Game #68 Scrappy Devils humiliate listless Rangers in costly loss, chase Shesterkin

Fredrik Claesson celebrates his goal that made it 3-2 in a four goal second that powered the Devils past the Rangers 6-4 bringing a harsh reality to the playoff push. AP Photo credit New Jersey Devils via Getty Images

This always had the feel of a trap game. Unfortunately, the Rangers fell into the trap door in embarrassing fashion. In what amounted to the worst loss of the season, the Devils humiliated the listless Blueshirts 6-4 at The Garden.

The fourth defeat in five games to a team that played AHL caliber players on defense was a total meltdown. You want to talk about coming down off a emotional high. From Mika Zibanejad etching his name in franchise lore with his five goals saving the team to household names like John Hayden, Kevin Rooney, Fredrik Claesson and Dakota Mermis, this was devastating.

I warned anyone who would listen that these aren’t the same Devils who the Rangers beat up the last two times. Apparently, the message didn’t sink in. The players stunk it up and cost themselves a chance to gain ground in the wildcard race. They may as well throw the tape in the garbage, or burn the DVD.

It was that bad. I’m not even going to bother with the stupid wildcard in a flawed point system that doesn’t reward the best teams. Why bother? It’s not like they could be when it was the Devils who supposedly were playing the second of a back-to-back. The Rangers had Friday off. Did they do too much partying? At times tonight, they looked hungover.

The Devils have been playing very well under interim coach Alain Nasreddine. They actually got back to NHL .500 and are up to 68 points. Only eight behind our team if you can believe that. Look at their roster. It doesn’t even compare. The job Nasreddine has done with that team is remarkable. They don’t have high end talent, but work their butts off.

That was the difference. Even though they’ve won a lot of games over the past month, how many were really complete efforts? Let’s face it. The Rangers have relied heavily on Igor Shesterkin with some help from Alex Georgiev before he came back to earth. If not for the young goalies making a ton of saves due to all the shots and scoring chances they give up, this team would be screwed.

In particular, Shesterkin covered up a lot of mistakes. He spoiled us rotten. Did they really expect him to not be rusty after a two week layoff? The truth is they panicked by rushing him back due to Georgiev needing a mental break. It didn’t help matters that they’ve lost total faith in Henrik Lundqvist because he would’ve been a good candidate for Saturday’s game. So what if he’s not the same goalie. Sometimes, you can’t just avoid playing him altogether.

By running Shesterkin back out following a quick recovery from a rib fracture in a car accident, they only hurt themselves. He wasn’t sharp and allowed a couple of bad goals. For the first time in his brief NHL career, the 24-year old Russian proved human by getting chased for five goals on 23 shots in two periods.

It happens. Expectations were through the roof and he had delivered. That’s why they even got within two points of the playoffs. Now three with 14 games left and a very difficult three game road swing at Dallas, Colorado and Arizona. That’s going to make or break the season.

When they traded Brady Skjei to Carolina for a first round pick, I understood the context of why. It was due to wanting to subtract his contract and free up necessary room to re-sign key free agents this summer. However, when you change your mind and decide to go for the playoffs, it’s awfully tough to replace a skating defenseman who logs important minutes. Especially given Skjei’s age. He isn’t a consistent player. He’s continued to have his struggles as a Hurricane. However, his ability to skate the puck out helped Jacob Trouba more than some fans realize.

Brendan Smith is a heart and soul guy who gives tremendous effort. He’s way more physical than Skjei. However, he cannot play the key minutes while mismatched with Trouba, whose own struggles have gone overlooked. His play has not improved since Skjei departed as some would have you believe. The truth is for how tough he is physically, Trouba has his flaws. He’s not a great skater and needs a better partner to make it work.

It’s not so much that Skjei is some All-Star. It’s that by subtracting him for cap considerations, they risked missing the postseason. Even after re-signing Chris Kreider, whose fractured foot hasn’t helped, the blueline was going to become an issue. It wasn’t great with Skjei. It’s worse now due to Smith playing too much along with Marc Staal, whose play has dipped. He’s playing more minutes with Tony DeAngelo. They’ve been on for more goals against. It’s not a coincidence either that rookie tandem Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox have shown some inconsistency. There’s much more pressure on them to deliver. Both are only 22.

This isn’t an excuse. On paper, the Rangers have overwhelming talent and depth compared with the retooled Devils that subtracted Andy Greene, Blake Coleman, Wayne Simmonds and Sami Vatanen. They also are without Will Butcher and have made several call ups including one-time Ranger Claesson, who did in his former team with a crushing go-ahead goal that made it 3-2 less than two minutes into the second period.

