The record is now 2-4-1. Through seven games of the David Quinn era, the Rangers have already made some strides in the first year of a rebuild. Despite coming up short in a tough 4-3 overtime loss to the defending champion Capitals, they proved they could play with the league’s best. It was a very competitive and entertaining brand of hockey.
Coming off a shootout win over Colorado the previous night, the Rangers went toe to toe with the game’s elite in Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Facing a championship team in enemy territory, they did well for a back-to-back situation. As expected, Henrik Lundqvist got the start against Braden Holtby. A battle of former Vezina winners. They both were good in a fast paced game that had plenty.
Once again, Quinn went head to head with the top line of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast going up against the Ovechkin/Kuznetsov duo that was flanked mostly by Chandler Stephenson. It was a successful night with the cohesive Rangers trio getting the better of the play at five-on-five. They were good on the forecheck, generating offense while playing smart defensively.
That line broke through first thanks to a splendid end to end rush from rookie defenseman Neal Pionk. In his second game back following a two game absence, he was brilliant assisting on all three Rangers goals. On the first one, he got a pick from Vinni Lettieri and centered for Kreider, whose initial shot rebounded right to Zibanejad for his second at 6:09. It was a well executed play started by an attacking Pionk.
The Capitals applied pressure on Lundqvist, keeping him busy. He made a few good saves in a period that saw the Washington hosts hold a 14-9 edge in shots. They tied the game on a face off win by Nicklas Backstrom. He won it back to John Carlson, who stepped into one and shot through a Brady Skjei screen past Lundqvist’s glove. A mistake by Skjei that didn’t allow Lundqvist to pick it up until it was too late.
Still tied in the second, a Brett Howden tripping minor in the offensive zone led to the first of two Ovechkin power play goals. The Howden penalty wasn’t bad as it was out of aggression on a good shift for his line. He went for a loose puck in front and tripped Lars Eller. Unfortunately, the penalty kill left Ovechkin wide open for one of his trademark bombs off a Carlson feed. Lundqvist had no chance.
Trailing for the first time, the Rangers got a power play goal of their own when Jimmy Vesey steered in his third from Pionk and Howden to tie it at two with 7:18 left in the period. Off a Howden face off win, a Pionk shot took a favorable bounce off a skate right to Vesey, who buried it.
However, a Fast interference minor cost the Rangers another goal by the Great Eight. Following a big Lundqvist stop on Ovechkin, he got another opportunity. This time, Backstrom and Carlson combined to set the game’s best finisher up from his office. Rather than go high glove like usual, he fooled Lundqvist by firing a low rocket by him for a Caps’ 3-2 lead with 2:59 remaining. It was his sixth of the season and career goal number 613.
If not for Ovechkin’s work on the power play, the Rangers had the better of the play at even strength. They outshot the Capitals 18-13. Holtby came up with some good saves to keep his team ahead.
The Blueshirts stuck with it in the third. They only got five shots on Holtby, but it was special teams that drew them even. Pionk was held behind his own net by Nathan Walker. On what was his best night so far as a pro, he took a shot that was headed wide which Kreider redirected home for the second power play goal of the game. Zibanejad got the secondary assist. Kreider’s second goal in two nights came on another deflection. He’s starting to become a lot more effective as the team’s net front presence. It started last season. His four goals lead the team.
Kreider is the most important scoring wing they have. If he can finally put it together, that would be huge. He and Zibanejad are the top two forwards followed by Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. It’s nice to see both Zibanejad and Kreider getting it going. They really are working well with the tenacious Fast, who always makes things happen. I would keep them together.
Pavel Buchnevich returned to the lineup. He just wasn’t effective. Quinn even gave him a few shifts in place of Filip Chytil with Hayes and Zuccarello in the third. But his decision making wasn’t the best. In a tie game, he tried a 35-foot cross ice pass for Zuccarello that went into the bench. A riskier play rather than getting the puck deep, which NBCSN analyst Eddie Olczyk criticized. The skill from Buchnevich is similar to Alexei Kovalev. But he doesn’t shoot the puck and is struggling to adapt to Quinn’s system.
There was another play I wasn’t crazy about. Following two good defensive plays by Marc Staal and Hayes, Buchnevich got bodied off the puck and didn’t clear the zone. That puck has to get out. That’s what Quinn means by more grit. Buchnevich needs to take the body more and simplify his game. Otherwise, he will continue to find himself on the fourth line, or in the press box.
Most of the 18 skaters are getting it. Hayes had some nice takeaways in the three-on-three overtime. In fact, he had Kreider all set up with an open side, but Kreider was unable to convert the glorious chance. Hayes’ play has gotten a lot better since last year when Alain Vigneault used him in a match up role. It’s only a matter of time before Hayes gets untracked.
The Capitals won the game due to a unreal skill play from Kuznetsov. Taking a pass from T.J. Oshie, the ever dangerous Russian center made a great move and fired a tough shot that Lundqvist got a piece of. However, all three Rangers lost Matt Niskanen in coverage. He had an easy rebound which he tapped home for the OT winner at 2:18.
Even though they lost, the Rangers took a step in the right direction. They played the Capitals tough in a exciting game full of end to end play and scoring chances. There was a lot to like. Now if only Buchnevich could buy in and play a more North/South game. Skjei could improve defensively. Can Quinn get anything out of the $4 million twins (Namestnikov/Spooner)?
They don’t play again until Sunday when the Flames are in town.