Zibanejad’s hat trick and Kakko pair enough to hold off Sabres

Mika Zibanejad’s hat trick highlighted a 6-3 Rangers’ win over the Sabres. The top center had a big day against the improved Buffalo team who never quit despite falling behind 4-1 and 5-2. His third three-goal game of the season along with a pair of goals from Kaapo Kakko were enough to get the victory at 33rd and 8th.

Coupled with a Bruins’ 1-0 loss at Pittsburgh, the Blueshirts are still clinging on to miniscule playoff hopes with seven games remaining. They’ll have to win out and hope Boston continues to lose. It isn’t likely. The Bruins have nine left including two with the Sabres and two against the awful Devils, who dropped their 10th straight in brutal fashion to the Flyers. The only thing that matters is wins for the Rangers. They want the last two games against Boston to matter.

Facing an opponent who have played better under interim coach Don Granato, the Rangers knew they couldn’t afford to mail it in. The Sabres came in fresh off beating Boston 6-4. They’ve been respectable since the coaching change. That work ethic showed in the early going. They got some shots on Igor Shestyorkin, who was solid during a strange period where the shots were 12-11 in favor of the Rangers.

The first goal of the game came on a good play in transition. Ryan Lindgren pushed the puck up to Alexis Lafreniere, who gained the Sabres zone and skated into open ice. He found a trailing Zibanejad for a perfect pass that allowed him to fire a wrist shot past Dustin Tokarski far side at 4:49. A well executed scoring play from Lafreniere and Zibanejad. It was his 17th of the season. He was just getting started.

Before they could get too comfortable, it was the Sabres who responded less than 90 seconds later when Jeff Skinner was able to stop a Colin Miller shot and fire a backhand past Shestyorkin to tie the game at 6:16. This was a good play by a former 40-goal scorer. Skinner has struggled to finish. However, his work ethic hasn’t gone away. He was dangerous in a couple of other games against the Rangers. The goal was his sixth from Miller and rookie Jacob Bryson at 6:16.

After the Sabres evened the score, the play was okay. Nothing special. One theme that didn’t change was Adam Fox being split up from Lindgren. Fox mostly took shifts with Libor Hajek while Lindgren and Zac Jones worked together, leaving K’Andre Miller mostly with Brendan Smith. There were good shifts and bad with most of the negative in a puzzling third period. That’s what you get with this team. For all the cliches about them being a playoff team if Artemi Panarin didn’t miss time or Zibanejad didn’t look lost early on, there are too many lapses during games that better explains their record. Every team has injuries or off ice issues. Enough with the excuses.

In the second half of the first period, it was all Rangers. They scored twice and easily could’ve led by more when it concluded. One young player who had been cold in the goal department was Kakko. He had picked up a few assists, but entered without a goal in his last 10. That changed thanks to a great read from Fox. After receiving a pass from Filip Chytil, Fox made a diagonal feed to Kakko for a spectacular finish. Unlike other instances where he’s not ready to shoot, Kakko released a good one-timer from an angle and past Tokarski, who had no chance. It was his seventh from Fox and Chytil at 12:02 to give the Rangers the lead.

Over five minutes later, Zibanejad would get his second of the period on the power play. He drew an interference minor on Rasmus Dahlin. It took the Blueshirts 53 seconds to convert. After the Sabres took away Chris Kreider on the man-advantage, they didn’t close out Zibanejad in the slot. Fox moved the puck over to Panarin. Instead of shooting, he wisely found Zibanejad in the middle for a perfect deflection that went top shelf on Tokarski with 2:50 left. The assist was Fox’s 40th of the season. He would later add a third. He leads all defensemen with 41 helpers and 46 points. At a plus-23, there is every bit a good chance he’ll be nominated for the Norris. Unlike the MSG broadcast with them feeding Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti stats every nanosecond, I won’t take any personal joy if Fox wins. It’s an individual award. Any fan would trade that for the playoffs. Enough with the propaganda. We all know and appreciate how good Fox is.

Early in the second period, things didn’t get any better for the Sabres. On what can only be described as a horrible goal to give up, Tokarski completely misplayed a Zibanejad shot by letting it go through him at 2:05. His hat trick came due to a quick lead pass from Fox up to Pavel Buchnevich. He then was able to make a pass to Zibanejad that the center had to adjust on. He made a good move to create a shooting angle and just let it go. Right through the wickets of Tokarski, who wanted it back. That quickly, it was 4-1 Rangers. Some hats were tossed on the ice from the 1,800 pleased fans in attendance. At the bench, Buchnevich had fun at Zibanejad’s expense by placing a hat on his helmet. I loved the reaction of Lafreniere when he got the third goal behind the Buffalo net. It was basically, “Wow!” He had another good game. Things are moving in the right direction for the top pick.

As usual, the game wasn’t over. Consecutive minor penalties on Ryan Strome (tripping at 10:49) and Buchnevich (hi-sticking at 12:53) allowed the Sabres to grab the momentum. After killing off the Strome penalty, the Rangers’ penalty kill was unable to bail out Buchnevich. With only six seconds remaining on the power play, Victor Olofsson drove a one-timer past Shestyorkin for his 13th to make it a two-goal game with 5:13 left in the period. Casey Mittlestadt and Sam Reinhart set it up to pick up the assists.