Give the Devils credit for totally outworking, outhustling and outplaying our flat team, who looked like they went through the motions. David Quinn noticed it. He used his timeout after Claesson put the Devils ahead 3-2 which followed up Kyle Palmieri’s second on just a brutal defensive sequence 44 seconds into the awful period. The Devils outscored the Blueshirts 4-0 to turn around a 2-1 first period deficit into a comfortable 5-2 lead after two.

To paraphrase what Quinn said in his presser, they wanted it a lot more. It showed. Even early on prior to Filip Chytil getting his first goal in seven games on a nice pass from Julien Gauthier, it was the Devils winning battles and testing Shesterkin early. He made some good saves before Chytil got his 14th from Gauthier and Fox at 5:34. A good play started by Fox, who got the puck to Gauthier. He circled the net and centered for an easy Chytil finish by Mackenzie Blackwood.

However, in a telltale sign that something wasn’t right, Shesterkin gave it right back by giving up the near goalpost on a sharp angle Palmieri shot at 6:22. If there was a signal that he wasn’t himself, that was it. It was the worst goal he’s allowed. He really had to be good too due to the gaps in coverage. The defense and forwards were not on the same page. This was as poor as they could play. They lost more battles and gave away so many pucks in the neutral zone that it looked like a peewee team.

In a wide open first where defense was optional, the Rangers got that goal right back less than a minute later when Zibanejad and Fox worked a textbook give and go that resulted in Zibanejad’s sixth goal in four periods. His 39th of the season was set up by Fox blocking a clear and then a hustling Pavel Buchnevich diving to keep a loose puck alive. Fox then took a Zibanejad feed and passed it right back for a one-timer past Blackwood for a 2-1 lead.

The three straight goals were scored in a span of 1:44. It was total madness. If there was a turning point, I’d say it was the failure of the team to capitalize on two power plays. With a chance to go up two which I knew was real crucial, the Rangers didn’t. They came close once on a Artemi Panarin pass to Ryan Strome, but his shot stayed out due to a big block in front. I thought Panarin could’ve shot. He was held in check the entire game going minus-one with two shots and no points for the second game over the last three. The Devils did a great job on him by taking time and space away.

I said to Jon that those two power play failures would come back to haunt them. Just how the first was played where the teams traded chances, I could tell what kind of night it would be. I never felt comfortable. Shesterkin didn’t look it either. It was not surprising.

As if to confirm what I saw, Palmieri struck for his second (25th overall) 44 seconds into the second. It was as simple as a Mermis shot he threw at the net that Shesterkin fumbled. With Miles Wood pawing away, the puck came to Palmieri for the rebound home to tie the score. Nobody covered him. Zibanejad was guilty as were both Lindgren and Fox, who lost the battle behind the net.

A very bad turnover from Gauthier inside the Devils zone led directly to a odd man rush. On a three-on-two, Nikita Gusev patiently found the trailer Claesson by himself where he fired a unscreened wrist shot past Shesterkin at 1:36. It was his first goal since scoring as a Ranger last year. How sad. Nobody was even close by. Of note on the play, Trouba went to a covered man in front to leave the space wide open. It was an awful read by the $8 million man. In related news, prospect Nils Lundkvist scored his ninth goal in Sweden. Picture a young mobile defense on the right side with Fox, DeAngelo and Lundkvist. Oh well.

Maybe they can shift DeAngelo to the left side. I don’t see why not. He was there late in regulation paired with Fox when Quinn was desperate for offense. They didn’t look bad together. That’s their best two skating defensemen. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing how DeAngelo would do next to Trouba, who needs a better skating D to team up with. I suggest moving Smith down to third pair with Staal, who shouldn’t get more than 16 minutes. Instead, we got Lindgren with Smith.

Though he didn’t have to be great, Blackwood made all the key stops to help his team win the game. His best came when he robbed Buchnevich with a kick out on a one-timer during a Ranger power play. At the time, Mike McLeod was off for tripping Zibanejad. The issue was they didn’t get much setup time or shots. It was one and done. The special teams stunk. What can I say? It was a nightmare.

Even though the shots said the home team held a slight edge 14-11 in the disastrous period, it was misleading. The Devils kept most Ranger shots to the outside and did a good job blocking some. They were much better throughout.

On a terrible pinch by Fox, he took a tripping penalty by taking down Nico Hischier, who was looking to break out of the zone. On the only Ranger penalty, the suddenly slumping penalty kill allowed Travis Zajac to get position and redirect a Hischier feed by Shesterkin for a power play goal that made it 4-2 at 16:19. PK Subban helped set it up. On the play, Zibanejad fell down. Once that happened, it spelled doom. The Devils worked a perfect play with token resistance.

With the small Devil contingent cheering their Stanley Cup game which it was, they got even more excited when a Severson point shot somehow was put in by Hayden just 25 seconds later for a 5-2 lead with 3:16 remaining. It was a really good play by Hayden, who managed to get his stick on it. It was also another goal Fox and Lindgren were on for. Like I said, they struggled. It’s becoming more noticeable. They’re young. They aren’t perfect.

