Blueshirts skate by lifeless Sabres in a sleep fest, Mr. Happy has a goal and assist in one-goal win, Chytil returns, Buffalo misery


Two points is two points. You don’t get style points for winning a hockey game. Even if it left a lot to be desired. The Rangers skated by the lifeless Sabres for a 3-2 win at MSG. They did what they had to do to defeat a miserable opponent who looked like they couldn’t beat a peewee team.

That doesn’t matter. It wasn’t memorable hockey played at 33rd and 8th. It didn’t have to be. Boosted by the return of Filip Chytil, who looked good despite not taking face-offs, they bounced back from Sunday’s ugly loss. It was a must win.

Now, they’ll try to get a victory for the first time this year against the Devils. They’re 0-for-2 so far. The Blueshirts have two more chances this Thursday and Saturday against their Hudson rivals, who are struggling. They lost to the Islanders 2-1 with a Miles Wood goal with 12.3 seconds left in regulation preventing a shutout. We’ll see if our side is more successful in the upcoming two-game series with both in Newark.

This tweet I posted doesn’t say much about tonight’s game. The mere fact the Rangers only could muster eight shots the final two periods against the Sabres isn’t encouraging. They got lulled to sleep in a very dull game.

Buffalo might be the worst NHL team. They’re leaderless due to captain Jack Eichel deciding to go through the motions. He really looks disinterested. Outside of setting up a Sam Reinhart goal to tie the game in the first wild minute, the much discussed number one center was invisible. I don’t want to hear any trade rumors about him the rest of the season. If that’s how he wants to play, count me out. I don’t think it makes sense for our team. That’s all I’ll say. He isn’t going anywhere until the off-season.

As for the game, what can be said? Pavel Buchnevich had his best night in a while scoring and setting up a goal in a good first period. He got the scoring started at the 28-second mark when Mika Zibanejad sent him in behind a putrid Sabres defense and he beat Carter Hutton with a quick snapshot. Adam Fox picked up a secondary assist.

But before Sam Rosen and the ridiculous Joe Micheletti could stop crowing over how this could be the night for Zibanejad to finally score a goal, the Sabres replied back on the next shift. On a quick counter in which Brendan Smith fell down, Eichel and Victor Olofsson combined to feed Reinhart for his eighth at 55 seconds to tie the score. All I could do was laugh.

Proving how bad they are, the Sabres donated the goal right back. Less than two minutes later off a Zibanejad forecheck, a Buffalo turnover allowed Buchnevich to steal the puck and patiently wait for Brandon Montour to go down. With Hutton dead to rights, Buchnevich shot in front with the puck deflecting off Alexis Lafreniere and in for his third at 2:36. It gave the 2020 top pick a three-game point streak for the first time in his career. He has a goal and two assists.

Things are starting to click for Lafreniere. He’s starting to look more comfortable playing with Buchnevich and Zibanejad. The improvement from the rookie left wing even saw David Quinn reward him with the most ice-time among Ranger forwards with 18:35. He was even out protecting the one-goal lead on the second to last shift of the game. That shows more confidence in an evolving young player, who’s finally starting to get it. The best sign to come out of the win.

In terms of storylines, there wasn’t a whole lot else. Chytil returning meant Jonny Brodzinski sitting out as a healthy scratch. However, with Kaapo Kakko finally removed from COVID Protocol, look for him to be cleared soon. When he is, someone else will sit. The candidates are Brett Howden and Julien Gauthier. I’m not going to comment on this. Let’s wait and see what Quinn decides. Here were how the lines looked:

Lafreniere-Zibanejad-Buchnevich

Kreider-Strome-Blackwell

Rooney-Chytil-Gauthier

Lemieux-Howden-Di Giuseppe

With Chytil unable to take face-offs, Rooney filled in. After having two strong games in a row, he didn’t win a single one in six draws. Not good. At least Zibanejad had a good night, going 8-for-11 while Ryan Strome broke even winding up 7-and-7. The top two centers combined for 15 of their 18 face-off wins. Overall, the Rangers went 18-for-44. Hardly a good outcome. The only thing Eichel did well was win draws going 10-and-8. Otherwise, you hardly noticed him.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. The Rangers had one good period. They played well in the first period, eventually settling down to outshoot the Sabres 11-9. Afterwards, Buffalo held a 15-8 edge in shots the rest of the way. That won’t cut it against real competition.

To be honest, they were lucky to win this game. If not for Hutton completely missing a Chris Kreider long shot off a simple play near the midway point of the game, they could’ve lost. Kreider’s shocked reaction summed it up. His wrist shot that beat Hutton high glove proved to be the game-winner. Make it six goals and seven points over his last five games. He’s always been a streaky scorer. Right now, he’s hot. His best stretch has allowed the Rangers to win twice without exiled top scorer Artemi Panarin. He’s up to 10 goals.

Where are all the Kreider critics? Did they go into hibernation like hopefully winter? Let’s face it. This team doesn’t have many finishers. Where would they be without him? I’d rather not imagine. Even without a stitched ‘C’ on his jersey, it’s number 20 who is the emotional leader of this roster. He usually nails it when interviewed in this COVID Era. Win or lose, he tells it like it is. He might not have been made available following the game. Instead, Buchnevich and Igor Shestyorkin talked along with Quinn.

