Big Saturday Showdown between Hudson rivals as Rangers/Devils look to rebound

It’s been a great start for the rebuilding Devils. They enter tonight’s match against the Hudson rival Rangers with only eight losses in regulation. One coming last night to the first place Blue Jackets, who earned a split of a home and home series with a 5-3 win at The Rock. Artemi Panarin victimized the Devs for five assists. A rare off night for them. They’ll be ready later when the Rangers host the Devils.

The Devils bring a 16-8-4 record with 36 points into the second match against the Rangers. Astonishingly, they’re in third place due to one loss putting them a point behind Columbus and Washington, who prevailed over the Rangers 4-2 to deal them a brutal loss. After they rallied to tie it thanks to Jesper Fast, they allowed the Caps to score twice in the final 3:32. They enter at 15-11-2 in sixth place with 32 points.

That explains how crazy the Metropolitan Division is. One regulation loss and you fall down a couple of spots. It’s wild. I detailed in a recent piece how one of the crowded six in the best division in hockey could get screwed due to the current playoff system. They’ll be jockeying for position all year. The fun part is it’s not even Chanukah or Christmas. A day following my birthday, it’s snowing on December 9. These teams have barely played 30 games and already every one means so much. Especially when it’s a potential four point swing as was the case for both the Devils and Rangers yesterday and today if there’s no overtime.

Who rebounds at 33rd and 8th Avenue? It’s sure to be a good environment. The last meeting came early in the season with the Devils scoring three in a row and holding off a last second Rangers comeback prevailing 3-2 at MSG on Oct. 14. A game so bad it drove us to the exits before it became 3-2 as a tease. They were playing miserable hockey. It made them 1-5-0. A 5-4 overtime loss to the Pens didn’t help. Neither did a exasperating one goal loss to the despised Islanders. It got so bad in that first month that it looked like the end for coach Alain Vigneault. Had they not responded with a huge home third to defeat Vegas on Halloween, he was likely gone.

It never materialized. The prideful Rangers skaters wouldn’t let it happen. They played for their coach saving his job. A six-game win streak into November turned it around. They would win 10 of 12 to get back in it. The play of the KZB Line carried them for a stretch until top center Mika Zibanejad suffered a concussion. While Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich have continued to produce, they are missing their center. David Desharnais has done a admirable job but it’s not sustainable.

Neither can playmaking pivots J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes totaling a combined nine goals. Miller has 17 assists with four goals. Hayes has five markers and six assists in a two-way role. His line was benched in a big 4-3 road win at Pittsburgh. Buchnevich getting the winner with under minutes to play when his pass banked in off Kris Letang. The thing is the Rangers need more goalscoring from Miller and Hayes. Sure. The offense ranks seventh. But the centers can’t be predictable with Zibanejad out.

Boo Nieves scored his first career NHL goal in the win over the Pens. The rookie is improving but along the way come bumps and bruises like failing to absorb Kevin Shattenkirk’s pass that would’ve cleared the zone prior to Matt Niskanen’s game-winner. To be honest, Shattenkirk stunk in his return to D.C. He went minus-three and got victimized on the first shift leading to a Caps goal 14 seconds in from Jay Beagle. Maybe Shattenkirk tried too hard after Bruce Boudreau’s criticism that he wasn’t a 1-2 but a 3-4 referring to his defense as a rental for the Caps last Spring. Shattenkirk is worth his contract due to the offense he provides. Five goals, 15 assists, 20 points and nine power play points in 28 games is fine production. His D remains sketchy.

Ryan McDonagh also got badly beaten by Tom Wilson on the finisher. At times, the captain looks like his old self making the defensive plays and skating we’ve come to appreciate. However, there are other ugly moments mixed in like last night that are more common. He’s the workhorse of a still weak defense. Mac continues to work with the imperfect Nick Holden, who wasn’t supposed to be on the top pair. Shattenkirk works better with budding sophomore Brady Skjei, whose skating makes him a two-way threat. Marc Staal fits perfectly on the third pair in a defensive role playing shorthanded where he excels. He teams with Brendan Smith, who has been wildly inconsistent after signing his contract. You never know.

