Lafreniere’s hustle wins tuneup over Bruins, Lundkvist inches closer to roster cut down to 27, Lehner and Carcillo speak out

On Saturday night, the Rangers played their fourth exhibition game of six in Boston. Despite at times being dominated by the Perfection Line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, they were able to hang around and defeat the Bruins in overtime 4-3.

Alexis Lafreniere won it when he anticipated a Linus Ullmark pass, stole the puck and in one motion sent a backhand into the empty net to end the game portion. It was a heady play by the second-year left wing, who could be poised for a good season. He is expected to start ’21-22 on the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. The best part about the winning play is it came at the end of a long shift where he and Kaapo Kakko got stuck in their end during three-on-three. He still had enough energy to takeaway the puck and capitalize on Ullmark’s mistake.

After the game ended, the two Original Six rivals took part in a practice shootout. Something the Rangers haven’t been doing at MSG. I’m glad. However, most teams are doing it for fun. In the skill competition, Kevin Rooney and Sammy Blais each scored to take the shootout backed by Tyler Wall, who came in for Alex Georgiev and played well. It’s the second time he’s looked good. Especially against the Boston big shooters.

Playing with another mixed squad that included Lafreniere, Kakko, goal scorer Ryan Strome, Rooney, Ryan Reaves, Blais, Julien Gauthier, Morgan Barron, Ryan Lindgren, Patrik Nemeth, Nils Lundkvist and Braden Schneider, they did alright. Boston took an early lead, but Strome responded by putting home a loose puck past Ullmark. Lundkvist assisted on it. He had a good offensive game with two helpers. It definitely inched him closer to making the roster.

A former first round pick, Lundkvist is a smooth skating offensive defenseman with a good shot. He used it well on the second power play unit. The shot wound up deflecting off the gritty Blais, who had a strong game finishing checks and taking away pucks in the neutral zone. He’s a hard-nosed player. Ditto for free agent addition Reaves, who helped turn the tide with an active shift where he banged bodies. One thing about Reaves. You notice him. That energy can rub off on teammates. It’s why adding high character guys like him, Blais and Barclay Goodrow should provide a healthy balance to the roster.

One interesting pairing from Saturday was Lindgren with Schneider. Normally, Lindgren plays with Adam Fox, who didn’t dress yesterday. However, Gerard Gallant tried out the 20-year old Schneider alongside Lindgren. They were solid together. Especially the former 2020 first round pick. Schneider is rarely caught out of position and is very active defensively. Compared to the other young defensemen the organization have, he looks to be the strongest. He isn’t afraid to deliver hits and plays smart positionally. He obviously isn’t ready yet. But a full season in Hartford should do him well.

One player who struggled in the game was Matthew Robertson. Another D prospect who’s part of a very deep farm system, the 20-year old former ’19 second round pick received 17:21 of ice time including one 40-second power play shift and a 28-second shift while shorthanded. Behind Lundkvist, Zac Jones and Schneider on the depth chart, the Edmonton native had to wait to get into preseason due to an injury. Perhaps it explains why he was caught by surprise from the always dangerous Marchand while shorthanded.

In what can best be described as a Welcome To NHL Hockey moment, the Rat as he’s known, blew by Robertson, who fell down and could only watch Marchand roof a backhand top shelf on Georgiev for a shorthanded goal. This isn’t the Western Hockey League (WHL). Obviously, Robertson will join Schneider in the AHL. Will Jones be joining them? That remains to be seen with two exhibitions left.

Libor Hajek, who’s competing for a roster spot, picked up an assist in 20:18. He is the holdover from the Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller trade. A deal that also includes Lundkvist, who they are banking on to turn around a lopsided one in favor of the two-time rating Stanley Cup champion Lightning Bolts. While Lundkvist is the new shiny toy the Blueshirts want to show off on the second power play and at even strength in the offensive zone, Hajek has been totally forgotten. He actually found himself last season on the third pair as a trusted regular under former coach David Quinn.

A good enough skater who isn’t poor defensively despite the analytics crowd who should look at who he played with, I feel bad for him. He took a one-year, two-way contract where they could send him down. He would have to clear waivers. You’re telling me a weaker team like Buffalo couldn’t use Hajek? Let’s be real here. They screwed him over like they did Dylan McIlrath. It happens. Hopefully, the 23-year old Czech catches on elsewhere.

