Game 14: Rangers 2 Bolts 1 OT, AV’s lineup works, Miller scores great winner


It’s Miller Time: J.T. Miller is mobbed by teammates following his exciting overtime winner that gave the Rangers the best win of the season. 2-1 over the Lightning on Thursday night. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy USA Today

Sometimes, it all clicks in a game for a struggling team. If the Rangers were incomplete in the first 13, they sure weren’t during last night’s big 2-1 win over the first place Lightning in overtime.

The stars shined throughout with key performances from Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Shattenkirk and Marc Staal.

There was a lot to like. For the first time this season, the Blueshirts gave a full effort for over 60 minutes until Miller’s highlight reel goal at 1:19 of a eye popping three on three that saw the guys in white get the better of a legit contender.

In many ways, it was a statement by the 18 skaters and goalie that if they play the right way with focus, structure and intensity, they’re fully capable of beating anyone. They haven’t quit on coach Alain Vigneault, who gets all the criticism when they lose but no credit when they win. He did a great job with the lines adjusting when he saw fit while benching Brendan Smith for a third time in favor of Nick Holden. Steven Kampfer stayed in and was much better too.

Somehow, it all worked out. A lineup that featured McDonagh mostly paired up with Nick Holden along with the scary tandem of Staal and Kampfer were fine. Skjei and Shattenkirk teamed up well again when reunited with the second-year defenseman dominating throughout.

In a game they deserved to win, this was easily the best performance. Finally as MSG’s Sam Rosen emphatically stated, they’ve won two in a row. At 5-7-2, there’s still work to be done. By digging a early hole for themselves, they must continue to play intelligent and emotional hockey. That needs to be carried through to the next stop in Sunrise tomorrow night when they visit the Panthers. A team who can also score goals and use their skating like the Lightning. But also a opponent who can be exploited at times. It’ll be another good test.

To come out with two points Thursday, they knew they had to play a more controlled style against a dangerous opponent who features the scary scoring tandem of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov along with a host of other skilled players like Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman, who can make life difficult.

It was their first game against old familiar number 5, Dan Girardi. It was a bit strange seeing the former Rangers’ warrior in Bolts navy blue colors. One of the most respected players in franchise history, he played mostly with awful partner Braydon Coburn. Girardi was solid in his first game against former teammates. Kreider said it was part of it during a first intermission interview with John Giannone. He was also referring to Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. Unfortunately in the salary cap era, that’s what happens to good teams like the 2014 Stanley Cup roster.

From the very start at puck drop, they were ready for battle. They didn’t shy away from physical play getting involved in several scrums that produced a fight between Kampfer and Callahan along with some frustration from Tampa with Alex Killorn goaded into a penalty by Kevin Hayes. You had Zuccarello going after the much bigger Hedman with them nearly coming to blows. It was beautiful.

The impressive thing was how they didn’t allow Kucherov and Stamkos to get started. It was a more calculated attack by the Rangers who tested Lightning starter Andrei Vasilevskiy early and often in a excellent first period. He was superb making several good saves en route to a game high 35 on the night. That included stopping 13 of 14 in a busy first.

It was strong defensive play by the Blueshirts in their end and the neutral zone that fueled the attack. They forced the Lightning into a few mistakes on errant passes. Almost a role reversal given how both teams had started the year. The KZB Line of Kreider, Zibanejad and Buchnevich went head to head with Vladislav Namestnikov, Stamkos and Kucherov. They generated sustained forecheck and quality chances on Vasilevskiy. It was the play of Skjei and Shattenkirk that did a outstanding job taking turns with McDonagh-Holden. In particular, Skjei and McDonagh, who both were outstanding. Skjei has been playing well while this was McDonagh’s best game so far.

The fourth line featuring Michael Grabner, Boo Nieves and Jesper Fast were effective throughout. Especially Grabner, who was dangerous in getting four shots including a point blank chance that Vasilevskiy denied. Grabner’s game is coming around finally. Maybe he’ll get hot. Full credit to Nieves, who has come up from Hartford and provided a spark as a solid two-way presence with Vigneault finally able to roll four lines. He liked the work of Nieves so much that David Desharnais hardly saw the ice in the third.

An aggressive penalty kill took care of a Shattenkirk holding minor. There was some good communication with Staal and Zuccarello making smart reads to limit Kucherov and Stamkos, leading to easy clears. In fact, they were able to Spring Shattenkirk from the penalty box for a breakaway. But Vasilevskiy stayed right with him to deny a tough shot point blank keeping the game scoreless.

They had played so well that it was hard to believe there was no score. That changed thanks to a terrific odd man rush that led to Kreider’s fourth goal in five games with 1:26 remaining. Skjei started it with a defensive play to catch the Bolts. He started the rush passing to Zibanejad who was in but wisely centered for a cutting Kreider for a tap in after he beat Coburn.

