Sometimes, this game can be very strange. Rare is the occasion where you can feel like your team won even they the end result says they lost. Such was the case during tonight’s match against the league best Lightning.
Even in defeat, it was the grittier Blueshirts who are the true winners. The Bolts might have profited off a terrible missed call for an extra point. But make no mistake that they were outplayed and out hustled by the new look Rangers, who fell to 1-8 in overtime on a controversial Victor Hedman goal in a 4-3 home defeat.
How different are these Blueshirts under coach David Quinn after playing their 63rd game? Let’s just say they gave the league darlings all they could handle in coming back from a 3-1 deficit to battle their way into a competitive three-on-three. One that was taken away from them due to an illegal pick play by the NHL’s leading scorer Nikita Kucherov to free up Hedman for his winner. It certainly drew the ire of several Rangers including Vladislav Namestnikov, who was fouled on the play.
Fans weren’t happy. They were into it. A Bolts trio that included Steven Stamkos, Hedman and a changing Kucherov couldn’t get the look they wanted against a tired Namestnikov, Neal Pionk and newest Ranger Brendan Lemieux, who was very active in his debut. So, a talented team that hasn’t proven they can get over the hump cheated to steal a extra point.
In the regular season where the Bettman system allows artificial hockey such as three-on-three to decide these meaningless games, they can get away with it. When the real season begins in mid-April, there will be no shortcuts for Tampa Bay. They’ll have to beat opponents without the aid of incompetent refs in a format that decides valuable points in OT along with the shootout.
Let’s focus on the positives for the rebuilding club who had the home crowd into it tonight. Following a disappointing first period that saw them outscored 2-0 on goals by Tyler Johnson and old friend J.T. Miller (PPG), the Rangers responded with three goals in a excellent second that saw them outshoot the Lightning 17-8.
It wasn’t only that they outscored the more talented Bolts 3-1. They clawed and scrapped literally. Following a wonderful rush and great pass from Jimmy Vesey to set up leading scorer Mika Zibanejad’s 27th at 56 seconds, Lemieux spiced things up during a scrum that lead to Pavel Buchnevich fighting for just the second time in his career against Yanni Gourde. Buchnevich even landed a couple of punches in the lightweight bout. Lemieux wound up with the extra for roughing. Interestingly, they played well together with a more active Lias Andersson, who is looking more confident.
A Miller slash of that more effective forward Brendan Smith gave Tampa the edge during a four-on-four. Stamkos made a great read to find another ex-Blueshirt Dan Girardi for a short side goal that Alexandar Georgiev should’ve had. It’s ironic that all this time later, the soul of those good Rangers teams remains an effective defenseman with the Lightning despite his age. Funny how that works.
Trailing by two, the Rangers showed a lot of character coming back. Thirty seconds later, a innocent looking Fredrik Claesson pass found a streaking Vesey in the neutral zone for a strong rush. He warded off Hedman to beat Andrei Vasilevskiy for his 16th to make it a one goal game. Just great determination and skill by Vesey, who has continued to excel since replacing Mats Zuccarello on the top line. With a third straight game of a goal and assist, he has six points with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. He needs four more goals for 20.
The penalties continued. The Lightning gave the Blueshirts some opportunities they were unable to cash in on. Instead, it was another gritty shift from a secondary line that produced the game’s last legit goal. On some good sustained pressure from Namestnikov behind the net, Ryan Strome was able to find an open Boo Nieves for a shot that beat Vasilevskiy for the tying goal at 14:14. It was his fourth goal.
Nieves has been a good player since returning from Hartford. The organization rewarded him for his honest effort with a new one-year contract to prevent him from becoming unrestricted this summer. He deserves it. He should be the fourth line center next season. I wonder where Brett Howden slides in when he returns. Maybe for Connor Brickley, who hasn’t been bad. Unless Smith comes out.
Don’t forget Filip Chytil will be back soon. Nobody wants to see Quinn bench the promising 19-year old rookie. However, the no nonsense coach wasn’t happy with Chytil’s game at Washington. Despite a crazy 6-5 score, he wasn’t noticable. It’s a similar reason Buchnevich and others have wound up in the Quinn Bin. Hopefully, he’ll respond the same way Buchnevich, Namestnikov and Tony DeAngelo have.
The third period was evenly played. It felt like a playoff game. For a young team like the Rangers, who won’t see the second season, the dramatic improvement demonstrated that they can play with anyone. They outshot the Bolts 9-6 and gave them fits on the forecheck. That included a great shift from Andersson, Buchnevich and Lemieux where they had the puck deep, creating a few chances. There also was a similar shift from the top line late in regulation. That strong work ethic is what you want to see for the remaining 19 games.
In the three-on-three, Georgiev flat out robbed Hedman on a clean breakaway with a great save. He may not have gotten the win, but the backup continues to be good on breakaways and give the team a chance.
After being unable to penetrate the Rangers defense on a long shift, Kucherov got dirty by picking Namestnikov after setting up Hedman for the open shot that beat Georgiev. It should’ve been a penalty. But the good teams have a way of getting away with that stuff.
That doesn’t matter. The Blueshirts played very well and deserved the two points. The Lightning needed to bend the rules to win. We all know who the real winners were.
BONY 3 STARS:
3rd 🌟 Victor Hedman, TBL (goal and assist in superb performance)
2nd 🌟 Frederick L’Ecuyer and Tim Peel (a bang up job by the refs at the end)
1st 🌟 Jimmy Vesey, NYR (third consecutive game with a goal and assist giving him 16 G and 18 A)
Notes: Georgiev finished with 26 saves for the hard luck OTL. Vasilevskiy made 33 saves to help the Lightning win a franchise record 10th game in a row. … In his Broadway debut, Lemieux finished with seven hits, two blocks, and a minus-one in 18 shifts (15:24) including 5:07 PP while wearing trademark number 48. … DeAngelo increased his point streak to eight adding a ninth assist over that stretch. … Both teams finished their checks with a combined 64 hits (34-30 TBL). Lemieux led everyone with seven while old hat Girardi had five along with Erik Cernak. … Total shots were 36-30 NYR with them leading the Bolts in attempts, 70-64. … NYR won face-offs 33-29 paced by Zibanejad (16-and-11) followed by Strome (12-and-6). Anthony Cirelli went 9-and-1 for Tampa. … Rangers (27-26-10) host the Canadiens on Friday, March 1st.