Sabres take it in a shootout to spoil Kravtsov’s Rangers debut, Panarin’s pair not enough in a disappointing loss to more determined opponent

Vitaly Kravtsov finally donned his number 74 and made a good NHL debut for the Rangers. Unfortunately, after Linus Ullmark robbed him of his first goal, it was the Sabres who took the game in a shootout. AP Photo by New York Rangers via Getty Images

On what was a memorable night for Vitaly Kravtsov, who finally made his NHL debut, the Rangers came up short to the Sabres in a disappointing 3-2 shootout loss Saturday night. This was a good game for Kravtsov, who played relatively well in his first game. He had three shots on goal including a great opportunity to score his first NHL goal only to see Linus Ullmark rob him late in regulation. The 21-year old Russian took 14 shifts all at even strength for 10:45 while playing with Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere.

Kravtsov and those young players who coach David Quinn wasn’t shy about using were not the problem. It was the more experienced players the coaching staff leans on who made enough costly mistakes to blow a point in a frustrating one-goal loss. A Ranger specialty. Especially given their abysmal record in such games. They are now 4-8-5 in games decided by a goal. In other words, the Rangers have won only four times in 17 contests where had they earned a few more points, they wouldn’t be desperately chasing the Bruins for fourth place.

To be brutally honest, they didn’t even deserve a point in this game. They were outplayed, outhustled and outworked by a more scrappy Buffalo team. How else can you explain the zero takeaways they were discredited with? That’s appalling. I’m not a big proponent of the MSG postgame with Chartographology Statmastah Steve Valiquette. But he’s absolutely correct about why they lost this game. They didn’t win many 50/50 battles in the corners. Instead, it was the Sabres who did with even former Blueshirt Steven Fogarty very noticeable. He had two more takeaways than all 18 skaters in Broadway Blue. Simply unacceptable.

Besides that, the Sabres were the better team at five-on-five scoring both their goals on 27 shots. The Rangers wound up with one even strength goal in 24 shots from Artemi Panarin, whose two pair weren’t enough to win the game. The sad part is his second goal that gave the Blueshirts a 2-1 lead shouldn’t have even counted. The play was definitely offside.

The Sabres lost the challenge because the NHL is clueless. The television replay showed that the puck was out when Panarin played it to keep it in. The white ice was proof even if Joe Micheletti denied it. What’s the point of even having coach’s challenges if they can’t get it right? They also should not penalize a team for an unsuccessful one. It’s ridiculous.

Aside from playing down to the competition, who definitely was up for the rematch after getting completely dominated on Thursday night, the Rangers again fiddled around with the puck to waste their last two power plays. It truly was exasperating. They kept over passing instead of shooting the puck. In particular, Ryan Strome was guilty of this on three separate instances when he had wide open shots. No wonder his 11-game point streak is no more. He’s had a superb season, but there are moments where you wonder why he always defers to Panarin, Mika Zibanejad or Chris Kreider. It wasn’t a good game from him or even the Bread Man himself, who was culpable on Victor Olofsson’s tying goal that came with 3:41 left in regulation.

Even Adam Fox, who extended his point streak to 10 with an assist, got caught deep on Buffalo’s first goal. A Casey Mittlestadt finish far post on a two-on-one rush with only Ryan Lindgren back. The goal came less than three minutes following Panarin getting his first of the game when he followed up a broken play to surprise Ullmark, who lost sight of the puck with Kreider in front. That goal came on the power play from Kreider and Fox at 10:02 of the first period. Mittlestadt’s third was set up by Taylor Hall and Rasmus Dahlin at 13:01 to tie the score.

With the first mostly played at five-on-five, Kravtsov received six shifts on the third line for 4:43. It averaged out to 47 seconds per shift. In his first ever period for the team, he made a conscious effort to keep the shifts short and change. A wise thing for a young player making their NHL debut. Chytil would up with 5:23 in seven shifts and Lafreniere received 4:35 in half a dozen shifts. As the game went on, you could see the confidence growing for Kravtsov, who seemed to work well with Lafreniere, who totaled 12:02 in 16 shifts. He even got a long shift in overtime for 1:39 with Colin Blackwell. A rarity for the 19-year old.

The trouble for the Rangers had more to do with the Sabres, who held a 10-9 edge in shots for both the first two periods. They simply weren’t hard enough on the puck. Especially once Mittlestadt was able to beat Shestyorkin. Buffalo got momentum from that goal and carried it forward. They actually were the more dangerous team in the second. That despite Panarin getting a gift at 17:52 of the second when the play was upheld. His 11th of the season was created by a terrific cross-ice feed from Fox that allowed the Bread Man to bury a one-timer past Ullmark for a 2-1 lead with 2:08 left. It was Fox’s 28th helper. He’s up to 32 points as he continues to close the gap on Victor Hedman. As nice as that is, individual awards are secondary to winning games. Save that stuff for some other blog.

Making his third straight start, Shestyorkin was very good again. He made 27 saves including some key ones to give his flat lining team a chance even though it was far from their best hockey. There were times where he fought the puck to allow some rebounds. But Quinn was pleased with the play of his improving rookie netminder, lost due to a skill competition. One that wasn’t even his fault.

