Make no mistake about it. The Rangers are still alive thanks to the brilliant goaltending of Igor Shestyorkin. Without some gigantic saves in a 3-1 win over the scrappy Sabres, this easily could’ve been a bad loss. Instead, he made 36 saves on 37 shots to help the team keep pace with Boston.
In a strange game that had peaks and valleys, it was Shestyorkin whose star shined brightest under the spotlight of the World’s Most Vaccinated at 33rd and 8th. In a puzzling first period that saw the Sabres dominate play, it was Shestyorkin who made 16 saves to keep the game scoreless. He held a sub-par Blueshirts in after they only got six shots on Buffalo rookie netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
Following the ho-hum first, the Rangers finally showed some urgency in a much busier second period. Instead of the passive aggressive style they’re known for, they took a different approach. The end result was a 20 shot period where they tested Luukkonen early and often. That effort paid dividends when offensive dynamo Brendan Smith scored the game’s first goal unassisted at 2:22. On a strong shift from first-year defenseman K’Andre Miller, he carried the puck deep before losing to Dylan Cozens. Cozens tried a low percentage pass up the middle that went right to Smith, who wisely blasted a shot through a screen to beat Luukkonen. The goal was his fifth tying a career high set with Detroit. Smith had a superb night and would be a factor later.
Not much happened in a listless first which saw the Rangers turn over pucks and allow a more aggressive Sabres to sustain an attack. They were on their heels most of the period. I counted only two good offensive shifts from the guys in the Broadway Blueshirt. It sure looked like it was the Sabres who were the desperate team trying to cling onto faint playoff hopes. It was hard to understand. The best thing that can be said is they escaped to the locker room with the game scoreless.
After the goal, the Sabres came back with a strong shift. Something that impressed Sam Rosen. Honestly, it was expected. The good news is they didn’t score a minute or two following the Smith tally. Something we’ve grown accustomed to. The period would see a lot of shots with the teams combining for 32. The Rangers outshot the Sabres 20-12. Most of the play was strictly five-on-five with no penalties called for almost two full periods. Unfortunately, the lone exception allowed Buffalo to tie it in the waning seconds.
Before that, the Rangers had several opportunities to expand the lead. That included an absolutely dominant shift from Adam Fox. He totally controlled the puck possession and had the Sam Reinhart line caught on for a lengthy 2:15 marathon shift. In the period of the long change, a visibly tired out Sabres could not get the puck out. This led to a few shots on Luukkonen who did his part. After only facing six in the opening period, he faced 35 the rest of the way. He was strong in stopping 38 of 41 shots in his MSG debut. That included a how did he save that later on Fox that had him shaking his head. It appeared that his shot went off the Finnish goalie’s mask and out of play.
Despite flat out dominating a good chunk of the play, the Rangers couldn’t get the next goal. That left the door open. Sure enough, following a failed clear, Filip Chytil took a needless tripping minor penalty on Reinhart with over 30 seconds remaining in the period. On what can best be described as a brutal sequence, both top penalty killing forwards Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad made passive stick checks on Reinhart. Undeterred, he got the puck over to Casey Mittlestadt who fed him a perfect pass for an easy one-timer past Shestyorkin with 3.2 seconds left to tie the game. This was mind numbing. It was bad enough Chytil took a lazy penalty. But then Reinhart made both Buchnevich and Zibanejad look bad on his 22nd goal and fifth in the last three games.
I don’t know about anyone else. But the way that period concluded, I was not a happy camper. In such moments, they can ill afford to give up such goals. How many times have we seen this team allow goals in the final minute of a period over the past few years? It’s the same tired story. It still happens too frequently. It doesn’t seem to matter that the starter is now Shestyorkin with Henrik Lundqvist unable to play for the Capitals due to not being cleared by his doctor. Bummer. I hope he can get clearance to return for one more season. It would suck for him not to be able to go out on his own terms. Enough about that.
All I cared about was the third period. I wasn’t the only one. Steve Valiquette is normally very calm in studio. Even he was on edge and had pointed words for the Rangers about how they had to play better in the third. Finish the job. To their credit, the Sabres play hard under interim coach Don Granato. The way they talk about him, you’d think he was the second coming of Scotty Bowman or Toe Blake. When even Valiquette sounds off the alarms, you know it’s put up or shut up time for this team. Fortunately, they did enough right to get the win.
With the game and their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the Rangers could count on Igor Shestyorkin. He was money all game. From his six stops on the ever dangerous Jeff Skinner to denying Tage Thompson, he was terrific. I can’t underline how vital he was. No Shestyorkin. No two points. There would be basically nothing to play for. Instead, even with the Bruins winning 3-1 over the Penguins, they have hope. I don’t want to get into it yet. Leave it for later.
