It was a night of firsts at Madison Square Garden. On a night 21-year old rookie defenseman Brady Skjei made his NHL debut, another rookie blueliner had a first of his own. Dylan McIlrath scored his first NHL goal highlighting a Rangers 4-2 win over the Oilers Tuesday night.
The 23-year old former 2010 first round pick is starting to prove why the Rangers went off the radar selecting the big physical defenseman 10th overall over the likes of Cam Fowler and Vladimir Tarasenko. For the longest time, doubts surrounded whether McIlrath would ever see the light of day in the NHL. Given the setbacks he went through in Hartford, the hard work and dedication has paid off.
So has the Rangers’ patience. Sticking with a project who has improved his skating becoming a more well rounded player under the tutelage of Hartford assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom. McIlrath’s development finally has coaches, teammates and fans excited. A behemoth of size and muscle, the defensive defenseman has not looked out of place in his first NHL season.
The confidence is there for the Winnipeg, Manitoba native. Ever since Kevin Klein went down to a oblique strain, it’s forced Rangers coach Alain Vigneault to play McIlrath. Finally getting consistent minutes while former a good partnership with Keith Yandle, he’s excelling. Tonight, Rangers assistant Ulf Samuelsson even had McIlrath play with Skjei for some shifts. Even though they were at the bottom in terms of shot differential combining for a minus-21 per war-on-ice.com, each had good games. McIlrath scoring his first goal while Skjei showed he belonged by making strong defensive reads to get pucks out.
There was a lot to like. Unlike the nightmare in Edmonton when the teams combined for 12 goals with the Blueshirts losing in epic fashion, the Garden rematch was a lot more close to the vest with the teams combining for 41 shots. The Rangers held a 21-20 edge and came out on top.
Mats Zuccarello scored the lone goal in the first period. On an extended shift thanks to some great puck possession, Rick Nash and Yandle combined to find an open Zuccarello at the left circle. He didn’t hesitate whistling a perfect wrist shot top shelf past Edmonton starter Anders Nilsson. A night after former Ranger backup Cam Talbot stifled the Bruins in overtime, Nilsson was back in net for Talbot’s return. Nothing storybook to tell.
The Rangers killed off two penalties in the first including a McIlrath hi-stick to take a one-goal lead to the locker room. Sharper to start the second, the Oilers drew even on another Ranger penalty. Oscar Lindberg took a hooking minor negating a scoring chance for Lauri Korpikoski, who had a hat trick over the weekend. Lindberg’s second minor resulted in the red hot Taylor Hall ripping home his 15th from Leon Draisaitl and Teddy Purcell. A sniper’s goal with Hall finding the five-hole on Henrik Lundqvist to tie the score.
It only took a couple of minutes for the Blueshirts to respond. It came as a result of a strong shift from the fourth line. Dominic Moore continued his strong play winning a battle to get the puck back to Yandle, who threaded the needle for a perfect McIlrath one-timer that found its target at 7:54. A pumped up rookie was mobbed by Yandle and excited teammates. A feel good moment.
Late in the second, the Oilers drew even thanks to a breakaway goal from one of the game’s most exciting players, Jordan Eberle. A Ranger turnover in the neutral zone allowed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to send the dangerous Eberle in on Lundqvist. He made no mistake going top shelf at 18:20.
But just when Edmonton seemed on track, a bench minor handed the Rangers a power play with under a minute left. Rick Nash took full advantage when he stuffed one home past Nilsson for his 10th from Zuccarello and Derick Brassard- giving them a 3-2 lead after two.
The Rangers gave the Oilers chances in the third. Marc Staal took two penalties and J.T. Miller also took one. But they escaped trouble due to strong penalty killing. That included McIlrath taking some key shifts with McDonagh. Skjei also got some time logging 2:15 shorthanded.
Lundqvist made timely saves. But didn’t have to stand on his head turning aside all seven Edmonton shots in the third on his way to 18. He picked up his 15th win.
Jesper Fast added an empty netter from Moore and Viktor Stalberg at 19:56. A nice reward for a hard working guy. Fast has become the Carl Hagelin of this year’s team. Hags specialized in empty netters. Now it’s Fast who got his second to close an opponent out.
Notes: In his NHL debut, Skjei received 21 shifts (14:54) including 12:39 at even strength. He finished minus-one with a shot, three takeaways and two blocked shots. … McIlrath got 29 shifts logging 18:38 recording his first goal with two hits, a blocked shot along with a plus-two rating. The breakdown was 13:56 even strength and 4:42 shorthanded. … With a goal in a third straight, Zuccarello now leads the Blueshirts with 14. Four Rangers recorded two points including Nash (PPG, assist), Yandle (2 assists) and Moore (2 assists). … As a team, the Rangers blocked 23 shots (McDonagh, D. Boyle-4 each). The Oilers had 16 with 3 apiece from Andrej Sekera, Eric Gryba and Nugent-Hopkins. … With a victory, the Rangers moved a point ahead of the Islanders who lost to the Panthers for second. They travel to Minnesota Thursday and face Winnipeg Friday for a tough back-to-back.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Dominic Moore, NYR (2 assists, 5 attempts, 9-and-5 on draws-Dom is steady)
2nd Star-Rick Nash, NYR (PPG-10th of season, assist, 4 SOG, +1 in 29 shifts-18:38-much more involved)
1st Star-Dylan McIlrath, NYR (1st career goal-Big Mac continues to improve)