Game #8: Strome, Howden and birthday boy DeAngelo highlight well deserved win over Sabres

AP Photo credit via New York Rangers courtesy Twitter.

Almost everything worked tonight. David Quinn wanted to see a more complete effort. By altering his lines by splitting up Artemiy Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, he got the results he wanted.

It took eight games for the Rangers to give fans cause for excitement. They were superior in every way to the Sabres at MSG. A stronger attention to detail, better work ethic and improved pace resulted in a satisfying 6-2 home win over a good Buffalo team that entered play winning eight of their first 10 games.

Fittingly, Panarin started the night with a tremendous play to score a highlight reel goal unassisted. Pressuring Rasmus Dahlin in the neutral zone, he stole the puck and broke in on hot Sabres starting goalie Carter Hutton. The Bread Man undressed Hutton by going around his poke check attempt to tuck in a wonderful backhand for a pretty goal.

Playing on a new second line with the game’s first star Ryan Strome, and a more inspired Pavel Buchnevich, Panarin didn’t miss a beat. He had good chemistry with his new linemates. That line combined for four of the team’s six goals. The trio were dominant thanks to a consistent forecheck. Something that had been lacking.

Another area that picked up was the physicality. For once, the Blueshirts played with passion by finishing their checks. Not the most physical team, they out-hit the Sabres 34-28. It was the willingness to get the jersey dirty that was a welcome difference. They were gritty and determined in a dominant first period that saw their hard work rewarded. They outscored Buffalo 3-0.

There were tighter gaps defensively. Better details from a team that had a five-game losing streak (0-4-1). Even though they got outshot 33-24 for the game with the Sabres coming hard in the second period, the Rangers were more focused. That’s how they have to play to have a chance each night.

It was that determination that led directly to the second goal. Thanks to outstanding work started by Brendan Lemieux with his hit keeping a forecheck alive, Jesper Fast put the puck in front for Brett Howden, who finished off his second at 14:32. It was his first goal since Opening Night. He was superb in this one. Playing with Lemieux and Fast did wonders for his game. The 21-year old earned the game’s second star with a goal and primary assist on Strome’s second later. It was one of his best games.

Interesting commentary from Howden on what Quinn went over with the team in a video session both Sam and Joe referenced throughout. Sometimes, having players watch themselves can demonstrate what’s wrong. Howden made sure to talk about it in a quick postgame interview outside the locker room.

Another area the Rangers shored up was the unnecessary early penalties that had been plaguing them. The only penalty was taken by Chris Kreider, who had his hooking minor with 4:27 remaining killed off by a more aggressive unit. They didn’t give Jack Eichel any easy looks. He was coming off a four-point game that including an overtime winner in a 4-3 overtime win for the Sabres over the Sharks a couple of days prior.

Already up two, they put a bow on the great period by scoring in the final minute. Fittingly, it would be Strome doing the grunt work in front by getting into perfect position to redirect a wide Brady Skjei shot past Hutton at 19:22. Tony DeAngelo set it up with a fake shot and pass across for a Skjei shot that Strome tipped in for his first to make it 3-0 good guys.

The play illustrates that if the players put themselves in the right spot, goals can be earned without the fancy dancy East/West display. There’s still room for old fashioned North American style. Strome, Lemieux and Howden exemplified that. So did birthday boy DeAngelo, who celebrated number 24 by getting a goal and an assist to draw the game’s third star. He was very good in this one and has responded well since Quinn benched him in a recent loss.

It wasn’t perfect. You knew the Sabres would come harder in the second. They did. As expected, they ramped up the attack and tested Henrik Lundqvist early and often. He did well for most of the 15 shots Buffalo fired in a period they held a 15-4 advantage. For the game, he finished with 31 saves to pick up his second win of the season. So, just about half came in the middle stanza.

If there was a player that struggled, it was Kaapo Kakko. His own worst critic as a recent interview revealed back in his native country Finland, the 18-year old rookie expects better from himself. He wants to play and score and setup big goals while leading this team to victories. It’s not gonna happen right away. His defensive play hasn’t been good. A giveaway resulted in a Marco Scandella goal from the point beating Lundqvist to cut the lead to 3-1.

