Game 31: The Darling of MSG one ups Raanta in Hawks’ 2-1 win over Rangers


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Chicago winning netminder Scott Darling is congratulated by Niklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith after outdueling Antti Raanta with 33 saves in a Blackhawks’ 2-1 win over the Rangers in a very entertaining rematch at MSG. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Sportsnet.

Honestly, sometimes you’re going to get beat. Some losses are acceptable while others aren’t. It depends on effort level. For the Rangers in the Original 6 rematch with the Blackhawks, stick one in the acceptable category. They lost 2-1 to the Hawks at MSG to snap their three-game win streak.

Of course, I hate losing. However, losses will happen. This team has proven by now they’re going to give an honest effort on most nights. They did again against a formidable opponent who got two of its best players back. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews and defenseman Brent Seabrook returned for the winners.

It definitely made a difference. The Hawks were able to protect a one-goal lead behind 33 saves from the game’s first star Scott Darling. In a rematch of backup goalies and friends, it was the Chicago goalie who was the Darling of MSG by stopping 26 of 27 shots the final two periods including all 11 in the third period. Some acrobatic while others more routine.

The Rangers made him work for it. Especially rookie Jimmy Vesey, who was flying in the third. He was so good that coach Alain Vigneault double shifted him the final period with Vesey receiving over seven minutes of ice-time after only getting that much thru the first two. Some would argue what was he doing on the fourth line to begin with. Up for debate another day.

My family had tickets to this one. I didn’t. I worked and missed the first before returning to catch the final two on the flat screen. By the time I got in, it was 1-0 Blackhawks. Trevor van Riemsdyk had scored on Raanta to end his shutout streak at 176:22. On it, the right defenseman was set up perfectly by Russian wizard Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov. Along with last year’s Hart winner Patrick Kane, that cohesive trio dominated play five-on-five. Even during a four-on-four, the dangerous combo of Kane and Panarin were flat out scary with Chris Kreider off for boarding and a Hawk serving a bench minor for too many men.

Trailing by one, the Rangers responded quickly when Jesper Fast was able to bat a loose puck out of mid-air by Darling to tie it three minutes later. The hard working even strength goal was made possible by a pinching Nick Holden, who subbed for a flu-ridden Ryan McDonagh on the top pair with Dan Girardi. Holding onto the puck, Holden finally shot with it caroming behind the net to Oscar Lindberg. Lindberg sent the puck up in the air where Fast was able to have it go off his glove and then legally bat it in underneath the crossbar for his third. A gritty kind of goal you expect from a player who is all effort and hustle.

Holden didn’t get an assist but deserved one. He sure stepped into a big role with McDonagh realizing after warm ups that he was a no go. That also meant coach Alain Vigneault reinserted extra defenseman Adam Clendening, who played third pair with rookie Brady Skjei. Making matters worse, Skjei was missing for the second due to taking an inadvertent skate from Kevin Hayes that cut his face. He had to get stitched up. He returned wearing a full caged helmet.

That meant Vigneault had to work with five D for about 20 minutes. Not the easiest chore when you’re going up against a puck possession team like the Hawks. Especially with Toews back to center one line while Anisimov anchored the other. Plus dealing with Seabrook and Duncan Keith and highly underrated defensive defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Chicago isn’t what they used to be. They give up more shots and chances forcing their goalies to be really good. But they are still formidable. They’re first in the West with 42 points.

Coach Joel Quenneville has mixed in some young faces with the vets. He’s effectively used Richard Panik on the Toews line while also trying American rookie Ryan Hartman. He still has reliable veteran Marian Hossa, who has turned back the clock to lead the Blackhawks with 15 goals. The 37-year old future Hall of Famer already surpassed his ’15-16 total of 13 and remains on pace for 40. Something he hasn’t hit since ’08-09 with the Red Wings.

There were hardly any power plays. The Hawks got the only one at the 4:07 mark of the first on a Skjei hook. Remarkably, nothing else was called except for Kreider’s boarding and the Hawks’ bench minor which occurred at 12:14 of the second. It proved to be dangerous for Chicago with Quenneville sending out Kane and Panarin with Keith and Seabrook. It was like watching a power play. They pinned the Rangers in forcing Marc Staal and Girardi to have to be extra good. After Kane undressed J.T. Miller and Girardi, only a diving Staal stick prevented a sure Panarin tap in.

That was the fine amount of detail that was needed to defend the Hawks. For most of what was an absolutely beautiful game to watch with the teams trading chances and rushes, the Blueshirts were up to it. But with the game still knotted, momentum changed. On what was a very good shift, Holden had a low shot carom out to Mats Zuccarello. He looked to have Darling beat but a desperate Darling dove and poked the puck away at the last split second to send the play in the other direction.

