)

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BREAKING: Ray Shero fired as Devils GM

Welp I wasn’t expecting to write this blog today or at any point really in the near future although certainly I’d soured on our now-former GM Ray Shero this year when his win-now moves busted, the rebuild stalled and the franchise was at a crossroads staring down at rebuild 2.0 after a season that began with a certain amount of expectations ended by Halloween.  Still, the news coming down in the middle of a football Sunday that the Devils had fired their GM came as a shock at this point in time.  Not entirely an unwelcome shock mind you, but one I’m still having trouble processing fully at the moment.  I’m still struggling to put my thoughts together, but the one that keeps coming back is that it was quite honestly deserved on many levels.

Let’s face it, this franchise became a caricature of itself in the latter days of Lou though they still had tradition and a culture of wanting to win.  Under owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer, Shero had carte blanche to reshape the organization the way he wanted and immediately took a stick of dynamite to anything and everything that had come before him.  Ownership remained patient through a long rebuild which already added on to our three playoff-less years at the end of the Lou tenure.  Things looked promising when the team made the playoffs in 2017-18, but the last two seasons forever altered Shero’s legacy here and completely changed the fanbase’s perception.

Just the last two years would be enough to get many GM’s fired…sitting on our collective hands after making the playoffs in 2017-2018 led to an expected result, a crappy 2018-19.  Then Shero and ownership went all-in this offseason.  In hindsight perhaps that should have been the first cue things weren’t all hunky dory here since the P.K. Subban trade went against Shero’s type of not making splashy moves.  Or maybe it really is just as simple as things backfired so badly this year that there was a genuine butting of heads over what to do next.  Shero basically backed himself into a corner where rebuild 2.0 looked inevitable (and his refusal to engage with both Taylor Hall and Sami Vatanen on long-term negotiations suggest Shero was all too willing to enact rebuild 2.0) but it appears ownership now wants a different plan.

You have to also look at the slipshod way the coaching situation has been handled.  From sticking with John Hynes too long – with a long-term extension being given less than a year before his eventual firing – to the lack of urgency in finding a different voice to replace him as evidenced by the promotion of top lieutenant Alain Nasreddine.  Nasreddine’s by all accounts a good man and doing his best but promoting him to the head job when the organization had prior head coaches under its employ (Peter Horachek who’s currently an assistant, and Claude Noel who’s a scout) just smacked of Shero being stubborn and not wanting to admit the system was the problem.  While results have improved lately, it’s more a result of Mackenzie Blackwood’s goaltending and Nico Hischier’s improvement than anything else, there are still many problems with the team.  As I’ve said before here Shero’s MO is to get young, inexperienced coaches and it could be on some level that ownership wanted a bigger name like a Mike Babcock or Peter Laviolette.

Another thing I just thought of is perhaps our recent run also makes Shero look bad in ownership’s eyes for cashing out on Hall in December.  Yeah some of us look at it and say the team is helped by not having the ‘distraction’ but no owner is going to believe trading the best player improves the team.  That’s the thing, there are literally a bunch of things you could speculate on as to why the owners lost faith in Shero and threw him overboard.  The coaching fiasco (which includes Hynes getting a quick job after getting canned, also making Shero look bad), failed results, likely rebuilding yet again, not wanting to sign any of our pending FA’s.  All our prospect-hugger fans have to accept that just because Lou made some mistakes at the end and Conte was a bad scouting director the last ten-fifteen years, doesn’t mean that Shero was doing all the right things either.  Automatically going against everything the prior regime did isn’t enough, especially when the main architect of that prior regime looks like he’s building a powerhouse on Long Island after having some success in Toronto.  Perhaps that also left ownership with eggs on its face wondering WTF was going on here.

While I don’t exactly have a lot of faith in what’s next, at least it won’t be dull.  For now, Tom Fitzgerald is the acting GM just like Nasreddine is the acting coach.  And just like Nas was a right hand for Hynes, Fitz was Shero’s right hand as well.  But make no mistake, Fitz will be doing the owners’ bidding at this trade deadline.  Which could mean he’s not the GM when all the dust settles this offseason.  Whether you think the owners are making a sound hockey decision or not, you have to agree with the bottom line.  They’ve had enough of failed results, so have we as fans.

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Devils’ blowout of Washington a temporary reprieve for their ills

Last week in this space I said the Devils were about one or two wins away from turning me back into a believer after their stirring win at Nassau last Thursday, finishing off a 6-2-1 run through the new year.  However, with a January schedule that has no mercy, the Devils hit a wall losing at home to the Avs and Isles before no-showing at the Garden on Thursday.  Honestly, the only game I really watched as a whole this week was the maddening Isles one where mental mistakes from the usual flogs such as Damon Severson condemned them to a blown third period lead, then in OT they somehow failed to win despite Jesper Boqvist getting a breakaway before Sami Vatanen flubbed a 3-on-1.  We didn’t even get a shot on net with either chance.  Finally, Anders Lee put home the dagger of a frustrating night that dropped my record to two wins in 11 home games attended this year.

That and the Colorado loss (though I didn’t attend last Saturday) pretty much turned me off to the team the rest of the week so I saw none of Thursday’s disgrace at the Garden or yesterday’s surprise late Christmas gift from the Caps, who no-showed and got booed at home.  I remarked to a friend I missed the days where our fans would boo a first place team for the sin of a bad period.  Not that I like fans acting spoiled per se, but it’s more a commentary over our situation right now.  When moving out of 30th place in the NHL for the first time in several weeks is noteworthy.  Even more surprising than the win over the Caps was the fact it came without Mackenzie Blackwood in net.  Apparently playing him through a cold/flu, teeth dislocation and whatever other mystery injury allegedly cropped up after the Ranger game finally caught up to the overworked rookie.

