Igor Shestyorkin gets a hug from Alexis Lafreniere. He deserved it. AP Photo by New York Rangers courtesy Getty Images
It was a strange night at 33rd and 8th. For starters, the Rangers looked dead in the early going against the visiting Caps. Washington jumped all over them by scoring twice less than two minutes apart. In fact, they had the game’s first nine shots. In what could’ve easily been a four or five goal first period, Igor Shestyorkin wouldn’t let it happen. His outstanding play allowed the Rangers to regroup and pull out a well deserved come from behind 5-2 win over the Caps.
If ever a starting goalie made a difference, it was in this one. Following early tallies from T.J. Oshie (power play) and Nic Dowd (five-on-five), it was the Igor Show at Mask Square Garden over Penn Station. He stopped the swarming Caps in their tracks like a speeding train suddenly halted. The Amtrak to Washington won’t be as smooth for Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps. They couldn’t put away the Rangers early. Shestyorkin stopped them from a runaway train. Otherwise, maybe it’s a one-sided game and bad night we’re talking about. He halted 10 of 12 shots to stem the tide.
After the Capitals jumped out to a 9-0 lead in shots, the Rangers finally woke up from their malaise. Filip Chytil scored a big momentum turning goal and the Blueshirts got 10 of the final 13 shots of the strange opening period. Things sure changed. In more of a defensive minded second period that saw the Caps hold a 10-6 shots edge, time and space was taken away. There was no room to make plays. Both old Patrick Division rivals buckled down to turn it into a tight checking affair. The kind that was expected following Sunday’s chaos.
If you want to point to where this game was won, it was probably during the halfway point of the first. But Shestyorkin made a few key stops in that middle stanza with 10 altogether. He gave them a chance. After being criticized repeatedly by an incensed Joe Micheletti on the MSG telecast, the Blueshirts finally responded by shooting the puck in a resounding third period which saw them methodically outscore the Caps 4-0 to take the pivotal game.
It was important to bounce back following the lost weekend where they fell by a goal to both the Flyers and Capitals. As strange a game as it was, they persevered in a superb final period to grab the two points from their DC rivals. It was the Foxy and Bread Man Special. Of course, I’m referring to Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin. Their impact was the difference in a four-goal third that put the Blueshirts back over NHL .500 (16-15-4). Points 35 and 36 helped them stay within striking distance of the Bruins, who rallied past the Devils to win 5-4 in a shootout. They trail Boston by five points for fourth and remain two behind idle Philadelphia for fifth in the East Division. Boston has three extra games left. The Rangers have two more regulation wins with 14. But it won’t matter unless they catch up. There are 21 games remaining.
Let’s get to the eerie particulars of this game. For some mystifying reason, the Rangers weren’t ready at puck drop. With Shestyorkin back in net following the Keith Kinkaid debacle, he was on his own for a while. Demonstrating how out of sorts they were, Kevin Rooney took a lazy holding minor penalty by reaching out with his left arm on Nick Jensen.
The game was barely two minutes old when Oshie struck for his ninth on the power play at 2:23. The penalty kill allowed too much gap space. John Carlson got the puck to Nicklas Backstrom, who waited for Oshie to skate out high so he could make a perfect seam pass that Oshie buried top shelf for a 1-0 lead.
Keeping with the momentum, the Caps broke out in transition and scored their second goal in 1:59. This was a weird one. Garnet Hathaway was able to get a step and try a backhand stuff that Shestyorkin got. However, with the puck not fully covered and Libor Hajek not doing a good enough job of pushing the puck under Shestyorkin, Dowd was able to score a gritty goal by stuffing in the rebound. The odd part is the officials stopped play and then noticed that the loose puck was under Shestyorkin’s skate over the goal line. Wisely, the league initiated a review and after careful consideration, correctly ruled it a good goal. That put the Rangers in a two-goal hole.
Still struggling with an aggressive Washington attack, they ceded the blue line and kept allowing point blank opportunities. Shestyorkin made at least five quality saves to prevent a Caps destruction. It easily could’ve been four or five zip. Oshie nearly had his second of the period when Ovechkin tried to get a pass across for what looked like a gimme. But a good defensive play broke up the chance.