The Rangers are still competitive due to Henrik Lundqvist. He was disappointed with allowing four goals last night but made 36 saves. He can’t continue to be peppered by opponents. The 2.72 GAA, .916 save percentage are respectable in a higher scoring league. He’s been there when his team’s needed him.

They need more goals from Mats Zuccarello, who like Hayes and Miller is a playmaker who thinks pass first. His 17 assists and 22 points are tied for the team lead. Since being moved down to the third line with Miller and Michael Grabner’s, he’s fit in. With a goal again yesterday, Grabner is up to a team best 14. He’s more than done his part, making him a valuable asset. At this point, the Rangers need to find a way to keep him. He’s so effective with his deadly combo of speed and defensive acumen causing breakaways and odd man rushes.

Rick Nash only has seven goals on a team high 86 shots. He might be the most snake bitten player. Nobody creates more chances off their skating and forecheck. At some point, they have to go in. He plays with Hayes and Jimmy Vesey, who only has five goals himself. It’s all about finding more production from that line. Granted. They take on the tough assignment. But they need to bury some chances.

The fourth line is now trusted by Vigneault, who’s been more patient and more willing to make guys accountable. He wasn’t afraid to play the cohesive trio of Nieves, Fast and Paul Carey in the final minute at Pittsburgh. It’s nice to have four lines you can rely on.

As for the Devils, they are led by Taylor Hall. He’s had the bounce back needed to make them much improved. He leads them in scoring with 29 points including a team high 20 assists to go with nine tallies. His playmaking has been on display. He’s also been more aggressive looking for his shot. That’s the sign of a confident scorer who’s just over a point-per-game clip. Hall is playing with gifted rookies Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt on the top line. Hischier was the first overall pick in the recent draft. He’s been more playmaker with 15 helpers along with five goals for 20 points. Not for lack of chances. He’s gotten plenty. The first-year teenager will continue to improve. Bratt is a great story making the Devils as a 2016 sixth round pick. A two-wavy threat who plays penalty kill, he has a shorthanded goal and shorthanded assist. A gritty player, he’s fun to watch unless you’re playing him. With nine goals and 10 assists, Bratt continues to impress.

With the emergence of Brian Gibbons, whose 11 goals and plus-11 lead the team, they moved Adam Henrique to Anaheim for defenseman Sami Vatanen. A good trade that should benefit them long term. Vatanen plays with captain Andy Greene. It allows for less pressure on Damon Severson, Steven Santini and offensive minded rookie Will Butcher, whose 18 points have been impressive. The former Hobey Baker winner is showing why he belongs. He’s cooled off lately. But must be accounted for on the rush and on the power play.

The Devils boast emotional inspiration Brian Boyle. Bravely battling Leukemia, #BoyleStrong has come back with a vengeance scoring five times including last night. Coach John Hynes has used him also on the power play with Boyle using his size in front to score twice. There’s no bigger fan of him than me. I will never forget what he did here in helping our team become a playoff contender. His primary assist on Dominic Moore’s series clincher near the end of the second period against Montreal to win the Wales Trophy will always be etched in my memory. I’m rooting for him as are all hockey fans, players and coaches. He’s easy to love. A glue player who does anything to win.

Marcus Johansson is finally healthy. After missing significant time with a concussion, he scored in yesterday’s 5-3 home loss. That will aid them without Kyle Palmieri. Miles Wood has been a solid fit on the secondary lines with six goals and six helpers. He isn’t the prettiest skater but somehow makes it work due to extra effort. Keep him away from the net.

The Devils also boast the reliable Travis Zajac. He doesn’t score much these days. But still is a solid all around center who can forecheck and kill penalties as well as play power play. They count on him for face offs along with Boyle.

Pavel Zacha has struggled mightily but gets a opportunity in place of slumping vet Drew Stafford. How much will he play?

Don’t forget John Moore, who has a penchant for scoring big goals in overtime. Without Cory Schneider, the Devils aren’t where they are in the standings. He faces a lot of rubber and has done well making critical stops. With 11 wins, a 2.72 GAA and .919 save percentage, he’s had the bounce back needed. It’s a good goalie match up between him and Lundqvist. Cancel that. It’ll be Keith Kinkaid.

It should be a good game. Round two starts now.

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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