The second pick will learn. The encouraging aspect is he didn’t miss a shift. Even if the new first line with Zibanejad and Kreider didn’t click, they’ll get another crack at it against the very tough Bruins on Legends Day this Sunday. I hope they show some of the game between Rangers Alumni. That would be cool. MSG is usually pretty good when it comes to that cool stuff. If not, they’ll provide highlights.

It wasn’t all bad for Kakko, who nearly had another highlight reel goal. Similar to his first NHL tally, he broke in on Hutton and tried to pull off that nice forehand deke and go backhand. Only the goalpost stopped him from number two. He definitely has high end skill. It’s just a matter of finding consistency like most young players. I couldn’t find the GIF. If I do, I’ll link it up. Here was part of what Kakko expressed about his early frustration.

It shows that he is committed to winning. He cares. These are great attributes. Even Panarin noted that he didn’t feel he had played his best hockey. He said it was like at 70 percent. That’s what you want. Your best players expecting better from themselves is good. I liked the defensive commitment I saw from Panarin, who came back hard on the back check to break up a Buffalo rush. He’s not perfect due to some of the high risks he’ll take, but his hustle is unquestioned.

In the second period, the Sabres had more puck possession. That meant a stronger forecheck and more shots. Lundqvist made some important saves to keep his team ahead by two. Most of the play was again at even strength. There was only one minor taken by Lias Andersson, who centered the fourth line with Greg McKegg and Brendan Smith. Quinn stated that he thinks Andersson pauses during shifts instead of continuing to play. He wants him to be faster. He registered a nice hit early. Andersson got 9:39 of ice time including 1:31 on the penalty kill. That’s better.

Prior to successfully killing off Andersson’s hi-sticking minor, a good pinch by Skjei allowed Buchnevich to find a wide open DeAngelo for a tap in at 13:20. It was his fourth goal and third over two games. A nice birthday present for an improving player, who always is interesting to listen to following games. He’s very candid when things don’t go well.

The Sabres were able to get one back with 48.5 seconds left. Vladimir Sobotka surprised Lundqvist with a sinking wrist shot that deflected off Jacob Trouba’s shin. It was a bad goal as it went through the five-hole. You could see the frustration on his face. You never want to give opponents goals in the first or final minute of periods. That made it 4-2. Kyle Okposo and Marcus Johansson got the assists on Sobotka’s first.

Fortunately, it didn’t matter. A lousy Eichel giveaway inside the Ranger blueline led directly to a two-on-one. Howden fed a cutting Strome for a slam dunk. The goal was Strome’s second of the game and restored order. It was his 200th career point. The Rangers led by three with 12:03 left in regulation.

There were some bad penalties from Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner early on. He took a pair of undisciplined minors in the offensive zone and then foolishly argued following hi-sticking Zibanejad. That resulted in an extra minor for unsportsmanlike conduct. The Blueshirts were unable to cash in the double minor. Skinner also was minus-three.

During the man-advantage, Kreider went hard to Hutton’s crease looking for a deflection off a pass. He just missed and slightly banged into Hutton. Of course, they called him for goaltender interference. It was a bad call. Kreider clearly made a effort to pull up and avoid the Buffalo goalie. He barely made contact. The crowd let the stripes know about it.

It didn’t matter. The Rangers would put the finishing touches on the win when Kreider got credit for first thanks to Lemieux creating a distraction. The way it’s gone for him, Kreider will take it. Most notably, rookie Adam Fox picked up his first NHL point with a primary helper. Congrats to him. Fast got another assist giving him five points (2-3-5) in his last five contests.

It was nice to see the team be able to thank the home crowd for welcome cheers following a much better effort. Hopefully, they can remember how well they played in three days. They’re gonna need it.

Hudson 3 🌟:

3rd 🌟 Tony DeAngelo, Rangers (4th of season plus 🍎 in 14:56 with a +2 rating)

2nd 🌟 Brett Howden, Rangers (2nd of season plus 🍎 in 16:20 with a +3 rating and 6 for 12 on draws)

1st 🌟 Ryan Strome, Rangers (first 2 goals on 2 shots, +3 in 18:50, 2-4-6 on season)

Note: The game marked the return of Jimmy Vesey. Dealt in the offseason, the ex-Ranger had a tough night. He left the contest due to an injury and got only 10 shifts logging 6:08 for the Sabres.

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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