Over his last four starts, he’s 2-1-1 despite allowing two goals in each outing. That should be good enough to win on this team. But when you mix in mind numbing losses like the defeat to the Flyers a week ago along with Saturday’s disappointment, it explains why this isn’t a playoff team. They’ve had plenty of opportunities to gain ground on Boston. Instead, they now trail them by four points with 19 games remaining. The Bruins still have three extra games to make up including a boatload versus the Sabres, who suddenly have earned five points of a possible six.

With the Penguins coming up on the schedule this week for two, you better believe there’s some urgency. It’s put up or shut up. This week will determine the Rangers’ fate. That includes the April 12 Trade Deadline, which is only eight days away. The organization will face some tough decisions a week from tomorrow. We’ll have a better idea what GM Jeff Gorton and Team President John Davidson will have planned.

In the third period with the team in the drivers seat, they never put away the Sabres. Instead, they let them get off the mat and take advantage of some very sloppy play from Panarin. For as good as he is, there are instances where he will turn over the puck. Unfortunately, he picked a very bad time to make a lazy play. With the team protecting a one-goal lead, Sam Reinhart forced Panarin into a misplay. He stole the puck and moved it to Kyle Okposo. The veteran quickly found the dangerous Victor Olofsson alone in the slot for one of his deadly one-timers that went right past Shestyorkin to tie the score at 16:19.

Just brutal. It was a lackadaisical decision from the team’s best player. Although you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Blueshirt than the indispensable Fox this year. The minutes he logs along with his brilliant play is why he’s in the conversation for the Norris. He wound up playing 28:08 and padding his assist total to 29 with his primary helper on the tainted Panarin goal in the second period. So, I misspoke. He has 33 points. Partner Ryan Lindgren also picked up his 12th helper. More known for the physical edge he brings with a good example late when he got right in Okposo’s face following a scrum, Lindgren continues to improve. He remains the ultimate warrior for the Blueshirts.

I also want to praise Blackwell for similar intensity. He might only be 5-8 on skates. But he doesn’t back down from anyone. He was right in the face of the Sabres post whistle. I can’t say enough good things about him. I know a few people couldn’t understand why he got an OT shift with Lafreniere. Have they paid attention? It was the same duo that was successful that resulted in Laffy13’s first NHL goal in overtime.

I would’ve liked to have seen Kaapo Kakko get a shift in three-on-three. He drew another penalty and didn’t do anything wrong. But he never saw a shift in extras. Quinn went with Zibanejad-Panarin-Fox, Blackwell-Lafreniere-Miller with Chytil, Pavel Buchnevich and Strome also getting shifts. Somewhat curiously, Kreider never got a single OT shift. So, it wasn’t only Kakko who didn’t play. Even Jacob Trouba was out for a brief stint.

If there was an opportunity to grab the two points, it was on a very good shift from Kravtsov late in regulation. After hustling back to deny a Sabres chance, he stayed on with Zibanejad. On sheer effort, a diving Kravtsov had a rebound ticketed for the Buffalo net until Ullmark robbed him blind. Had that gone in, what a great story it would’ve been. So close. Give Ullmark credit. He never gave up on it and made the monster save with 1:55 left in regulation.

The three-on-three wasn’t exactly riveting. In perhaps as tactical an OT as you’ll see due to the redundant resets that have turned the artificial part of the hockey into a bore, neither side budged. It was a well defended five minutes where neither goalie had to come up with a defining stop. So, it went to the shootout.

Boy, did our shooters come up small. Following a Shestyorkin save on Olofsson, Panarin danced as if he was in a ballerina. Ullmark didn’t go for one fake to easily turn him aside after Round One. In the top of the second, here came Tage Thompson with a great deke and missile that beat Shestyorkin short side with not much room. Then came Zibanejad, who I have no idea what he was doing. His forehand try was easy pickings for Ullmark. With a chance to end it, Mittlestadt tried to go backhand but was stuffed by Shestyorkin.

Out came Kakko in the last of the third. He was so good recently that it made sense to use him. However, his move to the backhand never even hit the net, sending the Sabres off the bench all smiles. They’re now hot. They have points in their last four going 2-0-2. To be honest, they could have a four-game win streak. They should’ve beat the Flyers twice. Madness.

While it was an encouraging start for Kravtsov, this was a discouraging loss for the Rangers. Now, it’s back to the drawing board. While they’re off the next two days, they’ll be watching the Flyers and Bruins this Monday. If you want the playoffs as Sean McCaffrey does of, you root for a Flyers win in regulation. No three-point game.

The Blueshirts have the Pens visiting Madison Square Garden twice on Tuesday and Thursday. They then must travel to Nassau Coliseum for a match-up with the hated Islanders this Friday. That means three big rivalry games over four days. Then a fourth in six next Sunday at the Isles. These four games are enormous. It’ll determine what they do.

Following those four are a ridiculous four-game series with the Devils from April 13-18. That will follow the Trade Deadline. That’s all for now. Wasted chances should be the title of the 2021 New York Rangers season. Until next time. For those who celebrate, Happy Easter. To my Jewish followers, Happy Passover.


3rd 🌟 Linus Ullmark, Sabres (28 saves including highway robbery on Kravtsov, stopped all 3 Rangers shooters)

2nd 🌟 Adam Fox, NYR (2 more 🍎 giving him 29, 28:08 of ice time)

1st 🌟 Tage Thompson, Sabres (shootout winner, 3 SOG in 16:37)

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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