When you lose games, there are no consolation prizes. Sure. The Rangers didn’t quit as coach David Quinn alluded to following a 6-5 loss to the rival Penguins at PPG Paints Arena earlier today. Ultimately, the comeback fell short with goals from Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad coming too late to undo some hideous defensive lapses that allowed Pittsburgh to break open a 3-3 game.
The Rangers had already rallied back from a 3-1 second period deficit to tie the game on goals from Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Strome at even strength. However, a double minor on Sidney Crosby for hi-sticking Neal Pionk proved to be the turning point. Handed a four-minute power play that still had 3:47 left at the start of the third, the Rangers failed to capitalize on the golden opportunity.
Instead, momentum shifted towards the Pens, who played the final period with more urgency due to their situation. Believe it or not, they entered the day out of the playoffs, trailing Montreal and red hot Carolina for the final two wildcards. Following a successful penalty kill, Kris Letang went around Filip Chytil and fired a laser past Alexandar Georgiev for his second of the game at 4:36 from Crosby and Jake Guentzel. That set off three consecutive Pens goals over a 5:19 span.
Evgeni Malkin then scored twice including a highlight reel backhand inside the far goalpost that Georgiev had little chance on. On the play, he had Hayes on him man to man and was able to pull off the fancy spin-a-rama and perfect shot to give Pittsburgh a three-goal lead with 10:05 left in regulation.
Even though Hayes had a goal and assist to further boost his trade value, his line didn’t play well. In particular, linemates Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey. They were caught puck watching on a couple of goals. Neither are consistent defensively, and both have yet to become good enough offensively to get away with lazy coverage.
It’s a team issue. Tony DeAngelo also struggled despite picking up an assist. He got caught behind the net with two forwards on one goal against. Chytil had similar issues in his return to the lineup with Jesper Fast out due to the flu.
While it’s nice that they scored four of five goals at even strength, even outshooting the Pens 37-33 at five-on-five, the Rangers allowed five of the Pens’ six goals there as well. That just won’t cut it against anyone. Especially the ridiculously skilled Penguins.
Deciding against starting Henrik Lundqvist due to a losing streak in the regular season that dates back to 2015, Quinn opted to stick with the hot hand, Georgiev. Considering how well he had played coming in, he deserved a second consecutive start (third in four). Unfortunately, he was hung out to dry much like Lundqvist has been against the Pens. The result was predictable. Especially a day after they had a tough 5-4 home loss to Calgary.
After Letang started the scoring on a shot that took a favorable carom off Kevin Shattenkirk, Zuccarello struck back in the final minute of the first period with one of his own. He had a pass deflect off Pittsburgh forward Teddy Blueger for his 10th at 19:20 from Hayes and Shattenkirk.
In what was an admittedly bad period for referee Francois StLaurent, who actually apologized to Quinn about the first two periods, the Penguins got two goals in a row from defensemen Marcus Pettersson and Brian Dumoulin. Pettersson scored on the power play when he took a good cross ice feed from ex-Panther Nick Bjugstad and beat Georgiev with a good wrist shot for a 2-1 lead. Less than three minutes later, it was Dumoulin who made it 3-1 at 14:09 from Crosby and Pettersson.
But on the next shift, Zuccarello got his second of the game only 26 seconds later to cut the deficit to one. On a dominant shift from the top line, Chris Kreider set up a quick shot from Mika Zibanejad that Pittsburgh backup Casey DeSmith had no idea where the puck was. With the puck sitting near the goal line, a hustling Zuccarello pushed it in for an easy goal. That’s seven points over the past four games, and a remarkable 22 (7-15-22) over his last 14. In fact, since picking up a helper at Vegas on Jan. 8, he has 23 points in 16 games played.
Before the dominant run with Zibanejad and Kreider, he had really struggled. In his first 30 games which included separate stints on the injured reserve due to a groin strain, Zuccarello had just 14 points. He’s now up to 37 (11-26-37) in 44 contests for the season. Rangers GM Jeff Gorton recently began contract talks with Zuccarello and Hayes. However, both are expected to be moved before the Feb. 25 trade deadline. There are many teams said to be interested including Pittsburgh for Zuccarello. I would hate to see him wind up there. Carl Hagelin hurt enough.
