Lafreniere and Zibanejad score in key win for Rangers over Capitals, Strome goal and assist

Getty Images Courtesy New York Rangers

Earlier this afternoon, the Rangers made it two in a row in the win column. They went into DC and handled the Capitals 4-1. It’s a game I didn’t watch. Instead, I listened to it courtesy of the returning Kenny Albert and Dave Maloney on ESPN Radio.

Albert had been on special assignment filling in admirably for COVID recovering Devils TV announcer Steve Cangialosi. I’m glad Cangialosi was able to return to the booth. That meant Albert back with the Blueshirts and sidekick Maloney. One day soon, those two could be the future of MSG replacing Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti. That’s all I’ll say about it.

I do enjoy the camaraderie Kenny and Dave have on the radio side calling and breaking down the action. It works. It’s similar to Bob Papa and Carl Banks calling the Giants. They definitely enjoyed themselves for a second consecutive game. It’s a lot more fun when the team wins. In doing so, they followed up a 3-2 shootout win at the Flyers by defeating a healthier opponent in their building. Good for team chemistry.

As bad as they were in the deflating 5-2 home loss to the Devils, that’s how good they played versus Alex Ovechkin and the Caps. It’s a bit strange. But they’re two-for-two against Washington winning both games comfortably. On the flip side, they are 0-for-2 versus the Devils.

Maybe it says something for how hard the Devils compete compared to the Caps, who are coached by Peter Laviolette. A former Stanley Cup winner with the Hurricanes, he’s now switched from Nashville to Washington. A proven coach, he prefers high tempo emphasizing offense with man to man defense. Something that doesn’t always work. They got off to a good start not losing in regulation for the first nine games. However, wins have been tough to come by recently. Ever since the Rangers exposed them on Feb. 4 by winning 4-2, they’ve only won twice over the last seven counting today. They give up a lot of shots, goals and quality scoring chances.

It was a good match-up for the Blueshirts. For the second time this month, they put up four goals against Washington. Dating back to last year highlighted by the memorable Mika Zibanejad five goal game with the overtime winner for a 6-5 triumph, they’ve now won the last four versus the Caps. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As talented as they are led by future Hall of Famer Ovechkin and great center Nicklas Backstrom, Washington isn’t known for its defense. They boast some superb players including John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. But they’re not hard to play against.

In fact, the Caps have leaned heavily on rookie Vitek Vanecek. The 25-year old Czech made his 13th straight start with Ilya Samsonov just activated off the COVID Protocol list. Craig Anderson has been the backup. In other words, Laviolette didn’t have much choice. So, the Calder candidate was in goal again. He didn’t face as many shots, but the Rangers beat him three times on the 23 they got on Vanecek. The last shot being into an open net by the very thankful Mika Zibanejad, who needed one in the worst way.

One of the differences in this game were the changes David Quinn made to the lines. Skating without Kaapo Kakko, who’s back in COVID Protocol (hopefully not serious), Quinn finally decided to listen to me and break up the KZB Line. I had suggested flipping Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to the second line with Ryan Strome while moving up Artemi Panarin to play with Zibanejad. That’s exactly what he did except he bumped up slumping top pick Alexis Lafreniere to work with the top two forwards. It paid dividends.

Also of note, K’Andre Miller returned to the lineup after missing two games due to the notorious upper-body injury. They definitely needed him on a blue line that’s without top four defenseman Jacob Trouba (broken thumb), who’ll be out anywhere from four to six weeks. As critical as I’ve been over Trouba due to the inconsistency with him overpaid at an average of $8 million, he’s an important player. Quinn counts on him to log big minutes at five-on-five, power play and the much improved penalty kill under new assistant Jacques Martin. He gets full credit for the vast improvement on the kill and the evolving defense that’s not allowing as many shots or high danger chances.

Without Trouba, it looks like it’ll be invaluable extra defenseman Brendan Smith working with Miller, who remains poised for his age. He didn’t show any rust. The third pair appears to be the rejuvenated Libor Hajek with popular Island Park native Anthony Bitetto. A character player that’s been a good addition. He even picked up another point with an assist on a goal. Don’t forget his nifty backhand highlight reel tally against these same Caps.

Of course, the bulk of the minutes falls on top pair Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. Fox of course handling the most due to the power play time along with everything else. It’s astonishing to have such a good young defenseman, who’s by far the best this team has. He’s extremely mature and makes many subtle defensive plays look easy. It isn’t. It’s still gonna be a challenge for him and Lindgren. They are that vital. We’ll see how they hold up.

In regards to who popped in for Kakko, it was none other than Julien Gauthier. He only drew two penalties despite playing on the fourth line. I would really like to see more of him. But how’s it possible when eventually Kakko and the forgotten Filip Chytil will return? Who comes out? At this point, I’d scratch Brett Howden. As hard as he plays, he’s only good at face-offs and the penalty kill. They have Kevin Rooney for that. There’s no way Brendan Lemieux should be out of the lineup. He has played well. So too has Colin Blackwell, who can kill penalties and take draws occasionally.

