It was the play of the kids including goalscorer Alexis Lafreniere celebrating with Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil that sparked the Rangers to a good 4-1 win over the Islanders. AP Photo by New York Rangers courtesy Getty Images
Over the course of 24 hours, the Rangers flipped the script. Coming off one of their most disappointing losses at home, they went into Long Island and handed the blood rival Islanders only their second loss in regulation on home ice.
In a resounding performance, it was the more youthful Rangers who had more left in the tank. With both teams playing for the third time in four nights, it was the Manhattan team that earned a hard fought 4-1 win over their Long Island rivals. They were hungrier to the puck and matched the Islanders’ work ethic throughout to pull within five points of fourth place Boston. The Bruins have three games at hand.
Let’s toss that playoff stuff aside. There is a lot more positive to emphasize than the team’s miniscule postseason chances. For starters, it wasn’t just Artemi Panarin rebounding with a strong game that saw him set up two goals. It was also about the kids the Rangers are building around.
They got real good performances out of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, K’Andre Miller and newcomer Vitaly Kravtsov. The five who are all 21 and younger, combined for two goals and two assists with a plus-six rating and 11 of the Rangers’ 35 shots. Also, they finally ended Semyon Varlamov’s mastery. He entered with a shutout streak that stretched into the second period of his third start versus the Blueshirts.
It was Lafreniere who finally scored on Varlamov when he got to a rebound in front and put in his seventh goal at 6:05 of the second period. That gave them the lead against a good defensive team that is much harder to play from behind. The scoring play was made possible thanks to good passes from both Kakko and then Chytil with a persistent Lafreniere out-hustling the Islanders for the all important first goal. Overall, the Kid Line had a good night with the trio of Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko combining for three points and a plus-six.
The impressive play from the youngsters wasn’t the only story. Backup goalie Alex Georgiev continued his dominance of the Islanders. Entering with only two regulation defeats and great numbers versus the Rangers’ top rival, he looked like he didn’t miss three weeks. Instead, the unflappable stopped 31 of 32 shots to again conquer his favorite opponent. Georgiev improved to 7-2-0 versus the Islanders for his career with a stupendous .944 save percentage (238 saves on 252 shots). That includes only one goal allowed on 55 shots faced in two starts this year. Insanity.
For the 25-year old Bulgarian, he stayed composed in his first start since Mar. 19. There weren’t many rebounds to be found for an Islanders team that likes to get bodies in front. When there were later in the game, the Blueshirts did a good job clearing them away. That included a couple of shaky moments early in the third. Nursing a one-goal lead, Georgiev casually misplayed a puck right to Casey Cizikas, who had Cal Clutterbuck in the slot. But his one-timer drew iron. He also allowed a rebound on a low shot, but it was cleared out of harm’s way.
The attention to detail was much better from the Rangers in a game they had to have. After making a mess in a downtrodden 5-2 loss to the Penguins, they really clamped down. This was the kind of edge they need to play with more consistently. Even if they don’t qualify for the playoffs, it’s about better work habits and improvement down the stretch. There are 16 games remaining including a rematch against the Isles Sunday at Nassau Coliseum. The fun part is the bitter rivals still have four left. These are the battles the younger players can learn from.
The best part is Rangers coach David Quinn played everyone. He wasn’t hesitant about playing his fourth line which included the very poised Kravtsov, who continues to look good during his shifts. It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s playing with Kevin Rooney and Brett Howden, who recently made his return to the lineup in place of Phil Di Giuseppe on Thursday night. On one early shift, Kravtsov made a good defensive play, finished a check and hustled to keep a puck in to eventually lead to a shot on goal. He also nearly had his first NHL point on a nifty backhand feed to Rooney, who was robbed by Varlamov in the third period. His skating and overall play had been good. The points will come soon.
With Quinn happy to roll his lines, that meant less ice time for the top six. Not one Rangers forward reached 20 minutes with Panarin leading the way with 19:21 all at even strength. That’s because aside from an obvious boarding minor on Mika Zibanejad for hitting Jean-Gabriel Pageau from behind, the referee tandem of Wes McCauley and Brandon Blandina called a good game. They let the teams play. There were no tacky calls to annoy fans. Just lots of five-on-five which is how it should be.
The first period saw the teams skate well and combine for 20 shots. The Rangers led 13-7 for the opening 20 minutes. The problem was they weren’t generating any traffic on Varlamov, who tracked the puck well. If he saw it, he was stopping it. So, it very much went like the previous two games they lost to him. Their one victory coming when they blitzed rookie Ilya Sorokin in the second game of the season. Now that he’s played well, it’s quite possible Islanders coach Barry Trotz could go to Sorokin to face Russian friend Igor Shestyorkin tomorrow night.
