Game #82: A positive conclusion in Quinn’s rookie year

Ryan Strome was one of the bright spots who improved after coming over from Edmonton under David Quinn. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Rangers.

Last night, the Rangers played their final game of rookie coach David Quinn’s rookie year. Like over a quarter of the games, Game 82 required overtime. The Penguins were still playing for something. A shot at home ice in the first round series against the Islanders. But the Isles shutout the Capitals 3-0 to finish second and clinch home ice for the first round.

All season, the Pens had been a royal pain in the butt for these Blueshirts. Pittsburgh handled them in the first three games with two uncompetitive including an ugly blowout loss at home that sent us home early. I wanted our team to get a win in the final game for that reason. Some might say, ‘At the expense of a worse record for a better chance in Tuesday’s Lottery?’

My reaction to that is you play to win no matter what. As veteran beat writer Rick Carpinello echoed all year for The Athletic, the Rangers didn’t tank. They played hard and were competitive most of the season. That came out in the last two games against two playoff teams.

In the home finale, they made the Blue Jackets earn it by fighting back on Pavel Buchnevich’s 21st goal with 6.1 seconds left to force extras. A game ultimately decided in the shootout by potential future Ranger Artemi Panarin.

Even if I’m in the minority against paying the gifted Russian left wing the kind of big money he’ll command this summer, I’m not oblivious. He very well could wind up on Broadway. Especially if John Davidson returns to take over as Team President for Glen Sather. Carpinello mentioned the ties JD has to Panarin in Columbus. A lot is riding on the line for the Blue Jackets, who are huge underdogs against the Lightning. Let’s just say Sergei Bobrovsky will have to steal it and play better than he ever has before in the postseason. Columbus stands to lose Panarin, Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid in July. They could look very different if they’re eliminated early. John Tortorella could lose his job and Davidson could relocate back to Manhattan where he’s a beloved figure.

For now, all that stuff is on the back burner because it’s all speculation. Nobody can predict the future. The only thing that’s guaranteed is no playoff hockey at MSG. However, it’s easy to have a positive outlook based on how this team competed for Quinn. Unlike the other Garden tenant, they didn’t mail it in for more lottery balls.

They proved it by defeating the Pens 4-3 in overtime on Ryan Strome’s 19th goal. He scored 18 with the Rangers after coming over from Edmonton for Ryan Spooner. Another smart move by GM Jeff Gorton, whose best trade remains stealing Mika Zibanejad from Ottawa for Derick Brassard. The Rangers Team MVP, who also was voted by the fans as the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award winner, set new career highs across the board in goals (30), assists (44), points (74), shots on goal (236) and power play points (23). It’s the first time in his career he played a full 82 games. The professional way he handled himself on and off the ice showed maturity. He is the leading candidate to become the next captain.

If there is a unique quality the ’18-19 Rangers possessed, it was their resilience. In a season where not much was expected, they worked hard to stay in games. In fact, just over half their games were decided by one goal. In 42 one-goal games, they went 18-10-14. Had they been able to get at least half the combination of overtime and shootout losses, they would’ve wound up with a respectable 85 points. A talented game breaker like Panarin can get you those valuable extra points. He had four OT winners and went 2-for-3 in the shootout including his wildcard clincher on Friday.

Also interesting is that Saturday was the 23rd overtime game the Rangers played. They finished 9-9-5 by how the NHL keeps track of it. However, six of the nine wins came via the shootout. Eleven games needed the skill competition, which the Rangers went 6-5 in. So really, they were 3-9 in overtime. That’s why it was nice to get a couple of those OT victories over the past month. Beating the Pens yesterday for a 4-3 win gave Quinn one final moment to savor in his first season behind the bench.

Judging by the reaction of the players, it meant plenty. There were all smiles as they celebrated their 32nd win. More importantly, they prevented the rival Pens from a series sweep. Doing it in Pittsburgh made it sweeter.

As I said, I didn’t get to see the game due to a wrestling event we went to at The Garden. The first ever one that didn’t involve the WWE since 1960. They’re having their signature event tonight. WrestleMania is at Met Life Stadium. My brother went over to our friend to watch. I’ll stop by in a bit out of curiosity. Finishing up the wrestling portion, the amount of fans who turned out for Ring Of Honor and New Japan Super G2 was mind blowing. There was more noise for many wrestlers we’ve never heard of than at any Ranger game. It was sold out.

I only reference that due to what happened at the 41 home games. MSG was too often a library. There wasn’t enough energy in the building for most games. Though I do want to point out that the crowd went nuts when Pavel Buchnevich tied Columbus. Nobody cared about the silly loser standings in that moment.

I want to praise Quinn for how he handled his first year. Making the jump from Boston University in college to the Rangers at the NHL level is difficult. He did a good job under tough circumstances. Everyone knew that with a rebuilding team that featured quite a few rookies, there would be major changes by the deadline. It took them a while to recover from the trades of key top six forwards Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. They even missed Adam McQuaid on the back end.

