Shestyorkin is back, Fun Rangers lines, Why fighting still matters


Jaromir Jagr remains the single season franchise leader in goals and points during a memorable 2005-06 where he led the Rangers back to the playoffs. A look at some of my favorite lines. AP Photo via Getty Images

With yet another day off before they finally return for a home-and-home series against the lowly Red Wings on Friday and Saturday, the Rangers made the expected announcement that Igor Shestyorkin will return.

It’s the right move for the rookie goalie who went 2-0 in two starts with Hartford this past weekend. In the two wins against Bridgeport and Lehigh Valley, Shestyorkin allowed only three goals on 62 shots. He improved to 17-4-3 with a 1.90 GAA, .934 save percentage and three shutouts for the Wolf Pack. Even if he doesn’t make another start, he’s the top AHL rookie. That speaks to his dominance since coming over from Russia.

With the Blueshirts, the 24-year old netminder has started three games all at home and gone 2-1-0 with a 2.68 GAA and. 929 save percentage (104 saves on 112 shots). What will happen with the three goalie system that includes second-year goalie Alex Georgiev and elder statesman Henrik Lundqvist? Well, the schedule will finally pick up once Friday hits. In fact, they’ll play three games in four days including a home date on Monday versus the Stars.

With a schedule where there aren’t any long layoffs like we’ve seen in the first half, this should allow coach David Quinn to get all three goalies action. In February, there won’t be more than a day off between games until Feb. 16 vs the Bruins and at the Blackhawks on 2/19. A back-to-back at the Hurricanes and home for the Sharks on 2/21-2/22 before the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline that Monday. Their next game will come on Tuesday the 25th at the Islanders. The final meeting between the bitter rivals a month after playing three times over nine days. NHL scheduling 101.

That’s 13 games over 23 days. What will the goalie breakdown be? I would like to see them give Shestyorkin the first game against Detroit. He has to get at least one of these next two against the league’s doormat. Even though the proverbial writing is on the wall, figure Quinn to have Lundqvist start in one of the two matches. If that’s the case, then give Georgiev the Stars on Monday. He has gotten the bulk of the tough opponents. Plus he will likely play against Toronto next Wednesday.

There’s little to no chance this crazy goalie rotation will continue after the deadline. As much as I hate to admit it, they’ll probably look to move Georgiev. That all depends on what’s being offered. I prefer to keep him. But that full no-move clause continues to haunt this team. Unless he has a change of heart and sees that possibly the Avalanche, Flames or Oilers (have you seen their goalies) could be good fits to chase an elusive Stanley Cup a la Ray Bourque, Lundqvist will stay on Broadway.

When even Steve Somers says it’s time for him to go, it is what it is. The less said about it, the better. The whole goalie situation is annoying. It will be until Feb. 24 comes and goes.

I’d prefer to focus on other important stuff regarding the Blueshirts. Like will Kaapo Kakko come back a better player? The vacation back home had to help. I’m hopeful that we’ll start to see more production from the 18-year old rookie. Of course, some negative Nancy’s are crying over how it’s gone so far. How are Jack Hughes and Kirby Dach doing?

Rather than bore you with more what if’s on what will happen in the second half, I’ll pick a fresh topic to invigorate Ranger minds. Even though there haven’t been many Art Ross or Hart winners over franchise history, they have boasted some excellent scoring lines that were fun to watch. I’m not going to go over the big ones I never saw. Those are the obvious lines that defined the rich history of the franchise.

Here are some of my personal favorites:

Graves-Messier-Kovalev

While the unique trio from the ’93-94 championship team didn’t last long due to the incompetence of Colin Campbell, few NYR lines were able to combine the power, physicality and skill of Mark Messier, Adam Graves and Alex Kovalev. When Mike Keenan put them together, they created magic including saving their best for Game Six while trailing the Devils 2-0 in the memorable elimination game at The Meadowlands. One Messier drop pass for a Kovalev rocket past Martin Brodeur late in the second period swung the momentum. The rest is history. Messier delivering on his accidental Guarantee with a natural hat trick. Graves off his then team record 52 goals scoring a big power play goal from Kovalev in Game Seven against the Canucks. Kovalev doing his best work during that run while tormenting both the Islanders and Canucks.

Graves-Messier-Gartner

Before you had Kovalev on that line, there was one of the all-time greatest finishers in ageless wonder Mike Gartner flying down the right wing to score on one of those breathtaking slap shots. He was not only lightning fast, but money on breakaways. Of course, Graves developd into one of the better finishers once he got to play with former Oilers teammate Messier. To think the compensation was Troy Mallette for what would become one of the most popular players in team history. When I think of Gartner, it still saddens me that he wasn’t part of that Stanley Cup team with Neil Smith dealing him to the Maple Leafs for Glenn Anderson. What a breathtaking finisher. A model of consistency before Jagr and Ovechkin.