In a game where David Quinn started to mix his lines up, you found Alexis Lafreniere moved around. He took a shift with Chytil and Kaapo Kakko. He eventually would wind up with Ryan Strome and a very quiet Artemi Panarin. Let’s just put it this way. Panarin, Zibanejad, Buchnevich, Chris Kreider and Strome hadn’t done enough up to that point. Quinn didn’t use Vitaly Kravtsov a lot in the third. He also limited Zac Jones. This was him shortening up the bench and trying to get his horses going. Thankfully, it worked. Fox was on the ice a lot out of necessity. He nearly played 27 minutes. It didn’t matter. That’s how brilliant he was. Only Miller received over 21 minutes on the blue line with him putting forth his best effort in quite some time.
The Rangers finally got their first power play when Skinner held Libor Hajek. With Quinn mostly relying on the five man unit of Fox, Kreider, Panarin, Strome and Zibanejad, they moved it around good. However, they were unable to beat Luukkonen. So, the game remained tied. Not long after, Kevin Rooney boarded Drake Caggiliua from behind. With him about to go to the box, Cozens challenged him. He started it. They each fought near the benches before being separated. What I didn’t understand is why it wasn’t even up. Cozens should’ve received two for roughing with each off for seven minutes. Instead, they gave each offsetting fighting majors with Rooney serving the extra penalty for boarding. Mindless. Thankfully, the Sabres didn’t convert on their second power play. I would’ve been livid.
Following the successive kill, Lafreniere would make something happen along with Strome. Having told Strome prior that they would get one, Lafreniere was prophetic. After Fox got the puck behind the net to Strome, he was able to escape a check and make a great centering feed for a perfect Lafreniere one-timer that Luukkonen had no chance on. His big go-ahead goal came with 10:11 remaining. It was his 10th of the season. Quinn continued to heap praise on the top pick for his improvement. His maturity and confidence are big pluses. What a time for a huge goal. Fox drew the secondary helper for assist number 42. Strome finally ended a four-game drought without a point.
With Shestyorkin continuing to hold off the Sabres with some clutch stops, it was the Players Player who impacted the game. I’m referring to Brendan Smith. On just a great open ice hit, he absolutely freight trained Thompson at the Rangers blue line. Incensed, Thompson went after Smith and cross-checked him. Smith sold it like a fine actor and then looked at the official for the call. An enraged Thompson tried to goad Smith into an even up penalty. But he wasn’t biting. That’s why I love Smith. He has gone from an afterthought to a key member of the top six. I would love to see him re-up this summer. That’s up to him. What a great T-E-A-M player.
Already on the power play, the Rangers got a little help from Caggiula, who took a delay of game minor with Buchnevich pressuring him. The Sabres felt Buchnevich deflected the puck. But it didn’t look like it. That gave the Blueshirts a five-on-three. Even though they didn’t score with Panarin firing two wrist shots wide, they continued to possess the puck. Still on the five-on-four, they finally got the look they wanted. On a Strome pass to Kreider down low, he whirled around and made a great backhand feed across to a wide open Zibanejad, who fired in a wrist shot for his 20th at 13:49. It was the sixth season he’s scored 20 or more. A sigh of relief came over me. It was 3-1. Crisis averted.
From there, the Rangers closed out the Sabres to earn the all important victory. They’re now up to 58 points with six games to go. What lies ahead are two MONSTER games against the hated Islanders. I don’t have to tell you what must happen. With the Isles getting shutout 1-0 by the Capitals to drop all three games to them, they’re only five points up on our team. Believe it or not, this is a golden opportunity for the Rangers to reel in the Long Island nemesis.
I’m only going to state this once. In order for that to happen, they must play much better hockey to win the upcoming two-game series that begins Thursday night at MSG and ends Saturday at Nassau Coliseum. There’s nothing else to say. If they want to accomplish it, they must adjust their style and prove they can outwork and out-grind the Islanders. As futile as their offense is at times, they are battle tested and a good team. They humiliated the Rangers a week ago, which looked to have buried them. Especially after that Flyers loss. Instead, the Blueshirts have won three in a row and are still alive like Jason or Michael Myers. How many lives do they have?
It’s real simple. Win these two games in regulation. That would give them a realistic chance. In order to accomplish it, Zibanejad must not disappear like he has in the previous six. Don’t believe me? Take a look at his statistics versus the Islanders. Even Fox only has one assist in the season series. The best players must show up. Will Quinn give Alex Georgiev the next game? He seems to have the Isles’ number while Shestyorkin has had some uneven games. That’s a great question. I think he’ll definitely be in for one of the two. If they don’t win Thursday, none of it will matter. It’s time to go to something classic. “Win. Win!”
That says it all. Now let’s get it done.
THREE STARS OF GAME
3rd 🌟 Brendan Smith, NYR (5th of season to match career high, 3 hits, one big penalty drawn, 4 SOG, +2 in 20:22)
2nd 🌟 Alexis Lafreniere, NYR (10th of season for game-winning goal at 9:49 of 3rd, +1 in 14:57)
1st 🌟 Igor Shestyorkin, NYR (36 saves on 37 shots including 16 for 16 in big 1st)