Birthday boy Zibanejad gets winner to repel Devils comeback as Rangers sweep to stay in race


If you were to look at the final score which read, Rangers 5 Devils 3, you’d assume that this was a routine win. It was anything but. For the second straight game, the Rangers built a big lead only to have the Devils come back. Only this time, it was a three-goal lead and the determined opponent rallied for three consecutive goals to make them sweat it out.

At the end of the day, they found a way to win. Birthday boy Mika Zibanejad scored the winner on the power play with three minutes left in regulation. His power play goal rescued the Blueshirts, who were badly outplayed in the third period. Give the Devils credit. They used a late goal in the second period from Mikhail Maltsev to build momentum for a strong comeback with Jack Hughes in the penalty box. While he served an extra 10 for a misconduct, they rallied back on early third period goals from Marian Studenic (1st NHL goal) and Nico Hischier to tie the game.

It really looked like the Devils were going to win following Hischier’s tying goal with 14:30 remaining. They had the better of the play and tested backup goalie Alex Georgiev, who responded with some enormous saves to keep his struggling team afloat. Ironically, he left the game earlier due to a left knee issue. But was able to return. In an earlier game at The Prudential Center, it was Igor Shestyorkin who had to be replaced briefly by Georgiev before being deemed okay to continue. Strange stuff. In both instances, the Rangers came away with the win.

Afterwards, David Quinn had some interesting quotes about getting the final game to sweep the four-game series against the Devils. He had emphasized how these games wouldn’t be easy. That the players on the other side are playing for jobs and trying to make a good impression. He also was quick to note that the Sabres beat the Penguins at the very same time. They won 4-2 and have been playing better since making the coaching change. The point being is that you can’t take these games lightly. The Rangers nearly blew a 4-0 lead on Saturday before two late empty net goals from Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider. They flirted with disaster today, but were fortunate.

If not for Ryan Murray accidentally getting his stick up on Kaapo Kakko with 4:10 left, who knows what could’ve happened. The Devils were the better team be a lot in the third. They had the better chances and more shots. In the end, it didn’t matter. Georgiev stopped Andreas Johnsson on a tricky move in tight. He made the key saves until Murray took the minor for hi-sticking. That allowed Zibanejad to atone for passing up on a wide open shot moments earlier. He was able to beat Mackenzie Blackwood from the slot for his 16th on a good pass from Ryan Strome. A play that was too easy due to the amount of space the Devils’ penalty kill allowed. Adam Fox drawing the other assist on the game-winner. A nice birthday present for Zibanejad.

Strome was able to get credit for an empty net goal after the refs awarded him with the goal due to being hooked from behind at 19:35. Colin Blackwell got another assist by wisely moving the puck ahead for Strome, who recorded a goal and a helper to boost his point total to 44 in 45 games played. He has seven over the last three games. All wins of course. Sidekick Artemi Panarin added two apples as he continues his torrid pace. He was bottled up by a stingy Devils defense for most of the third. But managed to clear the zone to Blackwell for the Strome goal that ended the day.

It could’ve been easier. The Rangers built a three-goal lead in the strength of a Kreider power play goal (team-leading 10th), Vitaly Kravtsov even strength goal (first of career) and Alexis Lafreniere’s eighth which also came at five-on-five. Try telling Larry Brooks that two of the first three goals came from the kids he tried to bury during a ridiculous question with Quinn in the postgame. He truly looks for any negative he can find. Never mind that Kravtsov scored a beauty from Brett Howden after he forced a turnover. Ditto for Lafreniere, who was able to beat Blackwood on a backhand one-on-one after good passes from Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko. Look at the punishment Lafreniere endured from Matt Tennyson.

While it’s true they were caught on the two Devils’ goals in the third, they’re not finished products. Brooks can stick it where the sun don’t shine. How come he didn’t ask about Zibanejad failing to pick up Maltsev for the rebound goal at 18:55 of period two? What a two-faced fool.

The bottom line is it wasn’t only the younger players who looked like they saw ghosts for most of the third period. It was everyone. Zibanejad. Panarin. Kreider. Etc. They all looked bad turning over pucks with the silly East/West crap that sometimes can get you in trouble. I also didn’t understand why Anthony Bitetto played for Libor Hajek. He got turned around badly on the game-tying Hischier goal. That’s what caused it. Unless Hajek was hurt after he took a hit from behind yesterday, he should be in the lineup over a guy who hasn’t played in a while. Maybe Quinn wanted a physical element in case the game got out of hand. If that were true, how come they let the Devils run around and take liberties in the second period? There was no response. That can’t happen. They were bumping into Georgiev without paying a price.

I’m only pointing out that it bothered me. Granted. The Rangers hardly are tough. They traded Brendan Lemieux to free up room for Kravtsov. So, it is what it is. You still have to handle that stuff when opponents start crap during and after whistles. Yes. There were some big scrums on Saturday when all 10 players got together. That’s better. The Devils showed frustration. A natural reaction to losing. Hughes got a misconduct after tripping up Bitetto. It was understandable. It would’ve been nice if the Rangers had scored on the power play to make it an even harder game to come back in. The power play went 2-for-6 scoring early and late when it was needed to close out the Devils. They only had to kill one penalty. So, they won the special teams battle. That proved to be the difference in the game.

All three New Jersey goals came at even strength. Maltsev got his fifth he was able to get into position and score on a diving backhand rebound after a P.K. Subban shot was deflected by rookie Yegor Sharangovich to force Georgiev into a difficult first save. Maltsev beat Zibanejad to the spot to get the comeback started. It changed the momentum.

