Igor Shestyorkin shuts the door on Devils for first career shutout as Rangers take first of four-game series

Igor Shestyorkin is greeted by Captain Happy, Pavel Buchnevich whose shorthanded empty net goal clinched a 3-0 Rangers win over the Devils for Shestyorkin’s first NHL shutout. It was hard fought with the rookie goalie the difference. AP Photo by New York Rangers via Getty Images

The first of the four-game series between the Rangers and Devils was all about one player. Igor Shestyorkin turned away the Devils time and time again on his way to making 27 saves in recording his first career NHL shutout. He was the difference in a Rangers 3-0 win before 3,600 fans at The Prudential Center in Newark.

On the game’s opening shift, Jesper Bratt got free in front on a Miles Wood centering feed, but a sharp Shestyorkin denied his early bid. He would make one more good save on Bratt and later thwart Wood on a two-on-one break. It was that kind of night for the 25-year old emerging rookie netminder, who deserves more than a passing mention for the Calder Trophy. Even if it’s Wild wizard Kirill Kaprizov’s to lose, Shestyorkin has played his way into contention with Stars rookie Jason Robertson.

In a tale of two different games, the Rangers and Devils went from playing a high octane, helter skelter first period to winding up in a tighter checking style where there wasn’t much space for either side. However, it was the younger Devils who came on strong following Mika Zibanejad’s breakaway goal to take control during the second. They tilted the ice for long stretches in that period by doubling up the Rangers in shots (8-4) and generating better chances. However, Shestyorkin stopped them in their tracks.

Some of his best work can be seen in the above highlight package via Twitter. That also included a big save on Jack Hughes and then another to deny Nico Hischier on a rebound. The Devils couldn’t solve the big Russian. They tried, but nothing worked. The game was all about Shestyorkin and his strong positioning. He took away everything down low and didn’t give up many rebounds. He was much better than Sunday night against the Islanders. The focus was intense. He wanted this shutout and was very appreciative of how his teammates blocked shots and defended well in a better third to nail down the important win.

I knew he was good facing breakaways this year. However, I didn’t know he had stopped 18 of 20 faced. The two goals allowed being the fewest given up among the five goalies listed including former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky and hopeful Vezina candidate Phillip Grubauer. It demonstrates Shestyorkin’s focus when things get dicey. There were key moments in Tuesday’s game where he stood tall. That included a huge save on Ty Smith and then had some help on a little rebound late to preserve the shutout.

Let’s be perfectly clear here. If not for the brilliant play of the goalie, there is no victory for the Rangers. They didn’t play great by any stretch. If the first period was even despite Shestyorkin coming up with 10 saves including some gems, then the second was mostly Devils due to an improved defensive effort that led to offense. The third was the one period the Blueshirts were all on the same page. You didn’t have chaos like Adam Fox getting caught up ice twice that resulted in Devils’ scoring chances. By that point, all six defensemen played well led by veteran Jacob Trouba.

Trouba was mentioned by Rangers coach David Quinn during his press conference afterwards. He highlighted Trouba for speaking to the team following the first period. It was Trouba who did the talking in the locker room. As easy as it is to critique Trouba due to his contract, give him credit. His strong defensive play backed up his words. He might not possess the talent of a Fox. But Trouba provides the physical element this team needs. It was Trouba that played a splendid game by delivering four hits including a healthy one on Mike McLeod that saw him seek out Brendan Smith in a second period scrap. Trouba blocked three shots and was in the right position often in helping the Blueshirts protect the lead.

Trouba’s rookie partner K’Andre Miller also had a good game defensively. His best play coming when he cleanly took out an attacking Devil in the corner while skating away with the puck. He might not have the offensive ceiling of Ty Smith, who certainly got some looks for the Devils. But Miller is a very steady player who’s improving while working with Trouba.

The game didn’t start out that way. The second half of eight meetings with the latter three over the next five days, started off with fire wagon hockey. After Shestyorkin denied Bratt early, the Rangers created some good opportunities in transition. But Artemi Panarin missed over the top and Mackenzie Blackwood made a couple of good saves to keep it scoreless. Twice, the Blueshirts attacked the Devils by finding an open trailer on the right side. Something Devils analyst Ken Daneyko noted. However, they didn’t score on either.

