The Rangers defeated the Lightning 1-0 in overtime to start their four-game road trip on the right foot. The lone goal coming from Mr. Overtime, Mika Zibanejad. He scored his second overtime winner on a clean breakaway beating an otherwise brilliant Andrei Vasilevskiy with a wicked forehand deke with 1:04 left in the 3-on-3 roller derby.
Say this for Zibanejad. He is an interesting player. There’s no doubting his skill level. It’s more a question of consistency for the 23-year old second line pivot who came over from the Senators last off-season in a trade for Derick Brassard. He can be exasperating with some of his wild misses on open one-timers on the power play. His defensive game is also mind numbing. But he wins face-offs and gets chances. It’s just a matter of time before he figures it out.
For a guy with his talent, he’s still scratching the surface. One thing about Zibanejad. He has great hands and is money on the breakaway. He displayed it in an overtime winner over the Devils a couple of weeks ago. This time, following a near miss from ever dangerous speed demon Ondrej Palat who crashed wildly into the boards, Ryan McDonagh sprung him and it was over. If only the Swede could do it more consistently in regulation at even strength and on the man-advantage.
The game-winner was his ninth of the season in 40 games. Undoubtedly, even if he missed two months due to a broken leg, he should have more goals. Then again, we can certainly say the same for Derek Stepan, who’s now at 21 games without one. His game is coming back together. He was thinking shot more throughout getting five on a sharp Vasilevskiy, who was locked into a great goalie duel with super backup Antti Raanta.
Raanta won the battle finishing with 38 saves for his third shutout of the season. He was sensational stopping everything against a very skilled opponent, including 16 saves in the second and another cool dozen in a seesaw third. If the Rangers lose him to expansion Las Vegas, he’ll be missed. As Zibanejad told John Giannone in the post game, it’s nice to have two goalies they can depend on. A great luxury that allowed Henrik Lundqvist the night off with Florida tomorrow in the second of a back-to-back.
There was a lot more than Raanta’s goaltending and Zibanejad’s OT winner going on here. You had Tanner Glass in his season debut making an impact with his energy and physicality. While other whiny bloggers complain about him getting 5:17 in 10 shifts, they must’ve missed Glass being a pest in front of the net in search of a rebound creating a scrum. They also ignored his lengthy bout with bigger man Luke Witkowski. One which the refs asked both participants if they wanted them to step in. They didn’t and landed some more hey makers. Glass also nearly set up Jimmy Vesey in the third with the game scoreless.
With Glass in for Matt Puempel, the team played tougher. They were more engaged battling in the corners and getting into it with the Lightning post-whistle. This was out of character for them. Glass obviously had a positive effect which is exactly why Alain Vigneault brought him up from Hartford. You even had Vesey mixing it up during a scrum. This was much more fun to watch than the same old same old from a team that hadn’t done this stuff enough.
Sometimes, it has to be ugly. Hockey isn’t always pretty. It’s not always art out there on the ice with fancy skating and rushes and pretty goals. Sometimes, you have to go after the opponent and make it nasty. Even though both teams combined for 72 shots and 113 attempts, there was more edginess which made the game more fun for old school hockey fans like myself.
There were plenty of scoring chances from both sides. But each netminder was fantastic throughout which is why there was no score entering the three-on-three madness. How hectic was it? You had Palat turning McDonagh inside out for what looked like a potential winner. But he missed. That set the stage for McDonagh to pass ahead for Zibanejad, who went to his bread and butter winning it in style with his usual grin.
When asked in the post interview about it by Giannone, he quipped, “Score.” He definitely has some personality. Maybe that’s why I find him interesting. The two months he missed hurt his timing. It still doesn’t explain why he hasn’t lit the lamp more. But if he can get hot down the stretch, it would sure go a long way to giving me a more positive outlook about the first round.
Just as long as Vigneault sticks with Zibanejad, Rick Nash and Pavel Buchnevich. The trio were dangerous throughout. Buchnevich was perfectly set up by Vesey on a power play only to watch a sliding Vasilevskiy get across and deny him. That’s how it’s gone for the power play. No wonder they can’t score.
