Game #69 Kakko scores twice and Zibanejad reaches 40 goals in key win over Stars, Shesterkin 31 saves, Rangers 40 Goal Club

Igor Shesterkin gets some love from Marc Staal after a big 4-2 Rangers win over the Stars. They remain three points out of the wildcard with 13 games left. AP Photo credit New York Rangers via Getty Images

Needing a win, they came out desperate. In a big game to start a do or die three-game road trip, the Rangers showed up ready to play in Dallas. Showing the urgency and resolve necessary after suffering the worst loss of the season, the Rangers earned a 4-2 win over the Stars.

They did it through hard work and much more determined play. For whatever reason, this team plays better away from MSG. Just call them the road warriors. They’ve now won 10 of their last 11 road games. Even though it got hairy late, they left no doubt who the better team was tonight.

It only took 19 seconds at the start for them to put the ugly 6-4 home loss to the Devils behind them. On just a wonderful opening shift, Artemi Panarin led rookie Adam Fox for a big goal on a good wrist shot past Dallas starter Ben Bishop. It was his eighth.

Continuing to play well, the Blueshirts were more focused defensively. They played much better in front of rookie Igor Shesterkin, who was much sharper throughout. After getting chased for the first time in his young NHL career, Shesterkin bounced back by making some key saves en route to 31 stops to improve to 10-2-0. He didn’t have to stand on his head, but flashed the leather on one glove stop and got across on a couple of others when things got interesting.

These were the Rangers who’d won all those games in February to get back in the playoff race. Continuing to carry the play, they increased the lead to 2-0 when Mika Zibanejad made some more team history. On a good rush from Pavel Buchnevich and Brendan Lemieux, he steered in a Lemieux feed for his 40th goal of the season at 10:12.

The goal made Zibanejad the 20th Blueshirt to score 40 in a season. The last Ranger to do it was Rick Nash. Marian Gaborik also did it. So did franchise record holder Jaromir Jagr when he scored 54 in ’05-06 to break Adam Graves’ record of 52 set in ’93-94. I just gave you five of the 20 Rangers who reached the mark. Name the other 15. I’ll have the answer later.

One thing I know for sure is Zibanejad is the first Blueshirt to get 40 in 56 games. He missed 13 earlier in the season. Where would he be if he hadn’t missed time? In the Rocket Richard race and possibly the Hart conversation with Panarin. That’s insane. He deserves all the credit for what he’s done. Just give him the ‘C’ next Fall. I know you can make a compelling case for Chris Kreider, who skated this morning for the first time. His timetable remains the same. So, don’t get too excited.

With the Stars offense really struggling to do anything at five-on-five, the second half of the period got chippy. Following a Jacob Trouba tripping minor on Mattias Janmark to put Dallas on the power play, a clean Ryan Lindgren hit led to Stars finisher Denis Gurianov lose his mind. He started up with Lindgren following the play to earn an extra two minutes for roughing, which negated the power play only 24 seconds in. It was dumb. There’s no other way to put it.

If there was one mistake David Quinn made, it was having Marc Staal out with Tony DeAngelo during the ensuing four-on-four. I didn’t understand why. You’re up two in enemy territory. You may as well go for the kill. I would’ve sent out Fox with DeAngelo, Zibanejad and Panarin. They would’ve had a good chance to score. At one point, they still toyed with the slower skating Stars, but were unable to connect despite some strong puck possession.

When they did test Shesterkin, he was ready. Unlike Saturday night, the 24-year old rookie was composed. He made some good saves in traffic and showed off that quick reflex glove. He also denied Henrik Lundqvist killer Blake Comeau by holding his ground. I don’t have to remind anyone what the history is between Comeau and Lundqvist. He would later trip up Buchnevich for a late Ranger power play which they were unable to connect on. It would’ve been nice to get a third goal before the end of the period.

In control, the Rangers continued to look a couple of steps ahead of the Stars, who heard groans from their crowd. They’re a good team, who plays close to the vest under interim coach Rick Bowness. He’s done a very good job turning things around for Dallas, who will be a tough out in the postseason just like last year. Just ask the Blues. The issue is their offense is so bad that it puts a lot of pressure on the defense and two goalies. In this case, Bishop and Anton Khudobin. You wonder if that style can be successful.