Even though the Ranger forwards changed, both Holden and Girardi were trapped out. Sucking wind, they got little help from and Lindberg, Fast and Marek Hrivik. Panarin wisely passed down low for a pinching Brian Campbell, who was able to center past an exhausted Girardi for a wide open Anisimov for a sweet finish with Holden off to the left. Anisimov’s 13th came with 1:09 left in the period. A crusher for sure. You can see why he’s finishing. He is there to bury passes from Kane and Panarin. It could lead to his first 30-goal season. Arty’s never scored more than 22. He got 20 in his first year in the Windy City.

Following the goal, the Rangers came hard searching for the equalizer. But they couldn’t find it in the final 69 seconds of the second. The effort was there. The execution was just a tad off. That also summed up a hard fought third. They got 11 shots in total but were never able to solve Darling conventionally. He really took the low part of the net away and did a great job. His defense also did a nice job keeping Rangers away from loose change.

Vesey was a man on a mission in the final period. From the very first shift, he was buzzing with the puck sending shots Darling’s way. I swear he was everywhere. Vigneault must’ve saw my tweet because I suggested double shifting the kid. Sure enough, he was out every second shift. It was as dominant a performance in one period from a first-year player as you’ll see without scoring. He deserved one. But Darling prevented it.

Vesey got point blank chances but was unable to beat the unflappable Chicago backup who has been the starter since Corey Crawford went down. On the opposite end, Raanta was again superb making 24 saves including some big ones to give his team a chance. In four straight starts, he went 3-1 with a 0.75 goals-against-average allowing three goals on 89 shots. How good is that? His save percentage was .966 which includes the two shutouts at Chicago and home over the reeling Devils.

When Henrik Lundqvist returns and that is a fairly good assumption Thursday in Dallas, he better get back on track. If the past is any indication, there’s no reason to think he won’t. He did it three years ago after Cam Talbot got three straight starts. His track record is a pretty good indicator. I just want to see the team play as well in front of him as they have for Raanta.

The Rangers’ best opportunity came when Darling kicked out a tough Vesey tip of a Staal shot and then robbed Zuccarello on the doorstep with over two minutes remaining in regulation. They weren’t gonna tie it. Even with the same people losing their minds over Holden and Girardi out for the final minute, they had nothing left.

Honestly, there was nothing to complain about. If I have to see that Clendening should’ve been out for the last shift again via Retweet, I’m going to start blocking more users who use the RT button. Enough already. This was one loss. One where the Rangers outshot the Blackhawks 34-26 and out-attempted them 62-58. It was one of the better games you’ll see between two evenly matched teams.

The fact they went toe to toe with the Hawks minus McDonagh, Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich bodes well. It shows that this roster has plenty of heart and enough depth to still compete. Vigneault again rewarded Lindberg, Fast and Hrivik with more shifts. They were good again. Hrivik is starting to impress me. He doesn’t look like an AHL player. But a regular fourth liner who can skate, forecheck and be responsible defensively. Maybe they’ll find room for him.

Brandon Pirri’s ice-time continues to dwindle at even strength. Without any power plays, he’s a non-entity. I thought Clendening had a couple of shaky moments with one just awful skate one on five causing a bad turnover which led to Raanta bailing him out with a nice glove save of a Panarin shot. That’s not what you want to see from Clendening. Granted. He hasn’t played much.

Nicklas Jensen didn’t play much in the third. He received eight shifts getting only 6:35. Unlike Pirri who is just a power play guy, at least Jensen is noticeable five-on-five. Not surprisingly, Vigneault gave the top four of Girardi (23:05), Holden (26:24), Staal (23:18) and Kevin Klein (23:27) heavy minutes.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Jimmy Vesey, NY Rangers (7 shots, 8 attempts in 17 shifts with half of his 14:46 coming in a dominant 3rd)

2nd Star-Artem Anisimov, Blackhawks (game-winning goal-13th at 18:51 of 2nd,

1st Star-Scott Darling, Blackhawks (33 saves)

Video Gif: I thought this was really cool. The Rangers are celebrating their 90th Anniversary. Tonight, they did a little video tribute of the Original 6 with a nice highlight reel. See below:

Game Note: For some reason, the statistician messed up on Anisimov’s goal by giving minuses to Hayes, Miller and Michael Grabner. None were out for the game-winner. It’s an error that should be changed. They were caught on for van Riemsdyk’s goal in which he beat Staal.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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