Hlavac-Nedved-Dvorak

Although the Czech Posse didn’t last long, the chemistry between Petr Nedved, Jan Hlavac and Radek Dvorak was undeniable. They were all good skaters who had a unique style of knowing where each other were. For some of his shortcomings defensively, it’s pretty amazing that Nedved turned a solid two-way player like Dvorak into a 30 goalscorer. He got 31 with 36 assists and 67 points in ’00-01. All career bests he never came close to matching again during a solid two decade career. Dvorak was lethal shorthanded. As for Hlavac, he lasted two seasons with a career high 64 points (28-36-64) in ’00-01 turning into part of the Eric Lindros trade that included underrated defenseman Kim Johnsson with ’99 first round bust Pavel Brendl. Nedved lasted a bit longer his second stint on Broadway before being part of the infamous Glen Sather sell-off in ’03-04. His career should’ve been much better than the 310 goals, 407 assists and 717 points in less than 1,000 career games. He went home. Somehow, the Canucks took him second over Jagr, who went to the Pens at number five. The famed 1990 Draft that featured Owen Nolan, Nedved, Keith Primeau and Mike Ricci. Plus Brodeur.

Fleury-Lindros-York

The FLY Line had an aura about it that made you believe the team was on the way back. Just getting the chance to watch Lindros, who still had it, was great. While many were against the huge risk Sather took due to Eric’s concussion history, he was worth the price of admission. He didn’t just play one way either. He was a complete player in every sense of the word. It’s hard for the critics to remember just how dominant he was before Darius Kasparaitis caught him that first time with a clean shoulder check in a Flyers/Pens game on ABC. The way the Flyers and Bobby Clarke handled the serious nature of the head injury is what cost Lindros a longer career. Prior to having his bell rung at San Jose in late December 2001, Number 88 was the same dominant force he had been in Philadelphia. The Rangers were a first place team due to the Big E flourishing with the tough as nails Theo Fleury, who was the crazy sob that distracted opponents. Mike York was a perfect complement. A heady player who made the right plays. Of course, it didn’t last long with York swapped out for Tom Poti. A deal I hated. Then, Lindros (37-36-73 +19 138 PIM in 72 GP) got to work with Pavel Bure. Wow. If only it had lasted. Nothing ever did during the Dark Ages.

Graves-Messier-Verbeek

When Smith sacrificed a first round pick (Jean-Sebastien Giguere) to the then Whalers to rent Pat Verbeek for over a year, it was a risk worth taking. A proven goalscorer who was successful in New Jersey and Hartford, he played an agitating style that made him easy to respect. He made up for his lack of size (5-9 190) with grit, determination and physicality. That’s why he was successful eclipsing 500 goals and 1000 points with nearly 3000 penalty minutes. In New York, he got to play with Messier and Graves. The end result was 41 goals and 41 assists for 82 points in 69 games. Messier, Verbeek and Graves combined for 110 goals and 351 PIM. Had they not broken up the ’95-96 roster by trading away Ray Ferraro and future solid defenseman Mattias Norstrom to the Kings in a failed move for vets Jari Kurri, Marty McSorley and Shane Churla, it might’ve worked out better. They wound up playing the Pens in Round Two. Jagr and Mario Lemieux took them apart. That was a missed opportunity. Verbeek left for Dallas where he won a Cup.

Straka-Nylander-Jagr

When the whole ’04-05 season got cancelled, it was a blessing in disguise for the Rangers. The new salary cap era forced Slats to adjust his style. Having stolen Jagr from the Caps for Anson Carter prior to the end of ’03-04, he made a wise decision by surrounding Number 68 with European style players he was familiar with. None more so than former Pens teammate Martin Straka. Always underrated, the skilled playmaker who also was a key part of Kovalev’s success in ’00-01, lined up alongside Jagr again. Just as he had in ’98-99. The chemistry they formed with Swede pivot Michael Nylander was remarkable. Even though he skated in circles, Nylander knew where Jagr was on the ice as did Straka. The amazing aspect about Jagr is he was still so strong and dominant on the puck. It took two defenders and sometimes three to check him, opening up the ice for his linemates. He came out hot with something to prove. Following the prediction that the club would finish 30th, he guaranteed the playoffs and then did everything to get them there. Jagr set single season franchise marks in goals (54), points (123), power play goals (24), shots on goal (368). Both Nylander (23-56-79) and Straka (22-54-76) performed well. So did Czech friend Petr Prucha, who scored 30 goals as a rookie. The impact Jagr had on that team was unreal. Even though he lost out on the Art Ross and Hart to Joe Thornton, his peers voted him the Lester B. Pearson. That line would last one more year. Nylander left for the Caps while Jagr and Straka stuck around through 2008. At 47 soon turning 48, Jagr is still going strong back home in Kladno, Czech Republic.

Honorable Mentions

Hagelin-Richards-Gaborik

It’s easy to forget that Marian Gaborik scored 40 or more twice as a Blueshirt. He actually was a good signing who did well in his three plus years here. He led the ’11-12 team in scoring with 41-35-76. Prior to Brad Richards signing, the Great Gabby scored 42 goals and posted a career best 86 points in his first season on Broadway. Not many free agents come here and flourish. That’s what makes Gaborik and the mesmerizing Artemi Panarin notable exceptions. Even though he never quite put up the gaudy numbers, Richards was a good Ranger, who delivered in the clutch. Carl Hagelin was your classic overachiever due to his game breaking speed and two-way capability.