With zero hope of winning last night I ignored the game and enjoyed the late Spring-ish weather, and was summarilly shocked when I saw the Twitter updates pouring in during the game.  1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-1…guess this was just one of those WTF nights during an 82-game schedule when down was up and up was down.  Although give the team and specifically Louis Domingue credit.  Arguably, the deposed Cory Schneider is starting to breathe down his neck for playing time after a good stretch in the AHL with Domingue failing to impress at the NHL level thus far, till last night where he made 31 stops and kept the league’s best team at bay.  Even a win like last night isn’t enough to really get me pumped up again, though I did get a chuckle from the viral few seconds from Nikita Gusev at the end of the video above.

Reminded me of the apocryphal (or true) story of Mariano Duncan with the 1996 Yankees when he said ‘we play today, we win today – that’s it!’.  Sometimes not knowing much of the language can be a benefit, you don’t know enough to throw in a bunch of cliches and platitudes.  In Gusev’s case the money quote after about five seconds of his game puck speech was ‘we need to win next game’.  Really, that’s all you can do this point if you’re the Devils.  Just concentrate on each game individually and don’t get caught up in your situation although it’s harder for guys like Vatanen, Wayne Simmonds and other non-FA’s who could be on the move in the next few weeks.  It’s also harder for the fans, considering the team’s still thirteen points out of a playoff spot with the season more than half over.

As per the new normal, the second half is all about looking for signs for next year, and that starts with the coaching staff, specifically whether GM Ray Shero sees enough from Alain Nasreddine to remove the interim tag or if he goes elsewhere for one of the available big-name coaches (Mike Babcock, Peter Laviolette, perhaps others like Jon Cooper after the season).  The fact deposed coach John Hynes got a plum job so soon after being relieved of his duties here really puts Shero on the griddle.  Either Hynes fails again and it’s a further strike against Shero’s ability to pick coaches, or Hynes succeeds and Shero looks like a buffoon for not giving him enough to win with here.  Personally, I think it’ll be more the former seeing how the Hynes ‘system’ was either ineffective or too high-risk to work though it’s certainly possible with better defense and goaltending in Nashville Hynes will look better at least in the short-term.  Certainly Shero has a ‘type’ of coach to hire historically…assistant/AHL guy who’s never coached in the league before.  All three coaches in his thirteen years of a GM including Nas have fit that simple description so (unfortunately) I don’t think it’ll take as much for him to keep Nas as most people do.

I will give Nas credit for showing some fight over a bad call (see below) last night though, especially after he arguably didn’t push back enough over the contreversial no-call on Colorado’s fourth goal last Saturday when Blackwood got slew-footed behind the net and had no chance to make the save.  Whatever happened last night was enough to set the mild-mannered coach off:

Plus just the fact the team responded off a rare dog performance lately was enough to suggest at least the coach still has their attention.  You don’t always have to do it in an overtly showy way.

Of course a big part of whether Nas succeeds will have to do with what he can get out of the younger players in the second half.  Certainly two of the most important ones (Blackwood and Nico Hischier) have stepped up, with Nico putting up six goals and ten points in the eight post-Christmas games including two goals last night.  Blackwood’s overall numbers might not show it – especially after the Ranger game – but he’s given an outmanned team a chance to win most nights and done that while being a 23-year old rookie starting in the NHL.  However, it’s been a mixed bag at best from their other younger players.  Boqvist has a dissapointing total of four goals and zero assists in his first 30 NHL games.  Pavel Zacha has just three goals in 40 games with a -15, only a bunch of secondary assists are making his point total look better than he’s played.

Unlike Zacha, #1 overall Jack Hughes has played better than his point total looks with just six goals and sixteen points in 36 games, though he finished 2019 with a flourish getting a shootout winner against the Bruins before going on the shelf the last several games, more on that below.  Jesper Bratt’s yo-yoed in and out of the lineup due to health and performance issues and his performance level has stagnated with just 8 goals and 15 points in 36 games.  Our young defensemen (which was Nas’s perview before ascending to head coach) have more or less stagnated too, with Severson still making the same old mistakes, Will Butcher and Mirco Mueller still having the same physical and mental limitations – in that order.

Perhaps the most annoying thing the last couple of weeks hasn’t even been on the ice though.  It’s more the fact that for the second year in a row we have a vague mystery injury to one of our best players.  Last year Taylor Hall was day-to-day for months, insulting everyone’s intelligence with that designation before finally getting the inevitable knee surgery that ruled him out for the season.  This year it seems like it’s Hughes who’s got mystery injuryitis.  He’s been ‘day-to-day’ for two weeks with a suspected shoulder issue and really no accurate timeline of how much longer he’ll miss on the shelf.  It would be nice to have a little more transparency for one of the franchise’s most important players going forward.  If you’re going to hold him out through the All-Star break fine, at least say so and don’t be vague to try to sell a few extra tickets that aren’t selling for a dog team.

Not to mention how they’ve handled Blackwood.  I get they have no other reliable goalie and Nas is coaching for his future employment, but this isn’t exactly a playoffs or bust train here either.  There’s no reason to keep playing Blackwood every other day through the flu, dental surgery and whatever else was bothering him this week, which finally caught up to him in the Ranger game as he allowed five goals at the Garden before being pulled.  You have to handle your younger studs carefully (which they arguably have with Hughes, making their Blackwood overworking more head-scratching) but at the same point be a little more transparent with the fans who are already ticked off enough at the team.  I get the media doesn’t care enough to ask these questions and hold management accountable but fans do, and most hockey fans are smarter than to buy the party line.  Don’t treat us like we’re idiots.

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