At the start of the game, Quinn rolled with the same lineup he usually features. That includes the slumping Chris Kreider, who’s now gone 16 consecutive games without an even strength goal. However, he was involved physically early. On an offensive shift, he hit Damon Severson with a good check behind the Devils net. It was from the side. Severson took exception and the two dropped the gloves at 1:27. After Kreider got a right in, Severson came back and landed late to get the take-down.

Most of the first period was played at even strength. It was a chess move Quinn made that allowed his team to draw first blood. On an innocent looking play at center ice, rookie Vitali Kravtsov made a subtle backhand flip pass that led a streaking Zibanejad on a breakaway. He went to the forehand and roofed one past Blackwood glove side for his 15th goal at 7:02. For some inexplicable reason, it now reads Zibanejad 15 from Pavel Buchnevich and Fox. Whoever scored the game screwed up. It should be Zibanejad from Kravtsov and Fox. If they wake up and correct it, it should be Kravtsov’s second assist in as many games. He really sees the ice well and makes things happen.

Even with there being more skating and shots with the Hudson rivals combining for 18 total with the Devils leading 10-8 in the opening frame, that was it for the scoring. The goalies each did their thing. Aside from the early Kreider versus Severson fight, the only other penalty went to Brendan Smith for taking down Hughes in front at 19:19. He basically cross-checked him, but they called it interference. Do they even know the rule book? A visibly frustrated Smith slammed his stick in the penalty box. It was a stupid penalty.

Despite that, the Rangers penalty kill came through. They easily killed off the first 41 seconds by having both Buchnevich and Zibanejad each get active sticks on pucks to clear the zone. That PK tandem is outstanding. Ever since they put Buchnevich on the kill, he’s improved dramatically. If they don’t keep him, they’re losing a good player. It isn’t only the point production anymore. He’s been a consistent player on this roster.

After they finished killing off the remainder of the Smith penalty to start the second, the Devils did a terrific job taking away time and space from the Rangers. There was none. Whatever operating room they had went away completely. Not only did they eliminate our offense. But made Panarin look invisible. He had no time to create anything.

It was an excellent job defensively by a young team, who at least still had regulars P.K. Subban, Severson, Ty Smith and Ryan Murray on their back end. With the dismissal of Sami Vatanen and trade of Dmitry Kulikov, Will Butcher played along with newly acquired Jonas Siegenthaler. As for a match-up, Hischier saw a lot of the Panarin line. He’s a good two-way center. Injuries have been an issue. He looked good for his first game back wearing the full black webbing.

As the Devils began dictating the terms, they had a lot more forecheck pressure during the second. However, they simply couldn’t beat Shestyorkin. They sure created enough opportunities. But he wasn’t biting. Janne Kuokkanen tried a sneaky stuff in attempt later that Shestyorkin easily covered. There was a great scoring chance for Wood when Fox got trapped deep. He came in two-on-one and cut to the middle which is exactly what you should do. With Ryan Lindgren taking the pass away, Wood fired a good wrist shot that Shestyorkin stopped. Lindgren quickly cleared the rebound out of harms way.

Despite the territorial edge, the Devils couldn’t draw any power plays. There also was a little payback from a fired up McLeod when he initiated a fight with Smith, who didn’t look like he wanted to go. The end result was a McLeod win and both off for five minutes each. Smith’s partner Libor Hajek quietly had another good game. In 21 shifts, he didn’t make any mistakes and played well overall in 18:22. He looks more confident with the puck and is making smart decisions. I’m not sure what the future holds, but Hajek isn’t hurting his case.

With little going on, Quinn bumped up Kravtsov for a couple of shifts with Panarin and Ryan Strome. Colin Blackwell went to the checking line with Kevin Rooney and Brett Howden. Both had solid games. Just by adding the poised Kravtsov to the lineup, Quinn now trusts all four lines. He’s more comfortable using everyone. That includes the Kid Line of Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and the emerging Alexis Lafreniere, who gains more confidence every shift. On one offensive shift, he stayed out with Kravtsov to apply pressure. On a defensive shift, he caught up to Hughes and took him off the puck. Number one versus number one pick. There will be a lot more battles.