With the team unable to test Vitek Vanecek during a lopsided first half, Kaapo Kakko had one of those WTF moments that drives fans nuts. After making a good move into the slot, he waited too long before predictably having his shot blocked. It really was frustrating. Sometimes, you have to simplify things. Something a perplexed Micheletti repeated throughout the first two periods. I don’t know if it’s due to their style. The Rangers have a tendency to over skate and pass too much. They also defer often to key shooters Panarin and Mika Zibanejad on the only five man full two-minute unit. That’s how long they overstay their shifts. It’s kind of ridiculous.
What looked like a potential blowout turned around following a Washington bench minor. Predictably, the five man PP unit accomplished nothing. Aside from Panarin hitting a crossbar with the whole top half of the net to shoot at, it was mind-numbing. There wasn’t enough execution. So much so that again like a broken record, Micheletti called out the power play. They only went 0-for-2. But it was the level of frustration that was evident. You can’t be so deliberate on every five-on-four. Is it any wonder assistant David Oliver was back from COVID? Not to blame him solely. But he is the guy drawing it up. If it’s not working, make an adjustment. Or try Pavel Buchnevich, Kakko, Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller.
Speaking of Chytil, he turned the game around. On a poor play at the point from Dmitry Orlov, an aggressive Chytil stripped him of the puck and broke in on Vanecek for a beautiful snipe. He faked and went to a forehand deke to beat the Czech rookie netminder at 15:36. His sixth goal was unassisted. All due to a great read and strong defensive play. Maybe that goal he had last week from Lafreniere was a confidence boost. The team needs Chytil to perform. That goal was the single biggest moment of the game. It also came right after Backstrom hit the goalpost. Had he scored to make it 3-0, who knows. Instead, Chytil made a game changing play to give his team momentum.
It’s not even worth going over the second man-advantage Zdeno Chara gave them late in the first with it extending to the start of the second. That’s how awful it was. Like the Groundhog seeing his shadow. Until Quinn and Oliver change it, don’t expect much. It’s hit or miss.
The second period was way different. There was less time to make plays. Both teams adjusted their strategy by playing better defensively. Something I anticipated. Honestly though, the Capitals blew their chance in the first. They should’ve been up more. Only Shestyorkin prevented it. He finished with 30 saves and won his third consecutive game since returning. A great sign.
The reason the Rangers only got half a dozen shots on Vanecek was again due to their predictability. Their refusal to shoot was not only driving fans crazy, but Micheletti cuckoo. How many times can a Rangers skater pass up on a wide open shot? Buchnevich did it at least twice. He deferred once to a covered Zibanejad. Of course, the pass never got through. He entered with 31 points in 33 games. To quote the late great Bill “The Big Whistle” Chadwick, “SHOOT THE PUCK PAVEL!!!!!” Of course, it was Shoot The Puck Barry (Beck).
“You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
It definitely was exasperating. In an evenly played period they still trailed by a goal thanks to more splendid goaltending from Shestyorkin when the Caps turned a power play into a shooting gallery, the Rangers were their own worst enemy. Had Shestyorkin not made some of the saves he did with Phil “One Goal” Di Giuseppe off for tripping Backstrom, it’s a different ballgame. He was great. He denied Oshie on a similar set up and gloved a Evgeny Kuznetsov try. Thanks to Igor, the Rangers still trailed by just one after two periods of play.
Whatever they did wrong over the first 40 minutes, they did right in the final 20. What a third period it was. For eight straight periods, Panarin had been awfully quiet. He hadn’t done anything. In the third, the Bread Man rose like baked bread. Although I can’t have any due to Passover. Happy Passover to those who celebrate. Finally, Panarin made an impact.
On a very bad Chara turnover at the Rangers blue line, Panarin intercepted the pass and took off to start a quick transition. He moved the puck down low to Ryan Strome, who found a driving Kakko (will wonders ever cease) for an easy finish for the tying goal at 4:10. It was a splendid play by all three. With the primary helper, Strome extended his point streak to 10 straight. Over that span, a pleased Sam Rosen said Strome has 15 points. To his blind cynics, is last year still a fluke? He might not always hit the net. But boy is he consistent. He’s turned the awful “hot takes” beet red. They are probably fuming. And they call themselves “fans.”
With the game tied, Panarin wasn’t done. Following a good play from. Ryan Lindgren, Panarin was somehow able to slip the puck to a pinching Fox, who was in alone with Vanecek. He made like another unnamed Rangers all-time great defenseman and faked before whipping a beautiful backhand top shelf. “Where Mama Hides The Cookies!” I had to get a reference in from legendary and poor Sabres broadcaster Rick Jeanneret. He doesn’t do many games anymore with it being his 50th season. But if they’re at home, you can sometimes luck into catching Rick do his thing. He still has the voice. I wish to God the Sabres end their losing streak against the Flyers and not versus us. Pretty please. They’re next up on the schedule.
