Game #8 Curse of the backup goalie haunts Rangers in 4-1 loss to Gaudreau, Flames


Why would I have been confident about tonight? Logic told me that Calgary was flying across the country from Northwestern Canada for the first of a two-game Eastern swing with a stop at Broadway for a rested Rangers. Little did I know they would start the little known backup goalie, David Rittich. Oops. Of course, he turned into Dryden, Sawchuk, Roy, Hasek and Brodeur versus our punchless offense in a haunting 4-1 home loss at MSG.

I should’ve known better. Let’s face it. Historically, the Rangers don’t do well against backups. Sunday night was no exception. We’ve seen this team turn Carter “E.F.” Hutton into a starting goalie, which he now is on an improving Buffalo team. Now I’m not suggesting Rittich is gonna go from 26-year old journeyman to number one goalie. However, if he can string together more virtuoso performances like the 44 saves he made tonight- some of the spectacular variety. Maybe veteran Mike Smith won’t have a stranglehold on the starter position with Calgary.

While I didn’t know, MSG’s Steve Valiquette called it tongue in cheek in a poetic tweet a few hours before the game that would’ve made Robin Williams smile.

https://twitter.cJohnnyom/VallysView/status/1054113990249537536?s=19

In falling to 2-5-1 through the first eight games, one thing should be coming clear. This roster doesn’t possess the elite level talent that other teams have at their disposal. They must outwork opponents and make the most of their opportunities. That means giving the extra effort that’s emphasized every Spring in honor of Steven McDonald. It also means getting dirty. Or as lone goalscorer Mika Zibanejad noted, having more grit. A buzz word under new coach David Quinn, who also likes to use tenacity to describe what’s lacking following losses.

There are no Johnny Gaudreau’s coming to save this team. Speaking of Johnny Hockey, he was front and center at the world’s most famous arena. It’s still amazing that so many general managers passed on him in the 2011 NHL Draft. He went 104th overall. The most dangerous player on the Flames, he was allowed to make the game defining plays, scoring twice on two unreal finishes. If he continues his torrid start, it could be a career year. He notched goals four and five.

The frustrating aspect is the Rangers controlled much of the action in a good first period. They generated the better scoring chances, but were unable to beat Rittich. As usually happens when you don’t bury your chances, the opponent capitalizes on its one quality chance. Off a face off win, Sean Monahan got the puck to Gaudreau in the slot. Tightly guarded by defenseman Adam McQuaid, he wisely maneuvered to the backhand and quickly shot past Henrik Lundqvist for a 1-0 lead. A terrific play by a smart player. He had no way to go forehand. So, he used his high hockey IQ to score.

Trailing by one, the Rangers looked undeterred. They got nine of the first ten shots in the second. But despite some excellent opportunities, they continued to fire blanks at their kryptonite. Every now and then, Rittich mace an acrobatic stop to remind us that the curse of the backup exists.

At some point, players try to do too much when things aren’t going well. Up til then, the effort was there. The execution wasn’t. Bret “Hitman” Hart wouldn’t be proud. He used to be part owner of the Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League (WHL). If I’m not mistaken, I think that was around the time Neil Smith took Pavel Brendl. Painful memories. I know.

One of my keys was staying out of the penalty box. That wasn’t a problem. The Rangers only gave Calgary two power plays. Both of which our weak penalty killing unit took care of. Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of their better games at even strength. The Zibanejad line with Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast lost the head to head match up against Gaudreau, Monahan and Elias Lindholm. Credit Gaudreau for that. He dominated. In fact, the fivesome of Zibanejad, Kreider, Fast, Brady Skjei and Neal Pionk went a combined minus-ten. Each a minus-two. Something that didn’t sit well with Zibanejad.