You have to reward the guys who are contributing more. No disrespect to Howden, who doesn’t take shifts off. Unless he suddenly discovers whatever made him a first round pick, he’s the odd man out. Will Quinn do it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Getting to the game, it was one the Rangers played well in. Following a successful penalty kill of a Hajek high stick, they earned consecutive power plays. The first was hideous. Just listening to Maloney describe it told you everything. Quinn went back to his normal top unit that produced nothing. The second unit was so bad that they couldn’t get out of their end. This was not good.

However, after Gauthier drew a hooking minor on Lars Eller with under six minutes left in the period, the Rangers man-advantage went to work. This time, they executed to perfection to set up the game’s first goal. It was the play of the reformed top unit that got it done. A Strome dish for a Panarin one-timer with Kreider in front leaked right to Kreider, who buried an easy rebound for his fifth at 14:57. A rather simple formula that works. It made it two straight games with a power play goal.

The second stanza was a bit odd. There was no scoring for the first 17 minutes. It was the steady play of rookie netminders Vanecek and Igor Shestyorkin that kept the game at one goal. Unlike the first when the Caps had a slight edge in shots 8-6, the teams combined for 24 with the Rangers holding a 13-11 edge. Each side killed off a power play. With it looking like the score wouldn’t change, suddenly it did in a wild conclusion to the period.

There were three goals scored within a 1:37 time span. That included a pair from the Rangers less than a minute apart from Lafreniere and Strome. The first one came when Panarin made a great read to see up the 19-year old rookie for his first goal since the overtime winner at Buffalo last month. The big difference being this came at five-on-five in regulation for Lafreniere. After Bitetto fed Panarin, Lafreniere was wide open in front. Panarin waited before passing the puck to him where he was able to flip a backhand past Vanecek at 17:44.

On the next shift, out came the new second line. After taking a pass from Lindgren at an open point, Strome was able to send an innocent looking wrist shot that found its mark thanks to a Kreider screen to make it 3-0 at 18:43. It was also his fifth and gave him a two-point game. I’ve been on record as saying he receives too much criticism from some unrealistic fans. The effort is usually there. Maybe he can produce without Panarin. Buchnevich and Kreider are good players. Congrats to Strome on his 100th career NHL goal. He also became the first player to record 100 points with both the Islanders and Rangers.

With it looking like they were completely in control, a late Caps goal from an unlikely source changed that. On really a simple play, Dmitry Orlov took a Nick Jensen pass and skated past Zibanejad and had his stoppable wrist shot sneak through Shestyorkin. It wasn’t a good goal. It came with over 38 seconds left in the period and cut the lead to 3-1.

Rather than let the Caps make things interesting, the Rangers didn’t in the third. There were two power plays for each side. But the dangerous Washington man-advantage didn’t do any damage. This was due to the improved penalty killing unit. They take away options and are more aggressive, able to get key clears when they need it. They also are now winning face-offs. Facing a good team in the dot, the Rangers won 32-of-56 with Zibanejad dominating by going 15-and-8. Strome also was over .500 by winding up 6-and-5. They limited the Caps’ power play to three shots in four opportunities. That is a great job.

With Bitetto off for holding, Laviolette went for it early. His team wasn’t generating much offense. So, he went for the six-on-four advantage. The last time these teams met, Buchnevich scored into an empty net to end a goal drought. This time, it was his buddy Zibanejad’s turn. A not so great funny clear from the center ice by the boards took a favorable bounce and went in for a shorthanded empty netter for the top center. He got a little monkey off his back from a funny Buchnevich. Very nice.

Maybe that goal gets him going. I know it was an open net. But when you have as many chances as Zibanejad has had that haven’t gone in, sometimes it only takes seeing the puck go in that does wonders from a mental aspect. The Blueshirts can only hope so.

They’re now off until Wednesday when they visit the Flyers again. That one is on NBCSN. Maybe I’ll watch it. That’s how sick I am of the MSG broadcast which features the dull Steve Valiquette and his off putting charts. I call such nonsense staterrific and scienterrific to my friend JPG. Hahaha. Wait till he sees this. He got a mention. I also made up a third new term called Chartographology. I’m not kidding. Ask John or Brian. This is who I am.

It was fun to finally recap a win that didn’t require extras. I sure hope Laffy13 stays with Zibanejad and Panarin, who’s amazingly productive despite the lack of offense. That all could change if Zibanejad and Kreider get going.

As bad as it’s been, the Rangers find themselves 6-7-3 with 15 points. Believe it or not, another win and that’s called, “a winning streak. It has happened before.” I’ll never get sick of the late great James Gammon as the memorable Lou Brown from Major League. That would put them back at NHL .500.

I know I don’t plug myself or our blog too much. But I can be followed on Twitter or Facebook.

Twitter: Dflex2123

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Maybe one of these days, I’ll do another podcast on the state of the Blueshirts over on Anchor. If I do, I’ll be sure to post it here.


3rd 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR (5th goal on power play, +1 in 16:07)

2nd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, NYR (2 primary assists in 16:17)

1st 🌟 Ryan Strome, NYR (5th of season plus 🍎, +1 in 16:49)

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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