As for Georgiev, he turned aside all seven shots he faced in the early going. The astonishing thing was how sharp he looked. You would never have known that he hadn’t played in three weeks. He didn’t seem fazed. Maybe it’s the level of confidence he has against the Islanders. Georgiev even had the goalpost on his side with both Brock Nelson and Nick Leddy clanging high shots. The Nelson one was a redirect off the crossbar. Later on at a key point, he had a goal wiped out due to his stick being just a shade too high. It was the proper ruling.
It was in the second that the Rangers finally started to make it harder on their opponent. Able to sustain a forecheck, they outworked their stingy opponents for the game’s first two goals less than four minutes apart.
Lafreniere cashed in for his seventh by putting in a loose puck past Varlamov. The greasy goal came when Kakko made a good pass in front from the right wall. The puck then came to Chytil, who pushed it towards Lafreniere, who did the rest to give the Rangers a rare lead against Varlamov. Plus the Islanders don’t usually play from behind at home. It was unfamiliar territory.
The improved play continued when the trio of Ryan Strome, Panarin and Colin Blackwell combined for a pretty goal finished off by Blackwell for a 2-0 lead at 10:01. On the quick moving play down low, Strome moved the puck to Panarin, whose one touch feed took a favorable bounce off an Isles’ skate right to Blackwell for a nice snipe high short side for his career best 12th. He continues to flourish for this team. Forget about moving him. He’s the kind of role player this team needs to hang onto. Even if it’s fourth line. He can be moved up when needed while playing power play and penalty kill.
Soon after, Nelson thought he scored on a excellent deflection of a low shot to beat Georgiev up top. However, the refs signaled no goal after Georgiev protested. They then went upstairs to video review which confirmed that Nelson’s stick was just a tad too high when he made contact with the puck. It was pretty close.
Undeterred, the Isles kept coming. It was finally a strong Mat Barzal forecheck that forced Ryan Lindgren into a rare turnover. The Islanders top center quickly retrieved the puck and sent it up top for an Andy Greene one-timer that beat Georgiev through traffic to cut it to 2-1 with 5:07 remaining. It was Greene’s first goal as an Islander since being acquired by Lou Lamoriello last year. The seeing eye shot sailed by Kravtsov and Jordan Eberle, who was in the vicinity. They changed it to Eberle before switching it back to Greene.
Although they led in shots 16-12 during another fast moving period, that was the only goal that beat Georgiev. He made 22 of his 31 saves during the first two periods. It speaks to the concentration he had. Maybe it’s the Isles colors. He picks up the puck very well against them. How else can you explain his dominance of them? Quinn knew. He had no hesitation about going back to Georgiev following a three week layoff. Give DQ credit. If he gets critiqued when they lose badly like the other night, then he deserves his due when the team succeeds.
The start of the third was nervous time for the Blueshirts. They immediately allowed the Isles’ Identity Line to forecheck and get an early shot on Georgiev. That would be the checking unit of Cizikas, Matt Martin and Clutterbuck. Not long after, Georgiev casually played a puck he should’ve froze. The turnover nearly led to Cizikas setting up Clutterbuck for the tying goal. He can thank the far side of the crossbar for it not happening. It was dangerously close. If you do beat a team often, you need a little bit of puck luck. He had that.
After the Isles initial push that was expected, the Rangers pushed back. They stopped backing up. Utilizing their biggest team strength which is their speed, they started to turn the tables on the Islanders. Suddenly, the shots were 4-3 in favor of the Broadway Blueshirts. They stood up and responded the way you have to against a good team.
With Butch Goring making excuses about the Isles looking tired due to it being their third game in four days, the younger Rangers outplayed their counterparts which included Travis Zajac donning a strange number 14 and Kyle Palmieri in his customary 21. There were no excuses from the guys wearing white.
On just a dominant shift that saw the second line control the puck down low, they tired the Isles out to the point of exhaustion. This was a relentless shift that saw the Rangers at their best. Moving the puck back and forth like a magnet, they kept firing away at Varlamov. His defense couldn’t get the puck out. On this shift, Miller was brilliant. A great keep kept the play alive. Eventually, Panarin took a Kakko pass behind the net and moved it to Jacob Trouba at the point. His pass across was right into Miller’s wheelhouse for a one-timer past a stunned Varlamov for a huge insurance marker with 8:12 left in regulation. Miller’s first goal in eight games. He was terrific all game. A well deserved reward.