Kreider-Stepan-Callahan

When I think of the good teams that went deep in the playoffs, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider were a big part of why. They had that same chemistry playing together for Team USA to win the gold medal at the World Junior Championship. It’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago. Stepan provided many memorable moments with none bigger than 2015 versus the Caps. Kreider came on in 2012 from Boston College and scored big goals during that run. He was there in Game Five at MSG tying the game from Stepan. While he didn’t play a lot with them, Ryan Callahan nearly hit 30 goals in ’11-12. His best year in NYC. The former captain is best remembered for the determination he played with. Of course, Marty St. Louis replaced him.

Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello

Of all the lines during the 2014 playoffs, it’s the cohesive third unit comprised of Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello that was the key. No comeback from 3-1 down against the Pens without that trio. They were the hardest on the puck and terrific down low while contributing huge goals. Big Game Brass became a fixture after coming over from Columbus for Gaborik. Zuccarello did everything which is why he’s beloved. When he wasn’t taking bad penalties, Pouliot was an effective player. Bigger things were in store for Brassard and Zuccarello.

Hagelin-Richards-St. Louis

It’s strange that of all the possible combos, St. Louis fit in best with Richards and Hagelin, who was a stronger postseason performer in 2014 than Rick Nash. Don’t forget his overtime winner to eliminate Pittsburgh in the first round of 2015 either. His speed caused havoc. He was a scary transition player who was dangerous shorthanded. He certainly showed up versus the Kings. Richards and St. Louis knew each other from Tampa. They didn’t create as many magic moments. But there will always be the MSL goal on Mother’s Day where the Garden shook. And St. Louis to Richards on the power play to complete the 3-1 comeback at Pittsburgh. Plus the electrifying MSL overtime winner versus Montreal which turned out to be huge.

Nash-Brassard-Miller

They didn’t always play together. The issue was Alain Vigneault not being able to solve Marty St. Louis’ scoring struggles. He wasn’t the same guy we saw in 2014. It was too bad. This along with plugging guys like Jesper Fast and JT Miller became confusing. You also had Kevin Hayes trying to fit in as a rookie. Not having Zuccarello really hurt. He could’ve at least put them over the Lightning. I’m not sure what would’ve happened against the Blackhawks due to the state of the defense.

I easily could’ve included the Panarin line with Ryan Strome and Fast. But that’s current and unlikely to be intact much longer. I can’t put Mika Zibanejad and Kreider there due to the inconsistency of Pavel Buchnevich. Imagine if they had a real top right wing. It could be ending soon for Kreider. A sobering thought. Maybe soon, we’ll finally get Mika with Kaapo.

Finally, you had a big game played last night between Calgary and Edmonton. The Battle of Alberta is one of the best rivalries the NHL has. It was the third installment between the Flames and Oilers.

In the previous meeting, a big open ice hit by Matthew Tkachuk on Zack Kassian turned into total chaos. An aggravated Kassian responded by beating up Tkachuk, who turtled to draw a penalty. Kassian also served a suspension. Typical overreaction by the league.

The cool part was Kassian was back for the Oilers on Wednesday evening against Calgary. There was a lot said by both Kassian and Tkachuk after the last game. Tkachuk loves to get under the skin of opponents. Just ask Drew Doughty. He hates him. This time, Tkachuk knew what had to happen. He decided to stand up for himself against Kassian, who dictated the terms of their scrap.

Not surprisingly, Kassian won easily by getting in a few nice left hooks in to get Tkachuk down. However, it still was the right thing to do for a polarizing player who isn’t as tough as younger brother Brady. The reaction from both was good.

Kassian gave Tkachuk credit for answering the bell. He indicated that Tkachuk wanted to do it right away. Something Tkachuk reiterated in his postgame interview following a 4-3 shootout win for Calgary.

The takeaway is simple. If Tkachuk wants to run around hitting players, he has to be accountable. Last night, he was. That’s how respect is earned. The interesting part is Part Four of Oilers and Flames comes Saturday night at 10 EST. Too bad that’s the fourth meeting of five. Thankfully, the schedule includes a fifth and final match-up on Saturday, April 4. Might that be for the playoffs? Here’s hoping.

If you have unique rivalries such as Calgary and Edmonton or Rangers and Islanders, it would be nice if these teams faced each other at least six times. Why do they need to play the other division more than two times in the Conference? Just make it a home-and-home. If they have to have the teams from each Conference see each other, fine. But there should be more divisional games. That’s a huge selling point to loyal fans. Rivalry games matter.

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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2 Responses to Shestyorkin is back, Fun Rangers lines, Why fighting still matters

  1. Ryan David Gill says:

    MINOR quibble… Amonte was usually winger for Mess and Graves, not Gartner (who was usually with Erixon and Nemchinov if memory serves) Either way, i love your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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