Maybe I should call out more players. In one of their better efforts, the Rangers rebounded from a tough loss Friday by soundly defeating the listless Devils 5-2 at The Garden.
The win allowed them to improve to 16-11-2 with 34 points in the chaotic Metro Division. With the Pens falling short in a comeback attempt against the Leafs and the Islanders losing to the Bruins, this is a good night. They gained ground by closing within a point of Pittsburgh and the Islanders while pulling within two of the suddenly slumping Devils. Columbus won again via a 1-0 shutout of lowly Arizona to move into sole possession of first place with 39 points.
It was vital for them to bounce back and do it in regulation over their close Hudson rival. It’s the first time the Devils have lost back to back games in regulation all season. They’ve lost three of four and fell to 16-9-4 with 36 points.
The Rangers know how crucial every game is. Especially inside the division. Ryan McDonagh emphasized that point to MSG’s Dave Maloney in a pregame interview. To win a four point game in such a tight race already means plenty. If it’s going to be a battle all the way to Game 82, they have to take advantage of these opportunities.
In the second game of five against the Devils, they largely dominated with superior five on five play. Taking advantage of some lackadaisical mistakes by a opponent also playing a back to back, the Rangers were sharper throughout than Friday’s incomplete loss in Washington.
They got goals from some of the players I called out in my game preview. In particular, Mats Zuccarello keyed the victory by scoring twice. He was splendid in all facets including defensively. There was a big moment where he saved a goal with the puck heading towards the goal line before a hustling Zuccarello saved Henrik Lundqvist. There was another funny moment where he almost beat his own goalkeeper, who rescued him. They shared a chuckle during a stoppage.
Alain Vigneault made one change to the lines. Let’s call it a good adjustment that impacted the match up he wanted. Sensing that the hard working two-way ability of Jesper Fast could help win the game, he moved Fast up to the checking line with Kevin Hayes and Rick Nash. That’s the line he feels most comfortable with matching against top scoring lines. It was a brilliant move which worked with the new Hayes unit shutting down the Devils top line of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Taylor Hall. They went a combined minus-eight with five shots.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Vesey was moved down to the fourth line with Boo Nieves and Paul Carey. That worked out well too with Carey and Nieves perfectly setting up Vesey for a nice finish at the side past Keith Kinkaid for the game’s first goal at 6:14 of the opening stanza. That line has been working hard and finally is getting rewarded. Nieves scored his first NHL goal in a win at the Pens. Carey also scored recently. They just click. Carey is proving critics wrong with his grit. He fits in since returning to the lineup with Nieves.
The Rangers controlled most of the first with their forecheck. When the puck wasn’t bouncing around due to college basketball played earlier in the day, they were forcing turnovers and forcing Kinkaid into tough saves. They outshot the Devils 13-7.
New Jersey came out better in the second as expected. They started to generate a few scoring chances and finally make Lundqvist get into the game. He did just that turning aside Jimmy Hayes on a tough deflection and not allowing a rebound.
With the score still 1-0 due to the Rangers unable to do anything on the power play (0-for-3), they capitalized on some awful coverage by the Devils to go up two. Nash passed for a wide open Fast, who took his time before wristing one past Kinkaid at 9:42. It was a terrific play by Nash. For Fast, that’s three straight games with a goal and he’s up to seven. His career high is 10 established in ‘15-16. That same year, he tallied a career best 20 assists and 30 points. With a goal and assist tonight, he’s already up to 15 points in 24 games. Don’t forget he missed the first four recovering from offseason surgery.
The two-goal lead lasted 4:03. A mistake by Fast led to Damon Severson cutting it in half. After he failed to clear the puck, Stefan Noesen and Blake Coleman got the puck over to a open Severson. He fired a quick wrist shot through a McDonagh screen past Lundqvist to get the Devils back in it. McDonagh went for the shot block and instead hurt his own goalie from seeing it.
A bad Brendan Smith delay of game minor nearly cost them. But Marcus Johansson had his try go off the goalpost. It was that close to being tied. Instead, as often happens, the Rangers came back and scored the fateful next goal. Ironically, it was Severson who fell asleep at his own blueline. Handling the puck like a grenade, he had Zuccarello completely strip him and break in on Kinkaid going stick side on Kinkaid with not much real estate for a 3-1 lead with 3:57 left in the second. A splendid play by a dedicated guy who just finds a way to impact these games out of his pure hustle and heart. That was a huge goal.
The Devils trailed by two instead of being tied with one period left. Pavel Zacha had some near misses. He came in for Drew Stafford and probably should stay in their lineup. He was effective and later had a assist on the Devils’ second tally. He also played over 16 minutes which is about the only positive I would take from this game if I were Hasan.
As the third began, I wondered why Devils coach John Hynes didn’t give Cory Schneider another start in the second game of a back to back. I get that he was bad Friday. But at what point do they let their top guy try to come back and see if he can play better. That’s the odd part of the Devils. Kinkaid played well making several outstanding saves including robbing Nash on a two on one with a quick glove.
What doomed the Devils were their defensive breakdowns. Never was that more evident than on Zuccarello’s second of the game. On a great rush with little resistance, J.T. Miller made a bullet pass across for a unchecked Zuccarello, who beat Kinkaid for the second time to make it 4-1 at 6:21. McDonagh notched a assist on the well executed play.
But the three-goal lead lasted only 12 seconds. On a rare occasion where they weren’t going against the Hall line, the Hayes unit fell asleep. A sloppy turnover resulted in Zacha setting up Miles Wood at the doorstep for his seventh to make it 4-2 with 13:26 remaining. Will Butcher netted a assist for his first point in six games.
It almost got hairy. Hynes was able to get his dangerous top line out against the Rangers’ fourth line with Marc Staal and Smith caught out. Hischier, Bratt and Hall skated circles around them. They certainly had some quality chances but were unable to score. Instead, a desperate Staal sacrificed himself by making a crucial block. The kind of heart and soul defensive play he’s known for. He may not be the fleetest of foot anymore. But he makes up for it with determination and grit. That was the biggest play of the period.
Not long after, the Rangers got out of trouble and put the game away. It was Hayes who found the back of the net with a backhand from Nash and Fast at 11:59. That made it 5-2, erasing any thoughts of a Devils comeback.
Notes: Rangers held a 39-28 edge in shots. Attempts were much closer with the Rangers holding a slim 59-58 edge. The Devils missed 12 shots to the Rangers’ 4. Blocked shots were 18-16 Rangers with McDonagh pacing them with three. Andy Greene and Brian Gibbons each had four for the Devs. … New Jersey was stronger on face offs going 36-and-22. Brian Boyle dominated winning 9 of 10 while Hall went 10-and-5. Nieves went 4-and-6 for the Rangers while Hayes won 7 of 17. … Giveaways: Devils 14 (4 with 2) Rangers 13 (4 with 2). … Lundqvist made 26 saves while Kinkaid turned aside 34 of 39.
BONY 3 STARS ✨
3rd Star ⭐️ Rick Nash, NYR (2 assists, 5 shots in 16:21)
2nd Star ⭐️ Jesper Fast, NYR (7th of season, assist, 3 shots in 15:09)
1st Star ⭐️ Mats Zuccarello, NYR (2 goals-6, 7, 3 shots, +2 in 16:48)