What can be said about Foxy. He’s been unbelievable. All those points he’s racking up aren’t by coincidence. He is the only true offensive defenseman this team has. They lean on him so heavily for everything. From five-on-five to penalty kill to power play, Adam Fox is proving he can do it all. He’s third now among NHL defensemen in scoring. He’s now a candidate for the Norris. Yes. It’ll probably go to Victor Hedman, who’s far and away the best defenseman in hockey. But Fox is sure to get some votes. Where he winds up I don’t know or care. But it’ll be interesting to see him finish in the upper echelon. He’s definitely in the Top 10. I had him ninth a few days ago. He keeps rising. I’ll save the other candidates for another day.
Anyway, Fox’s fourth from Panarin and Lindgren (2 assists) came at 6:32. That’s 2:22 after Kakko got his fifth to knot up the game. Did he ever need it. You don’t measure success by scoring against teams in the NHL basement. Let’s just say that Kakko goal is more meaningful because of who it came against. Especially after he refused to shoot the puck. That was bigger than Fox continuing his Norris candidacy.
One of the things I really liked about this period was the Rangers’ relentlessness. They didn’t stop attacking. Lafreniere attempted a couple of shots. A welcome sight. He actually had a good one earlier when nobody was shooting. He did receive over 10 minutes tonight. It was positive. Julien Gauthier got a little less, but remained effective playing on the Kid Line.
The Capitals did up their play following Fox’s goal. But any shot they sent towards Shestyorkin was repelled with confidence. He got stronger as the game went on. He turned aside all 10 Washington shots in the period. He got some insurance from the one and only Bread Man.
With Washington pressing the issue down a goal with under five minutes left, Brendan Smith was able to thread a great stretch pass for a sneaky Panarin, who got behind the Caps’ defense. It was the second time I can remember Smith making such a great pass that lead to a goal. This one sent the Bread Man in on a breakaway. With the 1,761 fans making noise, he didn’t disappoint by pulling off a shoulder shrug and wicked backhand top cheese for his ninth with 4:19 remaining. That gave him three points with all of them coming in the third. Clutch. He’s now up to 32 points (9-23-32).
There would be a little bit of animosity late. With Vanecek lifted for an extra attacker, Smith gave Oshie a hard crosscheck from behind to give the Caps a power play with 70 seconds left in regulation. It wasn’t a good play. Not surprisingly, Tom Wilson didn’t like it. He had words for Smith, who’s made it a habit lately of agitating one of the game’s toughest power forwards. Wilson had recently served a seven-game suspension for a high hit that injured Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo. He actually is finally back for Boston. In the end, cooler heads prevailed.
With the Caps skating six-on-four, the Blueshirts knew they could shoot for the empty net. As usual, the penalty kill forced a turnover that allowed Buchnevich to fire the puck down for the empty net to close it out with 35 seconds left. Lindgren picked up his second helper. He quietly has 11 assists for the season. A solid number for the physical warrior that pairs up with Fox, who gets most of the ink. Don’t forget what Lindgren has meant. What a gem he’s turned into since coming over from Boston as part of the Rick Nash trade. One of GM Jeff Gorton’s best with him eventually turning Ryan Spooner into Strome. Hahahaha Edmonton. Holy moly.
This was a nice win at the right time. A third period comeback too. Of course, Wilson did act up following the Buchnevich empty netter, earning an early start on his shower. If you didn’t enjoy it, then you’re in the wrong line of business. I also enjoyed watching UCLA hold off Michigan later. Sorry to all the Blue fans out there. They gagged it up.
I guess at least one team rocking the blue mattered on this night. 😁 Next up are those Sabres for a daily double on Thursday and Saturday. I’m only gonna say this once. Especially after they blew a three-goal lead at home to the fragile Flyers at home. The Blueshirts don’t want to be the team that loses to the Sabres. Let’s Go Buffalo tonight!
THREE STARS OF GAME
3rd 🌟 Adam Fox, NYR (game-winning goal for 4th of season, +2 in 23:11)
2nd 🌟 Igor Shestyorkin, NYR (30 saves on 32 shots, 3-0 since his return)
1st 🌟 Artemi Panarin, NYR (3-point third 1-2-3, +3 in 19:44)
Funny. Kaapo Kakko. A Man of Few Words.