Game #59 Defense optional as Rangers double up Blackhawks, Kreider dominates, Mama Strome celebrates with Moms

Ryan Strome scored a goal for a new career high in points. His proud Mom celebrated along with the Moms as the Rangers outscored the Blackhawks 6-3 in a defense optional affair. AP Photo credit NBCSN

This was one that the coach won’t be too happy with. In what amounted to a old fashioned Texas style shootout, the Rangers doubled up the Blackhawks 6-3 to win the first of two games on the Moms road trip.

While Ryan Strome scored a goal to set a new career high in points (51), Mama Strome celebrated her son’s goal along with five others in the stands at the United Center. She gave a high five to Pavel Buchnevich’s Mom following a goal he scored in a wacky third period that saw the Original Six teams combine for seven goals.

Anything went following a 1-1 tie through two periods. The reason only two goals were scored was the play of netminders Igor Shesterkin and Robin Lehner. They each had to be outstanding at different points to keep their teams in the game. In the first period, it was Lehner who had the tougher saves. The second was a role reversal with Shesterkin called on to make some key stops.

Playing his first game in over a week due to an ankle injury, the unflappable 24-year old rookie was brilliant finishing with 37 saves. He made some beauties including a strong glove denial on a Hawks shot deflected by his own teammate Brady Skjei. Skjei has succeeded before at beating his own goalie in bizarre fashion. Good thing Shesterkin was ready for it. There also were other big time saves on plenty of dangerous Blackhawks chances.

With the exception of Hawks rookie Dominik Kubalik, who beat him twice, Shesterkin was unreal. Despite the back and forth hockey especially in the third, he didn’t let it bother him. The remarkable poise the Russian goalie plays with is hard to ignore. It was pointed out several times during the NBC Sports Network telecast by Doc Emrick and Eddie Olczyk. They also liked his work with moving the puck. A strength as opposed to Henrik Lundqvist, who at this point knows how it’s going to end. His brilliance throughout a great 15-year career shouldn’t be forgotten. This can’t be easy for him watching David Quinn give Shesterkin and Alex Georgiev all of the starts.

I doubt Lundqvist is going anywhere by Monday. He has barely played since the New Year, only getting four starts. There aren’t said to be many suitors due to the lack of activity. Factor in that contract and the no-movement clause and it becomes complicated. The 37-year old’s best days are behind him. If he wants to keep playing, he needs a fresh start with another team willing to take a chance. My guess is he’ll be bought out in the offseason. Not the same as being waived unceremoniously like Eddie Giacomin.

It happens. No star athlete ever stays on top forever. As sad as it is watching him on the bench helpless, this is what he chose. He knew the team was in rebuild mode. They asked him if he wanted to move. He didn’t want to do it. The loyalty is understandable given how well he’s been treated. Even if he is gone, that’ll never change. One day, his number 30 will hang from the rafters, joining the likes of Giacomin, Mike Richter along with other legends Brian Leetch, Mark Messier, Rod Gilbert, Andy Bathgate, Jean Ratelle, Harry Howell, Vic Hadfield and Adam Graves.

That day could be coming soon. Maybe by 2025. It’ll depend on how long Lundqvist decides to stick around. For now, there are 23 games remaining on the schedule. How many games will he get? Maybe a couple at home late in the year as a send off. That’s a possibility.

While the Lundqvist issue remains, the Rangers have plenty of business to tend to. With Monday’s trade deadline a few days away, they have to figure out what they’re doing with Chris Kreider. He’s not making it easy. He flat out dominated the Blackhawks tonight going for a goal and two assists. The three point effort was the latest example of how in demand the power forward is. His play with linemates Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad was splendid. They couldn’t be stopped by the inept Chicago defense which got pinned in for long stretches. Never more evident than after they cut the deficit to 5-3, Quinn sent out his top line. They immediately put together a strong shift down low in the Hawks zone. Eventually the puck came to Buchnevich, who turned and fired a shot pass off Zibanejad in front for a 6-3 lead.

The Hawks just don’t have the guys to prevent such a forecheck. Nobody could take Kreider off the puck on that shift. He also couldn’t be stopped from somehow taking a tough pass at the Chicago blue line and keeping the play onside to break in behind the defense and score another highlight reel goal past a taxed Lehner. It was another example of how good Kreider is. It’s not only the size and strength. But also the explosiveness due to his skating. His skill is high end.