When he wasn’t stopping pucks, Shestyorkin had help from teammates, who blocked 15 shots. Fox and Trouba each had three while Rooney and Smith both had two. As tough a period as it was to watch, the Devils only outshot the Rangers 8-4. I thought their final shift from the Zibanejad line was one of the better ones. They spent some time in the Devils end. Maybe it gave them momentum. There wasn’t much else.

If ever there was a misleading statistic, it was the third. Sure. The Devils wound up leading in shots 9-7. It wasn’t indicative of how the period was played. Quite a few came late when they trailed by two. In truth, the Rangers picked up their overall game and were tougher defensively. It wasn’t as easy for the Devils to get shots on Shestyorkin. They had to work for it.

After flirting with using Kravtsov on the second line, Quinn decided to go back to his original lines which included Blackwell back with Panarin and Strome. He didn’t break up Kreider from Zibanejad and Buchnevich. If he continues to struggle offensively over this next stretch, I can easily see Kravtsov replacing him. But for how long? He isn’t exactly a fit for the fourth line.

It was a good play created from team defense that resulted in Panarin finally getting enough space to score his 13th at 7:50. After receiving a pass at the Devils blue line, Panarin passed for Fox, who played catch with Chytil. After getting a pass up top, he then moved the puck down to Chytil, who was near Blackwood. With attention drawn, Chytil passed across for Panarin, who in one quick motion caught the puck and then released it past an outstretched Blackwood inside the goalpost for the big insurance marker. Daneyko said not many players can do what Panarin did. He had to catch it first, stop and then shoot. It’s a little hard to describe. But what Daneyko said made sense. That’s what makes Panarin elite.

As they continued to play better in front of Shestyorkin, who made the stops, the only remaining question was the obvious. Was this the night? As the minutes expired and time wound down, the ‘S’ word was on everyone’s mind. Lindgren got caught for hi-sticking Bratt with 1:19 remaining.

With the Devils having already pulled Blackwood for the extra attacker, they used their 30-second timeout. Afterwards, they went six-on-four featuring Hughes, Hischier, Wood and Yegor Sharangovich with Subban and Smith. Playing it like a penalty kill, the four Rangers skaters featuring Zibanejad, Buchnevich, Fox and Trouba didn’t give up much. They had active sticks and blocked a couple of attempts.

Eventually, Smith lost control of the puck out of the zone. In the neutral zone, Subban tried a pass that Buchnevich got a piece of to steal it. He sealed the game with a shorthanded empty netter at 19:32. It was his 16th. One off the team lead. Most notably, the goal Buchnevich scored was the 20,000th in Rangers franchise history. Pretty crazy.

As the final seconds expired, a very pleased Shestyorkin was all smiles as were happy teammates, who congratulated him on his first shutout. He made 27 saves altogether to earn the important win.

While they took care of business by earning it, the Rangers didn’t get any help from the Sabres. Although Rasmus Dahlin tied it to force extras, Buffalo had a Dylan Cozens goal correctly waived off for a high stick. It went to a shootout which the Bruins won to remain four points ahead for fourth place. They’re up to 50 with 16 games left while the Blueshirts are at 46 with 14 remaining.

Here’s my thought on this. With the Flyers getting routed again by the Capitals, it’s going to come down to the Bruins and Rangers for that final playoff spot in the division. Right now, Boston has everything in their favor. They still have the Sabres on the schedule for five more times and have two extra games to go. However, they’re clearly struggling. These games aren’t easy either. Something Quinn noted in his postgame. The Devils played hard and made them work for the two points. Exactly how the next three games are going to be played. The Sabres did the same versus Boston.

There are no layups at this time of year. The bottom teams will play spoiler. Especially in as intense a rivalry as Rangers/Devils. Expect it to be hard fought. The Rangers didn’t play well last night. But they won thanks in large part to Shestyorkin. Plus both Zibanejad and Panarin did their part. They’ll need a more complete effort in Thursday’s rematch at Madison Square Garden.


3rd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, NYR (13th goal, 3 attempts, +1 in 14:30)

2nd 🌟 Jacob Trouba, NYR (1 SOG, 5 attempts, 4 hits, 3 blocks, takeaway, +1 in 22:40)

1st 🌟 Igor Shestyorkin, NYR (27 saves including some key ones for first career shutout)

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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