In particular, Reinhart would be a thorn in the Rangers’ side for the rest of the game. He is an restricted free agent this summer. Let’s just say he has really boosted his stock. A year away from unrestricted status, the 25-year old has shifted back to center and done well without Jack Eichel. If he became available, Reinhart is the kind of player I’d like to see the Rangers in on. I won’t say anything else because it’s not the right time.

As for the last five minutes go, it wasn’t good enough. The Sabres used the momentum from the Olofsson power play goal and really took it to the Rangers. Every time his line was out there, Reinhart was a factor. He’s a good player who’s been overlooked due to Eichel. Rookie Dylan Cozens also looked good throughout. A former teammate of Lafreniere when they won gold at the 2020 WJC, he centered the top line and generated chances. At one point, he and Lafreniere got tangled up during a shift for a while. It definitely distracted Rosen, who never even saw Vitaly Kravtsov trip up Dahlin in the third period. It was a bad look. We all love Sam. But it really is time. Ugh.

Shestyorkin had to contend with 14 Buffalo shots in that second. That’s because his team isn’t consistent shift to shift. You never know what you’re getting. It’s like they stop playing and allow the opponent to take control. Even though this wasn’t his best game, credit Shestyorkin for making some key saves to hold off the Sabres’ charge. They might not have won if not for the goalie. He finished with 31 saves on 34 shots. Too many from primary areas. Don’t let the 6-3 final score fool you.

The third was tense. The Sabres weren’t going away. That much they proved. They’re a lot tougher to play now. They’ve beaten both Pittsburgh and Boston. There’s a reason they’re about to pass the Devils in the standings. Even with some of the obvious defensive flaws, they gave the Rangers all they could handle. Expect the rematch to be similar.

Fortunately, Kakko picked a good time to have one of his best games in his two-year career. With Anders Bjork off for taking down Smith, the Blueshirts went to work on their third power play. Having already converted on one of two, this time the production came from the second unit. One that featured Lafreniere, Kakko and Jones. On a Jones setup for Buchnevich, Tokarski left a juicy rebound. With both Lafreniere and Kakko in the vicinity, it was the 20-year old second-year Finn who steered in the rebound for a huge power play goal at 7:06. It was his second two-goal game of the year with both coming against Buffalo. The best part was Jones earned his first NHL point with an assist.

I know I’ve been tough on Kakko. Over the last 12 games, he has nine points (3-6-9). A good improvement for the 2019 second pick. He still needs to get more shots on goal. An area that will need to be better in Year Three. However, Kakko is finally getting rewarded for his hard work. That’s significant. When over half his 16 points (8-8-16) have come over the past month, that’s encouraging. It means he’s doing better. The overall play has been a constant. Let’s see how he finishes the last seven games.

Not surprisingly, the Sabres came back strong. For whatever reason, the Rangers again took their foot off the gas pedal. Reinhart had a couple of great chances. That followed a Chytil turnover at the Buffalo blue line. Something that can’t happen. After a good forecheck where they applied all kinds of pressure, Reinhart hit the crossbar. The Sabres stayed with it with Dahlin setting up Reinhart for his 21st goal at 10:34. Once again, it was a two-goal game. Too close for comfort.

Things got edgier when Kravtsov took down Dahlin with 5:31 remaining. That was the same exact shift where Lafreniere and Cozens got tangled up, leading to both Rosen and Micheletti not paying attention to the penalty. Mindless. The Rangers penalty kill came through. That left only three and a half minutes for the Sabres to work with.

With Tokarski off for an extra attacker, Strome took a needless hooking minor on Reinhart at center ice with 1:32 left in regulation. He had an atrocious game. No points for a fourth consecutive game and two lousy penalties. The kind he has stayed away from. The irony being he won eight of 13 face-offs. A sore spot for him. Go figure.

With the Sabres on a six-on-four, this allowed the Rangers to take free shots at the empty net. Brett Howden won a defensive draw and a battle to get the puck over to Kevin Rooney. Rooney fired the puck down straight into the net for the team’s eighth shorthanded goal. As was noted on the telecast, a few of the shorthanded goals have come courtesy of empty netters. That doesn’t matter. The penalty kill has been splendid all season. It’s a reward for the hard work they put in.

That goal allowed them and fans to breathe easier. They rarely make it easy. Whether or not a Miracle On 34th Street happens over the next two weeks, that must change in Year Four. Assuming David Quinn stays. There’s no reason to think he won’t be back. I haven’t always agreed with his lineup decisions. But he’s remained patient and done a good job managing the new players. That can’t be overlooked.

Let’s enjoy the rest of these games. Whatever happens happens. Now, the Rangers return to the ice Tuesday against the same Sabres for the eighth and final meeting. That same night, the Bruins are at the Penguins. I don’t need to spell it out. Following that game, it’s a pair against the despised Islanders. I want to see how they play those games. Some key players haven’t performed well versus the blood rival including Zibanejad, whose scored 14 of 19 goals against bottom feeders. It also includes Fox (1 assist) who has done much better versus every other division opponent. If they want to give us something, go out and win those games.

That’s all. I think I said plenty in that last paragraph. Seven games remain. The Rangers are 25-18-6 through 49 games with 56 points. Let’s see if they can finish strong.


3rd 🌟 Sam Reinhart, Sabres (21st goal plus 🍎, 8 of 9 on face-offs in 21:02)

2nd 🌟 Kaapo Kakko, NYR (2 goals for numbers 7 and 8, +1 in 13:05)

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, NYR (goals 17, 18, 19 for 3rd hat trick of season, 7 SOG, 8 of 16 on face-offs, +1 in 17:41

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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