Any contender would love to add him. But it’ll come at a steep price. Listening to TSN insider Bob McKenzie between periods, the Rangers want a NHL roster player, a first round pick and a conditional pick. They may even ask for a prospect and lower secondary pick as well. So, it could cost four pieces. How many teams are willing to do that? Given the injury status of Mikko Rantanen, the Avalanche could be at the top of the list. They possess good young players like Valeri Nichuschkin, Tyson Jost and young prospects like former first rounders Martin Kaut and Alex Newhook. Are they all in? It’s worth finding out.

Speaking of which, the Avalanche won at home tonight over the reeling Islanders 3-1. The Isles scored two total goals in 12 periods during a winless road trip. They went 0-4-0 to slip to the second wildcard. They have 72 points which is tied with both first wildcard Carolina and sixth place Columbus, who have lost six in a row. Of the three teams, they have the least amount of regulation wins (22), which could come into play. However, they do have 23 games left along with the Hurricanes. The Blue Jackets only have 21 remaining.

Given what’s been happening in front of them, the Rangers have to feel like they have a shot. Up to 66 points with 27 wins in regulation dwarfing the teams ahead, all they have to do is win games and make up ground. Friday’s game at Carolina is huge for both teams. We’ll see if they can continue their mastery over the Canes. I doubt Lundqvist will start despite his dominance over them. It has to be Shesterkin at this point. That’s how good he is.

By winning ugly on Wednesday night in Chicago, they gave themselves a chance. With only two games left before the trade deadline, it’s hard to predict what will happen. Can the Rangers figure out a way to keep Kreider and work out a new contract? Or is it gonna cost too much? I wouldn’t want to be either Jeff Gorton or John Davidson right now. How good has he been? Since my birthday on Dec. 8, Kreider is up to 32 points (18-14-32) over the last 30 games. By far the best stretch of his career.

Kreider was very good at assessing the win with his candid evaluation of what wasn’t a complete effort by any stretch.

He’s right. If they play like that versus a desperate and better Canes, they’ll get run out of the building. I don’t care what the record is. They will have to show more urgency. Especially at five-on-five where there were too many gaps that allowed the highly skilled Blackhawks to get three past Shesterkin. If he wasn’t so calm in net, it easily could’ve been more. Maybe even a 6-6 game with overtime required just to get points. That’s how lousy the defenses were. When I say that, I also mean the forwards. It was bad all around.

Prior to the game, NBCSN highlighted Mrs. Strome introducing the Rangers lineup that included her son Ryan along with Artemi Panarin, Jesper Fast, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren and Shesterkin. The way she announced each starter was hilarious, adding a little punchline for all including a funny moment with Shesterkin.

The hug and kiss for her son was a touching moment. Afterwards, Strome joked that it only aged him five years in a nice postgame interview. He really has a good sense of humor and a pulse on the team and the way they’ve been playing. It sure is nice to see a good guy get rewarded with a new career best in points for a season. With 23 games to go, he has a chance to add to it and have an important role in big games. That’s if he stays. Like I said, I have no idea what the Rangers will decide between now and Monday afternoon.

The game started well. On an early shift less than two minutes in, Filip Chytil took a Kaapo Kakko pass and carried in around Adam Boqvist and fired a good wrist shot that beat Lehner five-hole for his 13th goal. Tony DeAngelo picked up a helper in his first game back after missing the previous two with an upper body injury. He didn’t miss a beat tallying two helpers for points 44 and 45. Every point is a new career high for the arbitration eligible offensive right defenseman. The price is going up.

Following an early power play with Slater Koekkoek (Cuck-oo) off for interference where they over passed and didn’t shoot the puck, they played a solid period. But as I noted at the top, this wasn’t a defensive game. It was defense optional. Each team skated into open ice and generated scoring chances. The goalies were good.

The Rangers were able to successfully kill off a phantom slash on Brett Howden late in the first. It was one of those where he gets a stick up on Alex Nylander and barely taps him. Of course, the arm automatically came up like a programmed robot. Alex DeBrincat nearly tied it, but had his one-timer ring off the goalpost. That’s the kinda year it’s been for him. He’ll bounce back next year. Sophomore slump be damned.

As for the tacky call on Howden, this isn’t hockey anymore. Not when Jonathan Toews can later back into Shesterkin and get a stick up on our prized goalie and not receive anything. What a joke. That had to be something. They only look for the tugs and less dangerous infractions.