While Jon tried to be positive following that awful period, I knew better. The game was over. Based on how much harder the Devils played, there was no way they were blowing a three goal lead. I hate being negative, but I’m a realist. I called the Zajac goal and the Hayden right before they happened. I watch too much hockey.

The Devils played great. They not only were everywhere, but played like their lives depended on it. I wish I could echo the same for the Rangers. They were nowhere to be found. There was barely a pulse. No consistent forecheck. Way too easy for the opponent to get out of their end. They won puck battles all night. They were ready to play while our side was not. I don’t care if they scored two of the first three goals. They were loose and very sloppy.

In a sign that Quinn knew it wasn’t Shesterkin’s night, he made the change to Lundqvist. We know he hasn’t played much at all. We also know he was very bad last Sunday against the Flyers. I think that more than anything scared the coaching staff away from trusting the once franchise goalie from starting in a big game. It’s pretty sad how far he’s fallen.

The crowd cheered when he was announced in goal by PA announcer Joe Tolleson. The same fans who chanted, “Ig-or, Ig-or,” earlier cheered Lundqvist and chanted “Hen-rik, Hen-rik!” I understood why. I think the cult of Lundswiss knows this is it for him. I’ll credit Sean McCaffrey for that funny nickname. Those are the Lundqvist or die loyalists. He came up with a hilarious moniker for them. You can’t debate these people. That’s all I’ll say.

To his credit, Lundqvist was sharp making a excellent save to deny Jack Hughes on a breakaway. The rookie tried to beat him five-hole. But this time, Lundqvist closed it up. There was no Swiss cheese this time for Hughes to aim for on his deke and backhand try. He made a few other good saves. He only faced five shots due to the Devils sitting back. But he was sharp unlike last week.

With the Devils very disciplined in the neutral zone and their end, the Rangers couldn’t muster much at five-on-five. Even with Quinn mixing up his line combos, nothing worked. New Jersey was that good and the Rangers that bad. What can you do? It totally sucked and a lot of other bleeping words. You get the idea. Even Jon concluded that they looked like they were going through the motions. When he can see it, that’s bad. He’s the eternal optimist. He was furious. I was more disappointed than anything because I saw it coming. Don’t ask me why.

The Devils play so much harder for Nasreddine than they ever did for John Hynes, who might get the Predators in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean much. They needed a coaching change and to rid themselves of overrated star Taylor Hall. Buyer beware.

Past the halfway point, I wanted our team to get a goal just to make it interesting. They obliged when Buchnevich fed Smith for a shot that Greg McKegg tipped in for his fifth with 6:18 left in regulation. It was a very good play by Buchnevich to get Smith the shot and superb work from McKegg, who was the one Blueshirt who didn’t embarrass himself. He deserves credit for how well he’s played since Kreider went down. On a forgettable night, the Keg Man wound up with a goal and assist for a plus-two in 8:13. He was the only bright spot.

Even in a game he scored in to end a scoring drought, Chytil was minus-two which means his line was victimized for three goals. That’s horrible. The third line has been an unmitigated disaster. It doesn’t matter if Kaapo Kakko plays on it or not. They stink defensively. The defense I already killed in this harsh assessment of a post. I’m angry. Between Daylight savings and the stupid plastic and paper bag shenanigans that inconveniences paying customers, I’m in a great mood.

Thankfully, this post is coming to an end. Quinn did go for the early pull of Lundqvist with three minutes to go down two. It didn’t result in much. The decision making wasn’t good enough. Lousy puck management and coverage usually results in ugly losses. This sure applied.

The Rangers run has been a lot of fun because it was so unexpected. Kinda like the Mets last year before they flamed out. I’m not throwing in the towel. But the schedule is murder. They’re really going to have to turn it up to stay in it. Even with Columbus losing and the Panthers winning, it won’t matter unless they play a whole lot better. Can they? Sure. This was the low point.

Following Zajac scoring his second into a vacated net to make it 6-3, DeAngelo had a shot go off Connor Carrick and in past Blackwood at 19:17 from McKegg and Brett Howden. It was his 15th goal. Too little, too late.

When you come out flat like they did, you get what you deserve. Now, it’s onto Dallas. Make or break road trip with the Pens on deck following it.

Battle Of Hudson Three 🌟

3rd 🌟 Damon Severson, Devils (2 🍎, +2 in 21:24)

2nd 🌟 Travis Zajac, Devils (2 goals including a power play goal plus empty netter for Devil lifer)

1st 🌟 Kyle Palmieri, Devils (2 goals for numbers 24 & 25, the Devils best player set the tone)

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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