After outshooting the Bolts 14-8, the Rangers had to expect a pushback from the Lightning. It would’ve been hard not to considering how lethal they are. So, it was only natural that they would turn up the heat in a 17 shot second in which they forced Lundqvist into some difficult saves. He was prepared with a terrific stop on Stamkos backdoor and a flat out denial on the always dangerous Kucherov.

Following a first in which Zuccarello took Hedman off the ice with him in the latest series of David versus Goliath, the game continued to intensify. The scrums were a big part of the story. In a period where they combined for 29 shots with Tampa holding a 17-12 edge, you certainly had your entertaining rough stuff.

It was during a shift midway through that a physical battle ensued along the boards with a feisty Callahan getting away with an elbow on Kampfer, who didn’t put up with it. He challenged Callahan and the two fought. For as bad as he was against Las Vegas, Kampfer was more effective playing a spunky game in 21 shifts (14:28) which included a second scrap later and a near miss with Vasilevskiy robbing him with a glove save that left him frustrated.

With Callahan and Kampfer off, Zibanejad drew a cross check on Namestnikov. However, the power play was brutal. They allowed a shorthanded goal to Yanni Gourde. Zibanejad tried to keep a puck in at the point but it resulted in a predictable turnover that fueled the Tampa transition. Once Buchnevich fell in the neutral zone, it was a matter of time before Brayden Point fed Hedman, who then found a wide open Gourde for a wrist shot that beat Lundqvist to tie the game at the 11-minute mark of the second.

They hadn’t played badly up till that point. For the most part, the defense didn’t give up the blueline and turn pucks over. However, there were a few scary moments following Gourde’s marker. The Lightning began to dictate play with their speed and puck possession. The Rangers were guilty of some mistakes that we’ve seen before. But Lundqvist was up to the challenge bailing them out. He saw a lot of rubber but never relented to keep the game tied after two. It was his best game finishing with 27  saves including 16 in the middle stanza.

The third was superb by the guys in Rangers white with red. They responded with a heck of a effort totally eliminating the Bolts attack. In fact, they held them to only four shots. They outshot the Bolts 9-4 with Vasilevskiy continuing to stymie them.

There was more animosity with Kampfer and J.T. Brown going at it early. It was that type of passionate game with no vanilla mixed in. The throwback where two teams disliked each other battling all over the ice. If they can play like this more consistently, the Rangers are fully capable of turning it around. When they’re able to ratchet it up and play responsibly, they’re a good team. Especially when Vigneault is confident enough to roll four lines and three pairs. Desharnais was the only skater who had his ice-time cut with Vigneault opting to double shift Zibanejad while also using Miller at center for a few shifts.

On a night where he didn’t play too much, it was Miller Time in overtime. Make no mistake about it. The Rangers are a better team when Miller performs. Even though he came into play second in team scoring, he hadn’t been consistent. There had been too many lazy giveaways and not enough shots. Miller is a splendid passer who can be too unselfish. He has a good shot and can excel in transition.

After the three man unit of Zibanejad, Buchnevich and Skjei fought the scary trio of Stamkos, Kucherov and Hedman to a draw, on came Miller with Zuccarello and Shattenkirk. It was a hustling Miller who was beaten by Stamkos that recovered to break up a centering pass for the Tampa captain in front. With both teams completing changes, he waited before giving the puck to Shattenkirk.

Miller circled back to take a Shattenkirk pass in the Ranger zone and then gained a full head of steam carrying the puck into the Tampa zone with forwards Gourde and Point back. Rather than pull up or shoot from the outside, he moved around Gourde and inside Point to get in on Vasilevskiy. With Anton Stralman a spectator, Miller made a great deke before faking and then pumping home a wrist shot top shelf past Vasilevskiy for a brilliant game-winner that sent excited teammates pouring off the bench. Splendid stuff from a talented player who should be here for a while.

Lundqvist actually got the play started to pick up his second career assist in overtime. Credit goes out to MSG’s Kenny Albert for that stat. Something Steve Valiquette referenced in a happy postgame with Ron Duguay and host Bill Pidto.

Afterwards, Miller discussed the big victory along with his great goal with MSG’s John Giannone in the locker room while donning the Broadway Hat.

The Lightning had a goal wiped out due to interference. Killorn thought he scored off a face-off win following a icing. But Gabriel Dumont’s right skate made contact with Lundqvist to impede him for incidental contact. It wasn’t intentional but enough to negate the goal which they got correct on the ice and in Toronto following a video review. Lightning fans didn’t agree but as Vigneault stated, it was the right call.

NYR 3 Stars:

3rd Star ⭐️ Brady Skjei assist, 4 blocks, +1 in 27 shifts-21:13

2nd Star ⭐️ J.T. Miller terrific OT winner for 3rd goal, 4 shots in 7 attempts, +1 in 21 shifts-12:06

1st Star ⭐️ Henrik Lundqvist 27 saves on 28 shots including 16 of 17 in 2nd, assisted on Miller winner, career win 409

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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