It was kind of interesting to see Mr. Happy answer questions from reporters via Zoom Conference. He didn’t smile once. This after a very good game in which he could’ve had a hat trick. He missed a great chance on a Zibanejad feed with an open net. He also had another great opportunity that went by the wayside at the end of the game. Maybe the Rangers should hire a shooter tutor on empty nets. If you’ve seen Buchnevich and Strome in action, it might be a good idea.

Listening to Quinn following the game, he basically acknowledged the obvious. That for whatever reason, they didn’t play close to their best game. He doesn’t seem to understand why his team looked like it has over the last two. I don’t know what to say. He’s the coach. You’d think by Year Three, Quinn would have more of a grasp on his roster. Even if it’s young, there are enough players he knows to get a good read on things. They better not pull that next game versus the Devils. They won’t be so lucky.

With the Rangers ahead by a pair, it was the Sabres who nudged closer in a sleep inducing second period. A Tobias Rieder long shot from inside the blue line went through a good Dylan Cozens screen past Shestyorkin to cut the lead to 3-2 with 3:39 remaining. Igor picked up the shot late due to traffic. Even though he was hard on himself during the postgame, I don’t fault him for that one. It was a good play by Rieder to shoot with Cozens doing the grunt work. Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen picked up the helpers.

I know he didn’t face as overwhelming workload. But Shestyorkin made some key saves throughout. His best coming when he thwarted the hexed Jeff Skinner pointblank off a great pass. That critical stop kept the Rangers in front by a goal prior to Kreider sniping. There were other big stops as the 25-year old Russian netminder had a good night finishing with 22 saves to pick up the win.

It’s funny how Skinner never is used with good players by Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger. He was easily their best forward throughout. Playing mostly on the third line with Curtis Lazar, he had three shots and nine attempts. Some of the misses dangerous during the third when the Rangers only had three total shots. The crazy part is the Sabres themselves only had five. How do they expect to tie the game with such a lackluster effort? Even Teflon MSG analyst Steve Valiquette took a shot at them.

To summarize, Valiquette said that it looks like the Sabres have given up on the season. Think about that for a minute. They just got finished playing Game 20 of a 56-game schedule. They’re now 6-11-3 and dead last in the new Patrick Division. I refuse to refer to it as East. That’s ridiculous.

The Rangers themselves improved to 8-9-3 in 20 games. Hardly anything to write home about. They have 19 points to the Sabres’ 15. But when you watch Buffalo play, you begin to understand why they’re so bad. There’s not much fire. Give Cozens credit for accepting Ryan Lindgren’s challenge and throwing down. That kid has spunk. He even got the better of the exchange.

Who else on the Sabres played well? Not Eichel. Certainly not the misplaced Taylor Hall, who found himself with Kyle “Zero Goal” Okposo. What kind of circus are they running over there? They sat Casey Mittlestadt so Okposo and Cody Eakin could play. That’s insane. Mittlestadt actually had played well since returning. Surely, they can’t keep Krueger as coach. He’s misusing a lot of key guys they spent money on. No wonder Eichel wants out.

When I’m spending more time on the opponent than the Rangers, you know how bad it is. My best friend is a huge Sabres fan who has no hope. He barely watches them. Can you blame him? How many years can they keep missing the postseason and be in the Lottery? What is their plan? A 20-year rebuild? It’s absurd. That team has no structure and hideous defense. They lost guys to injuries including Jake McCabe and Will Borgen. It’s no excuse for how poorly they play.

The Rangers were lucky they played such a pathetic opponent. They got away with playing down to the competition. I’d rather play more competitive teams and win those games. The win over the Bruins was that. You know for as bad as they’re struggling, the Devils will be ready to go in less than 48 hours. They just aren’t scoring much. But I’m sure their eyes will light up when they see the Rangers logo. They’ve already handled us twice at The Garden. That was bad enough. This is a chance at payback.

With the team getting healthier, they have a chance here to get back to NHL .500 and above. Get the next two games and they can get right back in it. The Flyers, Pens and even Caps don’t exactly look like juggernauts. There’s ground to make up. But it’s not too late. You can get back in it quickly with all these divisional match-ups.

That’s all I have to say. If they’re gonna make a run, now’s the time for it. Two against the Devils followed by a pair versus the Penguins. Assuming Panarin doesn’t return by Saturday, that’s another two games without him. It’s another opportunity for other Blueshirts to step up. We’re still waiting on you, Zibanejad.

Before I forget, Happy Birthday to Henrik Lundqvist! It was his 39th birthday yesterday. Hope he enjoyed it. It’s nice to see him back skating. Best wishes to King Henrik.

THREE STARS OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Igor Shestyorkin, NYR (22 saves including 14 of 15 the last 2 periods)

2nd 🌟 Adam Fox, NYR (2 assists, +1 in 23:47)

1st 🌟 Pavel Buchnevich, NYR (goal plus 🍎, 4 SOG, +2 in 18:11)

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 New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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