If the first favored the Rangers, the second was mostly Blackhawks. They came out sharper and immediately tested Shesterkin, who was cool as a cucumber. Nothing seems to bother him. Not even Toews knocking into him before recovering to stay in the game.

Chicago would tie the game at even strength thanks to Kubalik. Playing on the top line with Toews and Patrick Kane, he got open to put away a perfect Duncan Keith cross ice feed past an outstretched Shesterkin. Kane picked up a secondary assist. Though he only wound up with one point, he was dangerous throughout. It’s a shame that he now is being wasted with some peak years left due to the ineptness of Teflon GM Stan Bowman.

A foolish hi-sticking minor on Brendan Lemieux that was drawn by Drake Caggiula, who was one of the better Hawks, handed the Chicago hosts a power play 10 seconds after the Kubalik goal. They passed the puck around well, but a disciplined Blueshirts penalty kill led by Lindgren and Fast got a big clear to help kill off their 16th straight. They would go a perfect three-for-three on the night to make it 17 consecutive penalties killed.

Credit much critiqued assistant Lindy Ruff for the improvement. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since Lindgren was added to it, the PK has been much better. When you have heart and soul types like Marc Staal, Fast, Zibanejad and The Warrior selling out, it’s going to improve. It’s also an area Howden excels at. Too bad he was in the box twice for ill advised minor penalties. That cut into his ice time. Howden plays on the fourth line. Tonight, he was with mostly Lemieux and newcomer Julien Gauthier, who looked good in only 7:18 played. Wearing number 12, he showed off his speed with a power move around a defenseman and got off a tough one handed shot that Lehner stopped. I would like to see more of him. It’s a good sign that he nearly scored in his Rangers debut.

When the Hawks weren’t controlling puck possession which they did for a vast majority of the middle stanza, they had to deal with a Lehner roughing minor against the pesky Lemieux. That’s his game. Agitate the opponent. Sometimes, he agitates me due to his penchant for bad penalties. He will have to mature in that part of the game. Learn where to draw the line. Right now, he’s a fourth liner struggling to score and get consistent minutes. He’s not the same guy we saw in the first half.

The Rangers weren’t able to do anything on their second power play. It was a little frustrating. After building no momentum off the missed opportunity, they did too much watching as Shesterkin did his best Dominik Hasek impression. He stopped 15 of 16 shots in a hectic period where there was zero attention to detail. When NBCSN rover Brian Boucher spoke to Quinn, he sounded annoyed and referenced how he felt they had gotten away from how they’ve played recently. It was very pointed.

It didn’t change much either. Another Howden penalty which this time was for taking the wrong route on rookie Kirby Dach to get nabbed for tripping, forced the penalty kill back into action. They didn’t allow much with Shesterkin only forced to make two saves from the outside on Kane and DeBrincat.

When Shesterkin wasn’t vacuuming Chicago shots, the Rangers were delivering a few hits to survive the period. They were outshot 16-10. But this was truly lousy hockey. They were lucky not to be down a couple. By the same token, I felt they could’ve been up by more than one after the first. Shots might’ve been even at 12 apiece, but the Blueshirts had the better of the chances on Lehner. Like I said, a total role reversal.

A last second shot by Phil Di Giuseppe was denied by Lehner to keep the game even at one headed to the third period. What a period it was.

After only combining for two goals the first 40 minutes, the teams went bonkers. Offense was aplenty in a seven goal third that was so wide open, it may as well have been pond hockey. I believe either Doc or Olczyk referred to it. That’s how crazy the style was. There was no checking and no whistles for a while.

A dominant shift from the KZB Line resulted in Buchnevich putting home his 14th on a continuation play from an active Kreider. Originally, it looked like Kreider would score from Buchnevich on a great backdoor feed. But he just missed. However, he kept going and worked the puck with Zibanejad behind the net before sending the puck back out to an open Buchnevich, who beat Lehner with a quick wrister at 2:33.

The madness continued. On the very next shift, a hustling Gauthier drew a hold on Olli Maatta. After toying with an exhausted Hawks penalty kill, DeAngelo and Zibanejad combined to create a wide open chance for Strome. He finished off his 15th of the season for a career best 51 points. The power play goal gave the Rangers a two goal lead.