Still trailing by a goal in the second, Strome got them even by getting to a loose puck and firing home his eighth (seventh as a Ranger) unassisted to tie it at three with 2:15 left. He’s been a solid depth player for the team since Gorton stole him from Edmonton for Ryan Spooner. Strome quietly has points in the last four, giving him 15 (7-8-15) in 39 games as a Blueshirt. While it’s not a whole lot of production, he’s proven he should be kept for next season when he enters the final year of a contract that pays him $3.1 million through 2020.
Then came the Crosby double minor that knocked out Pionk (precautionary) for a disappointing third. Quinn dressed Fredrik Claesson for the first time since 1/12. He replaced Brady Skjei, who was held out following a injury considered not serious in the team’s 6-2 win at Buffalo on Friday. Quinn hinted that Skjei could be back for Tuesday at Carolina. Brendan Smith played mostly forward in 11 shifts (7:40) on the fourth line.
With a young, rebuilding team, defense is always problematic. Especially when the Rangers don’t have that dominant number one who can anchor the back end. When Adam McQuaid and Marc Staal are your most dependable, it explains why they’re still so far away. There are peaks and valleys for the younger crowd that includes DeAngelo, Pionk and Skjei, whose play has steadied thanks to McQuaid. You know what you’ll get from the solid but steady Claesson.
Shattenkirk recorded two assists in the one goal defeat for his first multi-point game since way back on 11/21 against the Islanders. He’s got four assists over the past three games for his best stretch. I don’t know if that makes him tradable. His defense remains spotty. Is there a contender that would be willing to roll the dice on the nice 30-year old veteran, who’s still owed $10.6 million the next two seasons thru 2021? His pricey cap hit of $6.65 million makes him hard to move unless the Rangers pick up a good chunk. Is Tampa really interested due to the sophomore slump Mikhail Sergachev is having? I don’t want any more of our players on Rangers South.
Figure McQuaid to be dealt by the deadline. He certainly has necessary playoff experience and plays the game with physicality and edge. Something a Toronto can use. I could see a reunion with Boston. The trade talk is only going to heat up with exactly a week to go. So far, it’s been minor action such as former Rangers favorite backup Cam Talbot moving to the Flyers for Anthony Stolarz (Edmonton). Spooner got moved from the Oilers to the Canucks for veteran Sam Gagner. Haha.
Ironically, the best trade executed was by Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford. He exchanged forward Daniel Sprong to the woeful Ducks for D Marcus Pettersson. Look how well that’s worked out. With a goal and assist, he’s up to 12 points (2-10-12) and a plus-eight with 31 penalty minutes in 34 games as a Penguin. Sprong has been okay too for the Ducks putting up 9-4-13 and a minus-seven in 29 games. He was a healthy scratch in their 5-2 win over the Capitals on the night they retired Scott Niedermayer’s jersey.
When it comes to the market, it all depends on who’s available along with team needs. How much are they willing to pay. Factor that in with available cap space and it complicates things. Ottawa could make both Matt Duchene and Mark Stone available. Both are having big seasons in walk years. It sounds like Duchene will likely go with the Senators concentrating their efforts on keeping the popular Stone. A good point-per-game two-way right wing, Winnipeg is rumored to be very interested. Ryan Dzingel also could have good value. With 22 goals, he’s one off his career high set last year.
We still have no idea what the Blue Jackets are doing with Russian duo Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Panthers would love to acquire both as a package deal. But why part with any good roster players like Jonathan Huberdeau when they can wait till July? I think Columbus has no choice but to keep both for one playoff run. They’re not even a playoff lock due to the chaos. But their fans have never seen the franchise advance out of the first round. With both the Caps and Pens no longer certainties, I would roll the dice.
The Islanders continue to lead the Metro Division despite little scoring. The Hurricanes are doing it with offensive balance since adding Nino Niederreiter, and surprising play from journeyman Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek.
There are so many teams still alive that it’s impossible to predict what will happen. It’s gonna be a wild roller coaster ride in the next seven days.
BONY 3 STARS:
3rd 🌟 Evgeni Malkin, PIT (2 goals for #’s 17 & 18, 7 shots in 18:03)
2nd 🌟 Mats Zuccarello, NYR (2 goals for #’s 10 & 11, +1 with a game high 8 shots in team-leading 24:44)
1st 🌟 Kris Letang, PIT (2 goals for #’s 14 & 15, +1 in game high 25:30)