Listening to him talk to reporters on the way home, it was encouraging. He sounds like he’s buying in. After his power play goal in the third erased the shutout, he came oh so close to making it a one goal game. But following a big save on Fast, Rittich stoned Zibanejad on the doorstep. He may only have three goals, but the number one center has picked it up. He’s shooting the puck and creating opportunities for his teammates. There was another chance where he should’ve shot instead of passed. Kreider was on a tough angle down low, and was denied by a Rittich kick save.

Quinn wants to see his team not stick handle as much. Just shoot the puck and see what happens. No one can complain when they outshoot the Flames by a healthy 45-26 margin. They also out-attempted them 77-51. It’s just that they need better finish around the net.

The Flames’ second goal really crushed them. The pair of Marc Staal and Kevin Shattenkirk got caught out with the fourth line of Cody McLeod, Vladislav Namestnikov and Vinni Lettieri for a long shift. They were their own worst enemy. They had at least five chances to clear the zone. But they kept turning the puck over. Eventually, the Flames made them pay. Staal was forced into a bad turnover, leading to Garnet Hathaway redirecting home a Mark Jankowski shot that had Lundqvist beaten anyway. Hathaway just made sure it went in.

They came unglued afterwards. The final half of the second was a unmitigated disaster. Not long after, Gaudreau dusted Skjei before firing high stick side to beat Lundqvist for a 3-0 lead. It was a mesmerizing move and sweet finish by a player who recorded his 300th career point in only his 320th NHL game.

By the time the period hit the one minute mark for PA announcer Joe Tolleson’s, “Last minute to play in the period,” we cheered. I know we’re bad, but the follies on ice were amusing in a gallows sense. Halloween is coming. Michael Myers would be proud.

I knew they’d give a better showing in the third. One thing about this team. They don’t give up under Quinn. Not shockingly, they peppered Rittich with rubber, holding a huge edge in shots, 20-5. But only a perfect shot by Zibanejad beat Rittich to cut the deficit to two from Pionk and Mats Zuccarello with 13:19 remaining. Kreider did a good job screening Rittich enough for Zibanejad to break the shutout.

They really turned up the heat. I still don’t know how Rittich got over so easily to rob Zibanejad following a big stop on Fast. He was in the zone. He made a lot of big saves on his way to a career high 44 stops. There was a very good shift by the fourth line with McLeod on the doorstep only to be stoned on a rebound. McLeod played in place of an ineffective Ryan Spooner. McLeod is never gonna play a lot of minutes, but the veteran will give an honest effort by going to the dirty areas. Something a couple of our skill guys are unwilling to do. He had four shots and five hits in 8:31 of ice time. That should tell you something.

I thought Kevin Hayes had a good game. But they’re not going in for him. He and Zuccarello worked hard during most shifts along with Filip Chytil, who had his most active game. I’d like to see that trio stay together and get some puck luck. Maybe they will on Tuesday when the perplexing 1-2-3 Panthers visit. It’s my brother’s birthday. Hopefully, it’ll be a better game.

Calgary got a break on their fourth goal that sent most of us home. With Rasmus Andersson delivering a big hit on Zuccarello at center ice, Skjei made a bee line for him. While he took him down and got in some shots, play continued. The refs never blew the play dead. Instead, that gave Hathaway a wide open shot on a odd man break. With Lundqvist just back in his net after looking to go to the bench, Hathaway beat him with a good shot high glove to put the finishing touches on a Calgary 4-1 win.

The result was disappointing considering the circumstances. Calgary sat back in the third and it nearly became interesting. They can thank Rittich that it didn’t.

My Three Rangers Stars:

3rd 🌟 Neal Pionk assisted on Zibanejad’s PPG, had six shots. Is the team’s best defenseman right now.

2nd 🌟 Mika Zibanejad scored his third goal and offensively was good. Said the right things about the loss.

1st 🌟 MSG Concession dude for giving out free popcorn to some of us when he closed up. Very cool.

Meet David Rittich

“Maybe not until the last whistle.”-on being in the zone :O😊

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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