With the club cutting the roster down to 27, Hajek is among nine defensemen left with Lundkvist, Jones and Jarred Tinordi. If you went off preseason, Jones and Lundkvist have been more impressive than incumbent K’Andre Miller. But he’s locked in on the second pair with Jacob Trouba. Tinordi was overkill due to Tom Wilson. He is not better than any of the younger players. My guess is you’re looking at a starting defense of Lindgren-Fox, Miller-Trouba and Nemeth-Lundkvist. They’ll probably decide to keep Tinordi over Hajek and Jones with the latter having the option to further develop at Hartford.

As expected, both Schneider and Robertson were assigned to the Wolf Pack along with Lauri Pajuniemi, Tyler Wall and Adam Huska. The sixth player was feisty 19-year old right wing Will Cuylle, who impressed with his edgy play. He finished a good check at the conclusion of the second period that irked some Bruins. Reaves was on the ice to prevent anything further. The hit came before the buzzer. Cuylle also looked good two weeks ago in the Flyers Rookie games scoring a pair on the power play in front. Keep an eye on him. Ditto for ’21 first round pick Brennan Othmann, who took a lot away from his first NHL camp.

The remaining forwards still being considered are Barron, Gauthier, Dryden Hunt and veteran Greg McKegg. Updating reporters on Vitali Kravtsov, Gallant termed him “day-to-day.” Hopefully, they get good news. The remaining two exhibitions are Wednesday against the Devils and Saturday versus the Islanders. If Kravtsov is ready for Opening Night at MSG against the Capitals, I can see Gallant opting for a bigger lineup due to Wilson and Garnet Hathaway. Maybe we see Gauthier dress on the third line with Filip Chytil and Goodrow while Rooney plays on the checking line with Blais and Reaves. I believe Gauthier deserves to be on the roster. It’s just a question of who they choose as a 14th forward. Hunt or Barron, who can win draws and kill penalties. McKegg likely will be cut and either clear or go elsewhere.

With Keith Kinkaid clearing waivers, Gallant has decided to go with Igor Shesterkin and Georgiev. Kinkaid isn’t a bad guy to keep around as a third netminder. But what does that mean for Huska and Wall in the ‘A?’ We’ll see.

There really isn’t much else to add regarding the Rangers. The preseason is too long. You hope your team escapes serious injuries. Personally, I would cut down from six to four games tops. There’s no point in having so many players in camp if you already know where most are ticketed. Gallant has intentionally held Artemi Panarin out of the lineup since the first Boston game where he was sharp putting up three points. He could play in the final two tuneups.

I want to comment on a very hot 🔥 topic. It has everything to do with the serious accusations Robin Lehner made which Daniel Carcillo fully supported. It’s in reference to how teams push prescription drugs like Ambien and benzodiazepines. Nicknamed benzos, they are psychoactive drugs that can be very addicting. Exactly the kind of dangerous drugs that have cost former NHL players their lives. Steve Montador remains one of the tragic tales. The former defenseman who spent time with the Blackhawks, was basically blackballed according to former friend and teammate Carcillo. He tweeted some very interesting stuff about how poorly the Blackhawks treated Montador.

It’s sad. We remember Derek Boogaard for the same reason. It’s been a decade since he died of an accidental drug overdose. It still hurts. The NHL wants to speak with Lehner on what he said. He’s one of the few players with the balls to speak up about a very serious league issue. They probably want to silence him. Everyone knows how much damage control the NHL has done regarding this topic. We could name more casualties who couldn’t survive off the ice without those highly addictive drugs. Rick Rypien. Wade Belak. All suffered from depression. They relied on painkillers that were prescribed by team doctors.

This stuff has gone on for a long time. It needs to be addressed by both the NHL and NHLPA. They can’t keep pretending it doesn’t exist. Having concussion protocol in place helps make sure players who sustain head injuries are medically cleared to return. But when you have a former tough guy like Carcillo citing that Montador had up to 19 concussions, that is mind numbing. There needs to be accountability. I’m curious to see if anything happens. Good for Lehner, who overcame his off ice issues to become a good NHL goalie.

Let’s hope they don’t ignore the problem anymore. COVID isn’t the only issue. Maybe it’s time for the biased media to pay closer attention to what Carcillo and Lehner have said instead of treating the few unvaccinated players as if they’re criminals. The real criminals are employed by the NHL. They have gotten a free ride long enough.

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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