A Winter Classic Hangover

The Winter Classic had the Broadway script ending on New Year’s Day with J.T. Miller playing the role of hero by doing the dirty work in front to beat the Sabres on a power play rebound from Kevin Shattenkirk at Citi Field. That was a very good game with the Rangers prevailing in overtime before freezing cold screaming fans on the backdrop of classic New York taxis and subway.

I’m sure the Buffalo fan was confused as to why our goalhorn played when it was a Sabres “home game.” To be fair, they couldn’t play it in Buffalo due to the IIHF Under 20 World Junior Championship being played there along with a memorable outdoor game on Dec. 29 won by USA over Canada in the snow at Ralph Wilson Stadium 4-3 in a shootout.

Two days later, the Rangers were back in a more familiar setting playing in front of the home crowd at MSG for the late 8 PM start on Rivalry Night over on NBCSN against the Original Six rival Blackhawks. These days, they’re not a true rival anymore due to overexpansion. Though the appeal of seeing those threads and cool logo still makes it fun, it would be nice if the start time were moved up to 7:30. But with Chicago in the central time zone, I can see why it was a 8 start on the East Coast. Now had it been say the Caps, Devils, Flyers, Islanders or Pens, it should be a half hour earlier.

As for tonight’s game, it was a disappointing result. The Rangers were never sharp and often two steps behind the skilled Blackhawks. It ended up in a bitter 5-2 loss in home game 25. Yes, they’ve only got 16 games left at The Garden due to ridiculous award shows. So, if they want to make the playoffs, they’ll have to do well on the road. With 42 games remaining, they have to play 26 road games. The first two at Arizona and Vegas this weekend following a winter storm that’s gonna make it feel like hell froze over.

Sitting third in the Metropolitan Division with a 21-14-5 record and 47 points, this was a missed opportunity. Especially with the Islanders fading and Penguins inconsistent. Even the Blue Jackets and Devils haven’t been lighting the world on fire although the latter has run into some ridiculous bad luck due to the dopey offside challenge and other NHL absurdity.

Even though they didn’t have much time following Monday’s emotional win, it’s inexcusable to play as incomplete a game as they did. The Blueshirts teased us by again blowing scoring chances and missing too many shots against winning Chicago emergency starter Jeff Glass. If you can’t get more than two past a backup  who’s been thrust into a starting role with the Rodney Dangerfield of number one’s Corey Crawford out due to injury, you get exactly what the Rangers deserved. A ugly loss in which they gave up more shots and left too many skilled Hawks unchecked. They played a lousy third period after Mika Zibanejad tied it. All that was required was a better third than the first two when they didn’t get enough rubber on Glass. Shocking nobody.

Whatever it is, this is the norm for the Rangers. They aren’t good enough defensively to keep forcing Henrik Lundqvist to bail them out with miraculous saves facing 30-plus shots a night. He can only do so much. Even he couldn’t stop Patrick Sharp from scoring the winner at 2:24 of the third. At which point I shouted, “Of course they’d give up a goal to a guy who has one goal in his last 30!”

It may have been exaggeration. But Sharp has struggled so much that he’s now in a secondary role in his second stint with the team that made him a star and key contributor to their Stanley Cup winning teams. It was only his fourth goal.

The bottom line is the Hawks were sharper from the outset outplaying, outshooting and outskating the Rangers. They still rallied twice from one goal deficits. The first coming from Nick Holden, who two minutes following Vinnie Hinostroza’s tally, was able to beat Glass with a wrist shot through a Jesper Fast screen at 18:09 of the first. It was again strong work from the fourth line with Boo Nieves and Paul Carey combining to set up Holden’s third.

Despite only registering six shots to their opponent’s 14, they were tied after one. The second played out similarly. At one point, the Hawks took four straight minor penalties. Shortly after Nick Schmaltz took a Patrick Kane feed and was stopped by Lundqvist only to have the good fortune of the loose rebound deflecting off a falling Marc Staal and in for his eighth, Brent Seabrook and Glass took consecutive minors 1:36 apart. The Blueshirts made it work thanks to some sparkling passing. On a play started by Mats Zuccarello, Zibanejad converted a five on three power play goal thanks to blasting home a perfect Pavel Buchnevich cross ice feed for his 12th at 11:32. It was Zibanejad’s first point since returning. Earlier, he came close on another power play firing a laser off the far goalpost. Maybe that will get him going. His timing was better throughout. He was one of the few Rangers skaters with jump. He played with Zuccarello and Miller, who Alain Vigneault bumped up to the first line while sliding Rick Nash down to the Kevin Hayes-Michael Grabner unit.