But the evolvement and maturation of young players like Buchnevich, Tony DeAngelo, Strome and Alexandar Georgiev (36 saves for 14th win) were important steps for the franchise. Players appreciated Quinn’s honesty in communicating why they were scratched. It wasn’t like the cold war under Alain Vigneault, which had guys like Buchnevich and DeAngelo scratching their heads. Carpinello did a good piece on The Athletic about that aspect. There were many telling quotes from players including Henrik Lundqvist, who this year was especially tough on.

Seeing Vladislav Namestnikov get rewarded on Saturday for his hard work is nice. He didn’t score as much under Quinn, but improved into a more responsible two-way player who could be trusted in a checking role and kill penalties. The effort on his shorthanded goal in the third period was superb. He also got the primary assist on Strome’s winner in which Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang couldn’t be bothered. I wonder if the Pens think they can magically flip the switch for the Islanders, who’ll have the comfort of NYCB Live Nassau Coliseum for the first round. They could be in for a rude awakening.

I also liked Brady Skjei, who improved down the stretch. At one point, his third full season was a disaster with the key left skating defenseman they signed long-term looking lost. It wasn’t until McQuaid returned from injury that his play steadied. He scored the tying goal in the third period for his career high eighth. It was a good defensive play by Skjei in his end that started it. He took a Kevin Shattenkirk feed and beat Matt Murray. Skjei finished with 25 points (8-17-25) and a minus-four rating. A marked improvement from where he was. He definitely became more of a leader, speaking to reporters following games while being accountable.

I know I get on Shattenkirk a lot for his defensive issues, but he also was better towards the end finding offense. Sure. He still must do better than two goals. But many of the 26 assists he had came in the final two months. He told Carpinello he needs to be better on the power play. You’ll get no argument here. I’m not sure you can go into next season with Skjei and Shattenkirk as your number one pair. As much criticism as Marc Staal gets for what he can’t do in large part to his contract, he is strong defensively and more consistent in battles. That’s why DeAngelo praised him. They were a solid pair that had good chemistry.

I wonder if Fredrik Claesson will be re-signed. He is a good depth guy who can fill in. He’s best suited as a seventh D. With both Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren looking to be part of the NHL roster next Fall, I’m not sure where that leaves Claesson.

You had to smile when Brendan Smith scored on a mini break to beat Murray with a good shot. If ever a guy deserved a goal in the last game, it was him. Somehow, Quinn turned Smith into a serviceable part time forward. Astonishingly, the veteran fit in on the fourth line when he wasn’t asked to play D. He drew the most penalties of any Blueshirt. They still owe him a good chunk of change for two more years. Maybe all is not lost for the prideful veteran who made the most out of a unconventional situation. Give him credit.

I know Jesper Fast won Player’s Player again. But I would’ve given it to Smith for what he did. Talk about unselfish. Speaking of Fast, he had thumb surgery and can resume training in six weeks.

I almost forgot to include Chris Kreider. I’m glad he returned for the final week and looked more like the impactful power forward we love. He was able to match his career best in goals (28) the other night on a great pass from Zibanejad. Kreider is a team leader who played through pain until he needed time off. There was no way the drop off in production was due to him mailing it in or slumping. They must get him re-signed this summer. There are no excuses.

As far as the trio of young centers go, all three made strides in their first year. Filip Chytil showed off the tremendous skill he possesses. He obviously still needs work defensively now that he was shifted back to his natural position.

Lias Andersson finally started to play with more conviction when Quinn gave him more minutes. I know how quick some fans are to rush to judgment. I see a solid player, who will become a tough center for opponents. He definitely doesn’t shy away from anything.

Brett Howden definitely is what Quinn called him. “No nonsense.” He hit the rookie wall going through an awful slump. He never wavered. His strong finish bodes well. I see a active player who can set up teammates by creating chances off hard work.

Time will tell the future of all three. For now, let’s remember they’re 21 and younger entering ’19-20. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Brendan Lemieux was a good addition from Winnipeg in the Hayes deal. He is the kinda gritty and hard nosed forward who could become a fan favorite. He expends a lot of energy during shifts dishing it out and taking it. That kind of yeoman effort is appreciated by fans and teammates. He also had enough skill to contribute offensively. In order to become more consistent, he will have to get in better shape. Especially if he wants to become a top nine forward who Quinn can use regularly.

I’m curious to see what happens with 2018 top pick Vitali Kravtsov. The kind of gifted offensive player who can aid the offense. It all depends on if he’s ready assuming he signs. You also have the interesting Igor Shestyorkin dynamic. Back as the starting goalie for St. Petersburg SKA in the KHL Playoffs, will he finally sign? He’s 23 and the time is now to find out.

Tuesday night is the long awaited NHL Draft Lottery. NBCSN is broadcasting it live starting at 8 PM. Due to Edmonton winning over Calgary last night, the Rangers finished with the sixth worst record. That gives them a 7.5 percent chance of winning it. Colorado (from Senators), the Kings and Devils have the highest winning percentage. Detroit and Buffalo follow with the Rangers sixth. I’ll take my chances.

As for the upcoming NHL Playoffs, there are some intriguing first round match ups. I’ll make predictions for fun in a day or two. Hasan, you’re more than welcome to join me. That’s if he’s not on hockey vacation 😂.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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