Younger Blueshirts bright spots in tough loss to Penguins

By now, all the yo-yos complaining over spilt milk have calmed down. A 56-game schedule means it’s too early for panic. Especially four games into the new season.

A 1-2-1 record at the start isn’t what the Rangers wanted. That’s where they are following Friday night’s tough 4-3 loss to the Penguins in a shootout. The rematch is Sunday evening. I don’t know how much I’ll watch due to my rooting interest in the Bills versus the Chiefs.

I’m not ready to hang David Quinn from the guillotine. But he needs to figure out lines that work. Yesterday wasn’t his fault. They deserved a better fate than blowing a two goal lead to a very mediocre Pens, who looked disinterested until they got a break on a lucky Jared McCann goal. Ryan Lindgren accidentally put the puck in past Igor Shestyorkin to change the complexion.

The Rangers had plenty of chances to score more than the three goals they had in the second period. Ryan Strome can’t buy one. He was in all alone on Tristan Jarry and was stopped. He’s now without a point in four games. Whatever chemistry he had with Artemi Panarin looks gone. Quinn tried him with Pavel Buchnevich and the surprisingly consistent Phil Di Giuseppe on the third.

Chris Kreider is off to another slow start. Aside from his bank pass for his one goal on the power play in a 4-3 loss to the Devils, he’s hit a couple of posts and been denied by a quick Jarry. At even strength, Kreider hasn’t done enough. Neither has Mika Zibanejad. It seems like the key veterans only connect on the power play. Panarin isn’t shooting the puck enough. He must be better.

While only Buchnevich has shown rapid improvement thus far out of the experienced players, it’s the younger Blueshirts who are starting to be noticeable. With a power play goal on a good one-timer off a Panarin feed, Adam Fox has four points in the four games. He stuck on the top power play unit which got one past Jarry.

On a terrific forecheck from Di Giuseppe, he stole the puck and sent Filip Chytil in on a mini-break. The 21-year old took his time before going to a beautiful forehand backhand tuck that mirrored Peter Forsberg. It showed a lot of poise and skill which the budding Chytil has. He is looking more confident. It’s possible he could get an opportunity to center Panarin with another young player who looks better.

That would be Kaapo Kakko. Remember how lost he was most of his rookie season? That no longer is the case. Kakko has improved his skating and is more aggressive shooting the puck and attacking the net. His second of the season was a direct result of driving the net to put home the loose change created by a smart low shot by Di Giuseppe. It was as much of a shot pass knowing Kakko would be there for the goal.

On the subject of kids, K’Andre Miller celebrated his 21st birthday on Thursday. So, why not give himself a present by playing so well that he recorded his first NHL point on the Kakko goal. Confident with the puck all night while being teamed up with Jacob Trouba again, he transitioned up ice and dropped the puck for the Di Giuseppe shot that resulted in a goal that made it 3-1 Rangers. Not only was he good offensively, but splendid defensively where he checked Pens’ forwards and separated them from the puck. An excellent sign for a first round pick who looks the part.

It would be easy to point out the negatives from Friday. They didn’t finish off the dangerous Pens, who rose from the ashes to find the two goals they needed to force extras. The frustrating part was it wasn’t the big guns who did the damage. Sidney Crosby was not too involved. Strange to see. Evgeni Malkin was a non-factor. The goals came from Bryan Rust (11 shots), McCann and Teddy Blueger, who benefited from a fortunate bounce off the back boards for an easy put away. You can’t do anything about such goals. It happens.

The Rangers were the better team for most of the 65 minutes. Buchnevich had a bevy of chances to score. He couldn’t. Jarry finally played better to give his struggling team a chance. The Pens are without three starting defensemen. They still have Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin and John Marino. Crosby, Malkin, Rust, Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker still play for them. But there’s something wrong. They didn’t show much urgency until Lindgren scored on his own goalie. After that, they finally woke up.

If there’s a silver lining, the young Rangers played well. Even if Alexis Lafreniere needs to shoot the puck more instead of always passing. He’s still without a point. The top pick is getting enough shifts with Quinn even trying him out with Zibanejad and Kreider. Unfortunately, they didn’t do much and were caught on for two goals against. One was Jack Johnson losing a board battle which led to Cody Ceci firing a shot that was double deflected with Rust getting it. The other was the wide carom right to Blueger.

The question is why aren’t the big guns doing anything at five-on-five. Chytil, Kakko and Di Giuseppe have been the best line. Quinn broke it up due to wanting to see what the pair of young forwards could do with Panarin. It’s worth exploring further. Di Giuseppe is the kind of player, who can work with anyone. That’s probably what Strome needs.

There really isn’t much to be upset about. Other than Quinn sitting out Julien Gauthier for Kevin Rooney, whose penalty helped get the Pens back on track, they did enough to win. Sometimes, that’s hockey. Instead, Guentzel and Letang solved Shestyorkin in the shootout with backhands high short side. Only Panarin scored on Jarry, who stuck with Tony DeAngelo to stop his forehand deke in Round Three.

I would’ve loved to see Chytil get a shot. But Quinn went with his top three from last year. We’ll see how they respond in the rematch tomorrow night.

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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