On a night they didn’t play consistently, the Rangers were disciplined with Miller taking the only minor when he got nabbed for hi-sticking Connor Murphy to end the rest of a five on four. After some four on four, the Rangers killed off a abbreviated Chicago man-advantage.

The best chance to take the lead came with Jimmy Vesey on a breakaway. He came in on Glass and tried for high stickside but just missed due to some back pressure.

Vesey was tripped from behind by Lance Bouma with 1:22 left in the second. But the Rangers were unable to capitalize with the Blackhawks able to kill the remainder at the start of the third. It was a letdown due to the opprtunities they were handed. One for six isn’t good enough when you’re facing a talented team.

The Hawks were the better team five on five using their speed and forecheck to give the Rangers fits. They forced them into way too many sloppy turnovers. The Rangers had 22 giveaways.

Early in the final stanza, a good Chicago breakout led to Sharp striking off a rush. Alex DeBrincat led David Kampf in the Ranger zone. With Staal giving Sharp enough room, he took a Kampf pass and let go of a laser that beat Lundqvist high glove off the bar and in at 2:24. A great shot by a former 30 goalscorer.

The Rangers picked it up by outshooting the Blackhawks 11-9 after getting outshot 26-14 the first 40 minutes. But every time they looked on the verge of tying it, Glass made a good save or a Hawk made a good defensive play. If there was a noticeable difference, it was Chicago’s attention to detail. They blocked 17 shots and the Rangers missed another 16.

They had three good chances. One coming with Hayes passing for a cutting Grabner tip try that just missed. Another when Zibanejad was denied in tight. Fast had a point blank chance blocked. The final one came when Nash took a Brendan Smith feed off a offensive draw and couldn’t stuff the puck past a sliding Glass.

Eventually, jonathan Toews was the recipient of a empty netter on a hustling defensive play by Tommy Wingels. He intercepted a Zuccarello pass and led Brandon Saad, who got the puck over to Toews for the goal with under 54 seconds left that sealed it. Kane added a empty with five seconds left.

BONY 3 Stars ✨

3rd Star ⭐️ Jeff Glass, Blackhawks 23 saves including 11/11 in 3rd

2nd Star ⭐️ Mika Zibanejad PPG 12th to end a scoring drought, 5 SOG, 9 attempts

1st Star ⭐️ Patrick Sharp GWG 4th at 2:24 of 3rd

WJC Semifinals on NHL Network Later Today: With it being a snow day for some like myself, there’s a perfect opportunity to catch the wave of the future.

Two good match ups in Buffalo take place Thursday at KeyBank Center at the IIHF U20 WJC semifinals. The first coming at 4 EST with defending champion USA taking on Sweden.

Sabres 2017 first round pick Casey Mittlestadt has been superb along with Islanders prospect Kieffer Bellows while playing with 2018 Draft Eligible Brady Tkachuk. Actually, Devils prospect Joey Anderson rounds out the top line having scored three goals in the last two American victories. Joseph Woll (Maple Leafs) will be in net.

Sweden hasn’t lost yet and enter having won 44 straight games in Group play. They were one of the tournament favorites entering play with potential first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin highlighting a group that includes Rangers 2017 first round pick Lias Andersson. He was limited in their quarterfinal win over Slovakia due to injury.

The winner faces the winner of the second semifinal between Canada and Czech Republic. Canada has been strong throughout led by Dillon Dube, Taylor Raddysh and Carter Hart. They’re deep as usual and the only blemish was a shootout loss to USA in the snow outdoors at Ralph Wilson. They easily defeated Switzerland in the quarters 8-2.

The Czechs are a pleasant surprise making it this far for the first time in over a decade. Rangers prospect Filip Chytil is one player who has had a good tournament. They can score goals. But the question is defensively. We’ll see if they’re up to the challenge at 8 EST.

The winners advance to the gold medal game while the losers play for the bronze. NHL Network’s extensive coverage is superb. It really is terrific and gives hockey fans a lot of insight. Kudos to them and TSN.

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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