It didn’t last long. On just some poor puck management in the neutral zone, Buchnevich turned it over to Toews, who got the puck to Caggiula. He led Kubalik, who completely undressed Jacob Trouba and then Staal, who came on for Skjei. Kubalik deked and tucked in a backhand for his second of the game and rookie-leading 25th at 6:05. The goal came 2:04 after Strome’s tally.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any crazier, it did. On a good play through the neutral zone, Staal passed for Zibanejad who was able to hit Kreider at the Chicago blueline. It wasn’t the best pass, but Kreider somehow managed to control the puck with his foot to keep the play onside. I knew what was next. Flying as only he can, he completely dusted the Hawks D and went to his bread and butter backhand move and had the puck bounce in off Lehner for number 24 at 8:48. Olczyk wondered if the Hawks would challenge for offside, but replays showed it wasn’t. Just a mesmerizing play by a unique player.

The roof caved in on the Hawks. Just over a minute later, a total misplay behind the net led to former Blackhawk Panarin scoring unassisted for his 30th of the season. That made it 5-2. He is one off his career high of 31 established in his second NHL season with Chicago while teamed with Kane. They were so dominant together in just two years that they combined for 346 points. NBCSN had the graphic for each. It’s 195 for Kane and 151 for Panarin. Crazy stuff. If there were no cap, they’d still be playing on the same team. Yikes.

Leading by three, the Rangers couldn’t even get comfortable. A great pass by Toews from behind the net after he spun off a Lindgren check led to Caggiula finishing off his seventh just 1:58 later to make it 5-3 with 8:21 remaining. It was brutal coverage with Lindgren, Fox and Zibanejad all caught behind the Ranger net. No chance for Shesterkin, who was getting the full Ranger experience after missing the past three games.

But in a period largely controlled by the aggressive Rangers forecheck, they finally put it away thanks to another dominant shift from the first line. Right on cue, the KZB Line pinned the Hawks in deep. On a good pass by Kreider to Buchnevich in the slot, he turned around and had the presence of mind to fire the puck for a cutting Zibanejad, who was to the side of Lehner. The puck went off his skate and in for his 26th from Buchnevich and Kreider.

The big goal came exactly 1:58 following the Caggiula one. How’s that for irony? Caggiula followed up Panarin in the same span. Strange. That was this game and especially the third period.

Shesterkin continued to stop shots like Velcro. Even though his team was up by three, he remained locked in. That’s the most impressive thing. This guy plays like he’s been in the league a lot longer than the eight games he’s gotten in. That’s why he’s won seven of eight starts and has excellent numbers that include a 2.28 GAA and .939 save percentage. He faced 40 shots and made 37 saves to pick up the win.

At one point during the game, Emrick paid homage to Shesterkin. He alluded to how fans can be impatient during a rebuild. Especially in New York. The Rangers have missed the playoffs two years running and it could very likely be three. But Doc was quick to point out the positives such as what Gauthier showed in his debut and how good Igor was in net. Throw in the development of Fox, Lindgren, Chytil and Kakko, who’s continued to look more confident in the offensive zone. I think it’s only a matter of time before he starts finishing.

There is a lot to like with this group. That’s why I’m torn on what’s going to happen. I don’t want to see anyone go. Between Kreider, Strome and DeAngelo, they all deserve raises and would be excellent guys to continue building with. But there’s virtually no way they can retain everyone. That could signal the end for a well respected two-way guy like Fast, who has value on the market. He won’t cost as much as Kreider.

It’ll be interesting to see what they do. I’ll hope for the best. Especially with the team showing signs of getting back in the playoff race. We have to wait and see what they do in the next two games. Carolina tomorrow and San Jose Sunday. Win both and who knows.

The truth is the Rangers must do what’s best for the franchise long-term. We can’t lose perspective. I’ll end it with that.

Battle Of Hudson 3 🌟

3rd ⭐️ Dominik Kubalik, Blackhawks (2 goals for rookie best 24 and 25, 3 shots in 14:18, originally a Kings 7th Rd Pick in 2013)

2nd ⭐️ Pavel Buchnevich, Rangers (goal number 14 plus 🍎 giving him 3-3-6 over last 5 games and 7-5-12 in last 12 GP since 1/21)

1st ⭐️ Chris Kreider, Rangers (goal number 24 plus 2 🍎 giving him 32 points over last 30 games)

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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