Dallas was without Alex Radulov, who was out sick and had to stay away from the team. He skated on his own at practice. All part of the Coronavirus which I’ll get to. It’s changed the way sports are covered. Reporters are no longer allowed in any locker room. This also goes for other major sports including the NBA, MLB and MLS. In fact, the big Indian Wells tournament was canceled for tennis. A real bummer for players who traveled and all the employees who were going to work. My friend Brian Sanborn and his wife had tickets to the final. Now, it’s kaput. How sad.

This is how it is. There’s even talk that the Sharks could postpone home games due to the risks of the virus. It really is crazy. You could have situations where teams play in front of empty arenas. I have no idea what direction this will take. Even if I feel there’s a lot of fear being created by the media, my best advice to anyone is to use precaution. Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer. Dry properly. Limit handshakes. It’s definitely a strange time. I’m not gonna change who I am. But yeah. This is a serious health issue and unpredictable due to new cases and testing.

I hope they find a resolution to the Corona. Speaking of which, I think the actual beer is overrated like Mat Barzal. Any drink you need a lime in or a piece of fruit isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Give me a pint of Guinness or a Dos Equis. Or an Amstel Light. I don’t drink often. I’m big on alkaline water and tea. But sure. On occasion, a cold brew isn’t bad.

How to steer this recap back in the proper direction. Well, be safe out there. Okay. Now that I said my piece, let’s get to the biggest development in this win. In a game Filip Chytil left due to a lower body injury that’ll keep him day-to-day and should prompt an emergency recall from Hartford for tomorrow’s game in Colorado, there was a Kaapo Kakko sighting. After going 98567811445 games without a goal (really 14 for those keeping track), the rookie forward broke out with not one, but two goals in the crucial second period to break open the game.

On the first, some hustle from Brett Howden combined with the slickness of Jesper Fast, who Quinn double shifted, allowed Howden to pass across for a wide open Kakko who had a open net to shoot at. It had to feel good. He acknowledged so afterwards. It’s been a struggle for him, but Quinn told reporter Vince Mercogliano he decided to put Kakko back on the third line an hour before the game. He said he liked the look of the lineup better with Kakko there while Julien Gauthier went back down to the fourth line. It was a candid answer.

Kakko’s ninth was his first goal since Feb. 9. It really was a great play by Howden, who hustled to keep the play alive for Fast, and then took a pass and threaded the needle for the Kakko finish. Howden has quietly raised his game. While there will continue to be complaints over his production and silly metrics from stat nerds, the sophomore has been more involved lately. I like what I’ve seen from him. Let the same trolls continue to cry. They’re never satisfied.

Brendan Smith didn’t like a late hit he got following a whistle. Clearly agitated, he found a dance partner in Stars captain Jamie Benn a couple of shifts later. Benn might not be as productive as he once was. But he’s a true leader who doesn’t back down from anyone. Prior to the face-off, he and Smith talked and decided to drop their gloves. Benn is a tough comer. Give Smith credit for engaging him and doing well in a slow developing scrap. Good thing Benn shook off the linesmen so they could go. I like that.

Benn was trying to awaken his dead team which hasn’t played well recently. They went a crazy amount of time between scoring five-on-five goals. This is a team that doesn’t score much as it is. They scratch and claw for every inch. In the game Monday, they didn’t have it. Frustration showed. There was some edge to this one. A couple of minutes later, Lindgren mixed it up with Andrew Cogliano with each sent to the box for slashing.

While Shesterkin did his job on one end, it made the Rangers’ job easier. Quinn rewarded Kakko by moving him up to the Zibanejad line with Buchnevich. On a very effective shift, he got his second of the game. On a good play by Fox and Zibanejad, they worked the puck down low for Kakko, who had Bishop dead to rights. He was able to tuck in a backhand into a open net for his 10th at 17:18. That made it 4-0.

The game felt over, but Phil Di Giuseppe took a unnecessary tripping minor on Janmark. The undisciplined penalty came with 15 seconds remaining in the second. Following a couple of good saves from Shesterkin to start the third period, Miro Heiskanen set up Roope Hintz for his 19th at 1:23 from Corey Perry. That allowed the Stars to convert on the power play and give themselves a chance.

