Hajek a bright spot in helping Lundqvist get a rare win last night


Ryan Strome’s locker has a nice surprise following a three-point effort. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

These days, there really isn’t much to write home about if you’re a Rangers or Devils fan. Even a third rivalry game of four didn’t have much juice last night. With both teams headed for playoff misses, these games don’t feel as important.

Unless you’re a tank nerd hoping for the losses to pile up in some desperate hopes to improve your team’s chances at punching the lottery ticket to Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, there isn’t much to get excited about. At this point, the Devils are closer to that race than the Rangers, who came back to post a 4-2 home win on Saturday night. Their third straight victory in the season series with one game left on April Fool’s Day in Newark.

With the Devils icing a depleted roster minus several regulars including last year’s MVP Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt, Sami Vatanen and Miles Wood, they gave it the old college try. First period goals from Damon Severson and Blake Coleman (redirect of a Will Butcher shot) put them in front by two. But it didn’t hold up.

The healthier Rangers responded with a dominant second period by outshooting their Hudson rival 14-2. Due in large part to strong goaltending from Cory Schneider, they only snuck one past him with hard working forward Ryan Strome able to get a stick on a Kevin Shattenkirk point shot to deflect home his 12th as a Blueshirt at 18:22 to cut the deficit in half entering the third. Strome continues to be a effective player. He was the game’s number one star with two goals and an assist.

Despite Schneider’s best, the Devils couldn’t quite hang on. A nice passing play between demoted top left wing Chris Kreider and Strome led directly to rookie defenseman Libor Hajek scoring his first career NHL goal to tie the score at 1:29 of the third. Taking a nice pass from Kreider, the pinching D let go of a superb wrist shot that beat Schneider high glove. A great moment for the young player they acquired last year in the blockbuster deadline trade that sent former captain Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning for a package that also included Brett Howden, a first round pick and conditional first this year if the NHL leading Bolts can win the Cup.

It was well deserved for the young player, who’s acquitted himself well since coming up from Hartford. So much for those quiet statistics with the lowly Wolf Pack. If a player is good enough to be an NHL player at Hajek’s age, then you can throw out what he did in the AHL. Not many of the team’s prospects have fared well there. But when you see them come up, they look like they belong.

That includes the under utilized Lias Andersson, who played less than seven minutes while centering the fourth line. The seventh overall selection in the 2017 NHL Draft got some penalty kill time. He works hard and looks more confident since returning. Baby steps for the young Swede who will continue to improve. Hopefully, he’ll see an increased role down the stretch.

As for Hajek, he suffered a separated shoulder on a hit following the goal. Unfortunately, it looks like we may not see him again in the remaining 14 games. At least he showed why GM Jeff Gorton was so high on him. The skating, reads and capability to jump into the rush are good signs.

Hajek’s first NHL goal sparked the Ranger comeback in the third. Another player who’s played well recently is Vladislav Namestnikov. The once hexed forward continues to put up points. On a shift with Mika Zibanejad, he took a perfect centering pass and beat Schneider with s good one-timer for his 10th with 6:35 left in the contest. Brady Skjei helped set the winning play up to get a secondary helper. He’s been more active offensively in the second half. It’s all about finding consistency defensively for the emerging team leader.

Prior to that goal, a sprawling Schneider got across to rob Tony DeAngelo. The Devils veteran netminder gave his team every opportunity finishing with 37 saves. He wasn’t helped out by teammates, who took some undisciplined penalties. Ironically, the Devils killed off all five Ranger power plays while going an opportunistic 1-for-2.

But in a game they once led by two, they were never able to beat Lundqvist again. When both your goals come on half your shot total in a good first period, that’s not a winning formula. Sure. The Devils turned it up in the third by getting 10 shots on Lundqvist. But he was up to the task to wind up with 22 saves for only his second victory since the All-Star break. To be fair, he hasn’t been starting every night with coach David Quinn making sure to give rookie Alexandar Georgiev half the starts to take a further look at the 22-year old Bulgarian.

With Adam Huska signing after three years with the University of Connecticut, and the likelihood of Igor Shestyorkin coming over for 2019-20, Georgiev is about to get some stiff competition. It’ll be interesting to see what the Rangers organization decides. I like Georgiev and think he has proven himself as a capable backup. But the goalie picture is about to get crowded. Especially if Shestyorkin is all he’s cracked up to be.

Strome put the exclamation on the third period turnaround by scoring into an open net for his 13th at 19:50 from Namestnikov (1-2-3) and Zibanejad (2 assists). Strome earned first star honors with two goals and an assist while Namestnikov got number two star with 1-2-3, followed by Hajek with goal number one. Too bad the injury prevented him from coming out.

All in support of Lundqvist, who had to make one last save to deny a good try from Devils defenseman Egor Yakovlev. A tricky high riser that Lundqvist safely grabbed out of harm’s way. It had to feel good for the recently turned 37-year old franchise goalie to remember what it’s like to get a win. They’ve been hard to come by. He sounded at ease in the postgame.

At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for. Sure. The playoffs are not a realistic possibility. But in raising their record to 28-28-12 with 70 points, the Blueshirts continue to work hard for the most part. The thing that is noticable is that Quinn hasn’t been shy about making examples out of vets Kreider and Shattenkirk. He wants the team to get it. No matter who you are, nobody is above the team. There are no shortcuts in this league.

It’s why there is hope for the future. The notable improvements of Pavel Buchnevich (career high 15 goals and six power play goals), Namestnikov, DeAngelo (career best 21 assists and 25 points), Jimmy Vesey (new high 18 assists and 34 points) and leading scorer Zibanejad (27-38-65) bode well.

There’s still plenty of work to be done. Even with 2018 first round pick Vitali Kravtsov not coming until next Fall, there’s reason for optimism. The coach has instilled it. We’ll see who the Rangers wind up with in June. Even if it’s not a Hughes, Kakko or Vasili Podkolzin, they have a chance to improve.

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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