In the third, some sloppy puck work in the neutral zone allowed Andreas Johnsson to make a pass that Maltsev tipped ahead for Studenic, who got behind Bitetto and Brendan Smith to beat Georgiev on a clean wrist shot high to the stick side at 1:53. It was his first NHL goal. Maybe Georgiev could’ve had that one. But his defense did him no favors. In particular, Bitetto who needed to be more aware of where Studenic was.

With it now a one-goal game, it was pretty obvious who was in control. It was all Devils. They won all the battles and outhustled an asleep Blueshirts, who must’ve thought they could take the period off. They looked like zombies. There were so many turnovers and sloppy play. It was inevitable that the Devils would tie it up. That didn’t take long. On a play where nobody did anything right, Nolan Foote (1st NHL point) passed for Nick Merkley, who easily found Hischier for a quick one-timer into an open side at 5:30. On the play, Bitetto was again out of position with both Chytil and Kravtsov not able to close out Hischier for the Devils’ third straight goal. A good play by them. A very bad one for the Rangers.

Unlike yesterday when he took a timeout to settle down his club once the Devils made it 4-3, Quinn didn’t burn one. Instead, he kept sending his players out to try to get the period and game turned around. It was ugly for a while to watch. They looked out of sorts. It almost felt like the Devils would find the next goal and get an empty netter to complete the comeback. But that never came. Not even with Hughes back and beating a slow reacting K’Andre Miller to the inside only to get turned away by Georgiev. That was probably the biggest save. He did also deny Johnsson later, but Hughes is a lot better and way more dangerous.

The best chance for the Rangers came on a good defensive play from Kakko. He stole a Hughes pass and had plenty of time to get a good shot off in the slot. However, it missed high and wide. Those are the ones he needs to bury. If he wants to become a consistent finisher in the NHL, Kakko must score on those opportunities. It’s frustrating when he doesn’t. He has had a lot of chances due to his overall improvement. However, he remains stuck on six goals and seven assists. We need to see more from the big Finn soon. He’s still only 20 and learning the game. Similar to Hughes. Eventually, the top two picks from that hyped 2019 NHL Draft have to become consistent scorers. That’s the expectation for both.

The Devils handed the Blueshirts some power plays. Studenic took a holding minor a couple of minutes after Hischier tied it. But the Rangers were unable to do anything with it. It was the New Jersey penalty killers who got the job done to easily kill the penalty off. At that point, they had more jump and were better focused.

With Georgiev doing his part by making a few critical stops, Murray accidentally got his stick up just enough into Kakko for the Rangers’ sixth power play. After Zibanejad tried a low percentage pass for Panarin that never had a chance, the puck went out of the zone. As I was burying him, they regained entry. Then Fox got the puck over to Strome, who fit a pass into an open Zibanejad for a quick wrist shot that beat Blackwood top shelf at the 17-minute mark. It was way too easy. That power play goal gave the Rangers a 4-3 lead with three minutes to go.

This time, they didn’t blow it. It looked like it would be hard. The Devils had some puck possession in the Rangers’ end. But with Blackwood lifted, they never found the quality chance needed to tie the game. Instead, some good defensive work from Panarin and Blackwell allowed Strome to get ahead and be awarded his 14th goal. That sealed it.

You don’t get any extra style points for winning. That’s something Quinn alluded to afterwards. Sure. It didn’t come easy because it wasn’t supposed to. Steve Valiquette said they have to finish periods better on the MSG postgame. The only thing I agree on. He’s right about that. In these games, you can’t take your foot off the gas pedal. If you let up for a minute like the Rangers did towards the end of the second, it can swing the momentum. The Devils were way hungrier in the third and probably deserved a better result. Lucky for the Rangers, Murray took that penalty and Zibanejad scored.

This could’ve been a very bad loss. Instead, it allowed them to hold serve. With the Bruins not losing anymore after Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron took apart the Capitals in a 6-3 afternoon win, all the Rangers can do is take care of business. Something Zibanejad pointed out to Devils broadcaster Matt Loughlin. They can’t worry about that. Now at 52 points, they should be hoping for a Flyers win over the Islanders. At last check, it was scoreless. If that happens, it really emphasizes the big game on Tuesday.

They’re all big now. Any slip up and they could be toast. At least it’s fun to watch. They’re giving it everything. That’s all you can ask for. With 11 games left in this high speed chase, the Rangers know they can only take care of what’s in front of them. There’s the Islanders Tuesday and then a pair versus the Flyers. One game at a time. We’ll see what happens. Enjoy it.

THREE STARS OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Alex Georgiev, Rangers (25 saves on 28 shots in 57:41)

2nd 🌟 Nico Hischier, Devils (3rd goal, 7 SOG, 8 of 13 on face-offs in 17:13)

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, NYR (game-winner on his birthday, assist, 10 of 18 on face-offs in 21:02)

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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3 Responses to Birthday boy Zibanejad gets winner to repel Devils comeback as Rangers sweep to stay in race

  1. hasan4978 says:

    I get why Quinn made that comparison but it’s almost laughable right now, the Sabres are a better team than us at this point and may well finish ahead of the Devils. The same Sabres that lost 18 in a row or whatever it was. Simply pathetic. I knew this was gonna be a sweep after the first period of the second game.

    Like

    • Derek Felix says:

      I agree. Brian said it to me the other day. The coaching change sparked the Sabres. Now Mittlestadt scores and Dahlin is playing better. Even Thompson is contributing. A coach has to say that to warn his team. The Rangers weren’t exactly consistent in those games. They’ll have to raise the level tonight vs Islanders. TBH the playoffs look like a Longshot. There’s not enough time left and they’ll need to win 8 or 9 of the final 11. I view next year as different.

      Like

    • Derek Felix says:

      That series did nothing for the Rangers. They stunk it up in the first period vs the Islanders. Only down a goal due to Shestyorkin.

      Like

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