They played more aggressively in the period. With life breathed in, they tested Shesterkin more often. He was up to the challenge. However, Cogliano was able to finish off his third on a nice setup from Heiskanen and Joe Pavelski to cut it to 4-2 with still 8:08 remaining.

Even in a game they were comfortably in front by four, you cannot relax. That’s how quick things can turn around. They took their foot off the gas pedal. Suddenly, Shesterkin made an acrobatic glove save to keep a dangerous shot out that would’ve cut it to one. He made 11 saves on 13 Dallas shots in a busier third.

A bad Smith tripping minor of Perry with 4:30 left in regulation made things more dicey. You have to question why they were in the situation they were in. They should’ve put it away before it got to this part. Fortunately, the penalty kill led by Shesterkin got it done.

Eventually, Bowness would pull Bishop for a six-on-five with over two minutes left. But even as the Stars pressed the attack, the five Rangers which included Howden, Fast, Zibanejad, Staal and Trouba never buckled. The three forwards made some key blocks and broke up passes down low to keep the Stars at bay.

When the clock ran out, they had the win they so desperately needed. With the Hurricanes winning to move ahead of idle Columbus for the first wildcard and the Islanders getting a point in a wild 5-4 shootout loss in Vancouver, the Rangers remain three behind the wildcard with both Carolina and the Blue Jackets each having 81 points. The Isles have 80 and are one out despite only 24 regulation wins. It’s ridiculous how many extra points they benefited from. Ditto Columbus.

It is what it is. The Rangers now have 13 games left. They can only focus on one game at a time. Up to 31 regulation wins which is one better than the Panthers, who they’re tied with in the crazy wildcard chase, they must get wins. It’s not going to get any easier. They’re at the Avalanche on Wednesday night. The same team Shesterkin started his run against two months ago.

I’m curious to see if Quinn changes his tune. Shesterkin looked much better in the victory at Dallas. He wasn’t overworked. The Rangers defended well. Would the coach reconsider? He told reporters he planned to start either Alex Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist in the second game of the back-to-back. Is anyone comfortable with either backup playing right now when every game matters?

I’m not. I don’t like what I’ve seen from Georgiev lately and Lundqvist doesn’t inspire much confidence. I would go back to Shesterkin. That’s me. It’s not my decision. It’ll be interesting to see what Quinn decides and which player they call up assuming Chytil can’t go.

For now, they’re still alive. Keep winning.

Battle Of Hudson Three 🌟

3rd 🌟 Adam Fox, Rangers (8th goal plus 🍎, all he does is product while playing responsibly in his end, better than the other 2 rookie D up for the Calder)

2nd 🌟 Kaapo Kakko, Rangers (2 goals to end a 14-game drought for numbers 9 and 10 in the pivotal 2nd)

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, Rangers (40th goal to become 20th NYR to reach the mark plus a 🍎 in another scintillating performance)

Rangers Trivia: Name the 20 Rangers to score 40 goals in a single season.

I gave you five.

*Mika Zibanejad (40 in ’19-20 with 13 games left)

Rick Nash (42 in ’14-15)

Marian Gaborik 42 in ’09-10 & 41 in ’11-12)

Jaromir Jagr (54 in ’05-06)

Adam Graves (52 in ’93-94)

Pat Verbeek (41 in ’95-96)

Mark Messier (47 in ’95-96)

Mike Gartner (49, 40 & 45 in ’90-91 thru ’92-93)

John Ogrodnick (43 in ’89-90)

Tomas Sandstrom (40 in ’86-87)

Walt Poddubny (40 in ’86-87)

Pierre Larouche (48 in ’83-84)

Ron Duguay (40 in ’81-82)

Phil Esposito (42 in ’78-79)

Pat Hickey (40 in ’77-78)

Jean Ratelle (41 in ’72-73 & 46 in ’71-72)

Vic Hadfield (50 in ’71-72)

Rod Gilbert (43 in ’71-72)

Steve Vickers (41 in ’74-75)

Andy Bathgate (40 in ’58-59 won Hart)

*current season

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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