Not long after, Kravtsov had a burst to create a two-on-one. He made a really good backhand feed to Rooney for what looked like a sure goal. But Varlamov made a great lateral save to keep it out. He was good even if his team didn’t play their best. However, this time the Rangers beat him for three on 35 shots.
A welcome change from the pass, pass, pass crap they did on Thursday. That didn’t prevent Pavel Buchnevich from trying two ridiculous cross-ice passes into the teeth of the Islanders defense when on one play, he had Chris Kreider wide open in front. Buchnevich has had a very good year and is second behind Kreider in goals with 15. Sometimes, he’s too unselfish. He can’t always defer to Zibanejad. Either shoot the puck or make a simpler play. I’m curious to see what they decide to do with him. I doubt he’s getting moved.
With over three minutes left, Trotz decided to go for it down two goals. Why not? His offense struggled all night versus Georgiev. As they attempted shots, it was the scrappy Blueshirts who sacrificed to block them. They wouldn’t allow anything to get through. They blocked 16 paced by Trouba’s five. For all the criticism he’s received, he does the nuts and bolts. He also is a steady influence on Miller, who’s having a good rookie season. Maybe some fans should remember that key part. I understand they pay him too much. But he’s definitely helped Miller this first year. Anyone who thinks otherwise is lost.
With an empty net to shoot at, the Rangers didn’t take any foolish icings. They defended well highlighted by Panarin passing up a low percentage shot that would’ve never hit the net and led to a defensive draw. He took the out instead and didn’t ice the puck. A smarter play.
Eventually, a loose puck came to Zibanejad, who decided to lob a clear down. He wasn’t going for the Isles net. However, the puck took a Rangers bounce and landed dead center for the empty netter with 72 seconds remaining. That gave him 14 goals. An unassisted tally that was a total surprise.
When the game ended, there were no pleasantries exchanged. Instead, it was only the happy Rangers pouring off the bench to congratulate Georgiev on the win. It had to feel good. He hasn’t had the best year, even losing starts to the charismatic Keith Kinkaid. His days as a Ranger might be coming to an end. I was happy for him. How can you not be? With how it started following the shutout against the team he owns. The Tony DeAngelo incident. The spotty play. He doesn’t play the puck as well since then. I hope that gets fixed. He’s a good guy.
Overall, as upset as I was following the Pens loss, that’s how satisfied I was with this victory over the Islanders. Beating the Isles is always fun. Especially with them having the dominant record they have at the Nassau Coliseum. It was only the second time they lost at home in regulation. They fell to 17-2-2.
While everyone talks up their playoff aspirations, it was nice to see our team silence that along with the chatter from their fans. Some of who were part of the 1,400 in attendance. Bring on the rematch. Let’s see if the Rangers can follow up a good win with another versus a good team. Expect it to be tough. You know they’ll try to take Panarin away and cut the ice in half unlike Friday night.
This will be the last game before the Trade Deadline on Monday. I don’t expect the Rangers to do much. They are not far enough out of it to be sellers and aren’t exactly a playoff lock. They sure aren’t buyers. I only wonder if they’ll pawn off the well respected Brendan Smith, who could net a mid round pick. He plays the game hard enough for a contender to consider it. Would Boston or Washington be interested? Or is it an Edmonton or Winnipeg?
They also have a logjam at forward. With Kravtsov proving ready, what do they decide to do with some of the role players? By that, I mean Rooney, Di Giuseppe and Howden, who’s still young enough to stick around. When will we finally see Morgan Barron? The same for Tarmo Reunanen, who has an assist in his only NHL game. These are better questions for GM Jeff Gorton, Associate GM Chris Drury and Team President John Davidson. We’ll find out what they’re thinking by Monday afternoon.
Don’t forget to tune into ESPN tomorrow for the Frozen Four Championship between UMass and St. Cloud State. They’ll crown a first ever champion in college hockey. Plus you get to see Zac Jones wearing his number 24 for UMass. He is a player to watch on that aggressive blue line. Jones scored in the Frozen Four semifinal against Minnesota Duluth. He was a third round pick taken number 68 in 2019. Keep an eye on him.
THREE STARS OF GAME
3rd 🌟 Alexis Lafreniere, NYR (7th goal of season, team high 5 SOG, +1 in 12:58)
2nd 🌟 Alex Georgiev, NYR (31 saves, 7-2 vs Isles with .944 save percentage)
1st 🌟 K’Andre Miller, NYR (4th goal, 3 SOG on 6 attempts, 2 hits, 2 blocks, +2 in 23:53)