When he got the call on Monday, Island Park native Anthony Bitetto couldn’t have been more excited. The defensive defenseman had a good debut for the team grew up rooting for. It paled in comparison to his second game. He scored a rare goal to highlight a 4-2 Rangers’ win over the Capitals at home.
The goal Bitetto scored was only the third of his NHL career. It’s one he’ll remember. The goal was of the highlight reel variety with the veteran skating through the Caps’ defense before flipping a backhand past Vitek Vanecek halfway through the contest to put the Rangers ahead by two. He later admitted that his last three were disallowed.
On a night where Libor Hajek got back in the lineup for the first time in over a year, the Rangers played a good game in defeating a tougher opponent in the 10th game. They won their second in a row for the first time this season. More importantly, they continued to play better by picking up seven of a possible eight points to get back to NHL .500 (4-4-2). The victory moves them into a tie with the COVID-19 stricken Devils with 10 points in the East Division. The idle Islanders are now eighth.
There were other positives in the win. Ryan Strome continued his resurgence by tallying twice to give him points in four straight. After a slow start likely due to the new contract, he’s come out of it. The valuable second center has his confidence back, which showed as he, Artemi Panarin and budding sophomore Kaapo Kakko were easily the best line. They combined for six points and a plus-six rating.
In a rookie goalie match-up featuring Vanecek against Igor Shestyorkin, it was the 25-year old Russian who came out on top by making 31 saves. That included half a dozen big ones on Alexander Ovechkin, who did get his final shot to go off a Nicklas Backstrom offensive draw that made it interesting. It also featured Shestyorkin absorbing a heavy Ovechkin one-timer from his office that caught him good. He was okay and showed more confidence to win for a second consecutive time.
One thing that helped was getting off quickly. Facing a good opponent who just blew a game to lose for the first time in regulation, the Rangers came out flying. Following a shift from the reunited KZB Line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, the second line had a good cycle that produced a hard-working goal. Off a feed from Panarin at the point, Adam Fox took a low wrist shot that Strome redirected top shelf on Vanecek at 1:41. It was nicely executed play with Strome doing the dirty work.
They could’ve had more. In fact, the Blueshirts had nine of the first ten shots. However, Vanecek kept them off the scoreboard on an early power play by robbing Zibanejad. Panarin made a great read through the Caps’ penalty kill to pass across for a quick Zibanejad one-timer. But Vanecek was able to keep the puck out on a good shot against the grain, leaving the struggling top center looking skyward. Even though he didn’t score, Zibanejad looked more like himself. Maybe he’ll get one in the next game.
That won’t be until at least Monday when the Islanders are supposed to visit MSG for the third time. We can only hope at this critical point. Not even a month in, COVID-19 is affecting a lot of teams and players. With the Devils, Sabres and Wild not playing due to positive tests, the Avalanche are the latest team to have games postponed. This is a troublesome sign for the NHL, who altered one of its rules to further restrict players from being at risk. One can only hope the complicated situation will improve.
As for the rest of the first period, the Caps finally awoke from their nap. Perhaps Ryan Lindgren delivering a thunderous check on Capitals antagonist Tom Wilson got them going. He got revenge later by nailing Lindgren, who absorbed a double check in the corner. Washington outshot the Rangers 7-6 to conclude the period.
The Blueshirts also continue to improve steadily on the penalty kill. They went four-for-four against the Capitals, who boast the Great Eight. Plus Backstrom, John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and Wilson. They’re still without Evgeny Kuznetsov, who is still in COVID-19 Protocol. So is Ilya Samsonov. Though they haven’t missed him as much due to Vanecek. The 25-year old Czech goalie made 28 stops.
Even though they couldn’t cash in on a Garnet Hathaway tripping minor penalty, the Rangers increased the lead to two thanks to some wondrous puck wizardry from Bitetto. On a Kevin Rooney pass behind the net, a pinching Bitetto carried the puck around after sidestepping a Carl Hagelin hit. He then came off the wall and cut to the middle before beating Vanecek for his first goal as a Ranger at 9:15. It was Bitetto’s first one since Nov. 18, 2017 with Nashville.
After successfully killing off a bench minor for too many men on the ice, the Rangers ran into some bad luck when a Hathaway shot took a funny carom off Hagelin and by Shestyorkin’s glove to cut the lead to one with 63 seconds left in the period. It was a strange play that saw the puck go off Hagelin’s body and Shestyorkin couldn’t field it. Hathaway drew a Brett Howden slash to put the Caps on the power play with 10 seconds remaining.
In the third, the Rangers again got it done on the penalty kill. Their new aggressive box has been working. Shestyorkin still had to deal with Ovechkin. He also got help from a defense led by Jacob Trouba, who blocked a game high nine shots. Half of the team’s total (18). It was one of his best defensive games since joining the Blueshirts over a year ago.
Nursing a one-goal lead with Shestyorkin making key saves like his predecessor Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers took advantage of a bad turnover to get a huge insurance marker. After Jakub Vrana backhanded a pass to nobody, Kakko chipped a backhand pass up the boards past Zdeno Chara. That resulted in a two-on-one between Strome and Panarin. It was a textbook give and go with Strome getting a pass back from Panarin to tap in his second of the game for a 3-1 lead with 12:05 remaining.
Following a stoppage, Backstrom beat Zibanejad on a draw right back to Ovechkin, who made no mistake by smoking a wrist shot past Shestyorkin with 8:59 left in regulation. It was Ovechkin’s 709th of his career.
During a four-on-four, the Rangers stayed ahead thanks to Shestyorkin, who was under siege most of the third. He turned aside 10 of 11.
Strome nearly had the hat trick but missed. He might want to work on that since he also had Vanecek out of the net earlier and sent a puck wide. No worries though. Panarin and Zibanejad combined to send in Buchnevich for an empty netter at 19:33. It snapped a seven-game drought.
Before the game ended, Vanecek didn’t take kindly to Brendan Lemieux skating by his net. He tripped him up at the buzzer which lead to fisticuffs. While Lemieux somehow avoided facing the music, Rooney stepped in and fought Brendan Dillon. He didn’t win against a very tough Dillon. But earned some more stripes. I don’t know why Lemieux did that for. The game was over. With seven games left, figure the Caps to be coming after him.
At the end of the day, it’s a good character building win. Even with Alexis Lafreniere struggling and David Quinn limiting Hajek and Bitetto to under 10 minutes, this one was special for Bitetto. A Broadway Hat kinda night for the area local.
THREE STARS OF GAME
3rd ⭐ Jacob Trouba, NYR (9 blocks, 4 hits, +1 in 24:42 including 3:56 SH)
2nd ⭐ Anthony Bitetto, NYR (1st goal as a Ranger, +1 in 9:30)
1st ⭐ Ryan Strome, NYR (2 goals, +1 in 21:42)