Nash was dominant leading all skaters with eight shots. That included a great power move around Victor Hedman for one chance and another strong move forcing Vasilevskiy into a tough save before running over the Tampa goalie for a goaltender interference minor which his teammates pridefully killed off with some Raanta heroics.
As for Stepan, he had five shots and seems on the verge of finally breaking out. A second straight good game for him, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello bodes well.
Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller were a bit quiet again. Hayes and Miller were back together for one penalty kill shift creating a shorthanded chance that was blocked. They definitely are missing Michael Grabner, who completes that third line. Not a knock on Vesey, who competes hard. But Grabner is that missing ingredient. Both still need to be better even if Grabner isn’t in. One combined shot isn’t enough from two of your most skilled forwards.
The fourth line didn’t see much ice in the third. But Glass was fine in his role. Oscar Lindberg can be counted on when given shifts. Brandon Pirri is hit or miss. He was more engaged even delivering a check. But if he isn’t hitting the net on the power play, what does he bring? He looks more and more like the odd man out once Jesper Fast returns near the end of the month.
Steven Kampfer filled in for Adam Clendening, who wasn’t too pleased about being a healthy scratch after one bad game. Kampfer drew a boarding penalty which should’ve been a major. He was okay in 15 managed shifts receiving 8:40 recording two shots and two hits. Vigneault rode McDonagh, who rebounded from a miserable game with 26-plus minutes and his 32nd assist on Zibanejad’s overtime winner. His season is eerily similar to Keith Yandle last year except Yandle was better on the power play.
Marc Staal bounced back too with some strong defensive work preventing some dangerous shots from getting through. That included a Nikita Kucherov point blank opportunity with under 20 seconds left when he recovered to block his shot. Staal has been dumped on for his struggles since returning from a concussion. It’s been a rough go for the alternate captain. But tonight, he made some big defensive plays in an effective 25 shifts (18:04).
Nick Holden had one of his better games lately getting 25:59 while also making some strong plays defensively. Brendan Smith took 29 shifts going over 24 minutes while getting involved physically. Brady Skjei had five shots on goal, six attempts with two blocks in 16:33 (24 shifts). I wonder why he didn’t get more or if they just wanted to keep his minutes down after the flu. It became a five-man rotation in crunch time. Skjei can go from defense to offense so smoothly that his upside is unlimited. He could be the best defenseman the team has produced since Brian Leetch.
So, what else did I like aside from the win? Just how emotionally involved the Rangers were. That’s how they have to play. Something McDonagh reiterated afterwards. They must be engaged. It’ll be interesting to see how much they have left for a rested Panthers team in the wildcard hunt.
As for the Lightning, they get a point moving up to 69 to pull within two of the Islanders. The issue for them is they didn’t get a win. They have only 17 games left and just 26 ROW which is the first tiebreaker. Three less than the Islanders and two fewer than the Maple Leafs. Florida has 25 with 18 remaining. The Bolts need to get wins in regulation or overtime. If they tie in points with the Islanders or Leafs and finish with less ROW, they’re out. Ditto for the Panthers.
As for the Rangers, they stay locked into the first wildcard by getting their 42nd victory. They are up to 86 points with 16 games remaining including 39 ROW. Two behind both Columbus and Pittsburgh, who each have two games at hand.
The one gripe was the officiating. How they only gave Gabriel Dumont two for boarding when he nearly decapitated Kampfer was pathetic. It should’ve been at least a double minor. Honestly, it was a major and should be reviewed. A disrespectful play. Will the league even review it? Player safety fail because Kampfer was able to return. Hypocrisy. And then the same refs called a substandard game sending a bunch of players to the box for tick tac stuff. Ridiculous.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Mika Zibanejad, Rangers (electrifying OT winner on breakaway-9th of season)
2nd Star-Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning (33 saves-looking like the stud Tampa thought they had)
1st Star-Antti Raanta, Rangers (38 saves for 3rd shutout of season)
OT Hero Mika Zibanejad talks about his game-winner: