Tough Lineup gets exposed by Ovechkin, Caps in forgettable Season Opener


This was one to forget. It’s a good thing the Rangers have another game tonight when they play host to the Stars in the home opener. Everything that could go wrong did in a disappointing 5-1 loss to the Caps on Wednesday night in hostile territory.

For some reason, coach Gerard Gallant opted to start backup Alex Georgiev over starter Igor Shesterkin in the first game. It made no sense whatsoever. They’re paying Shesterkin to play the majority of these games. You’re telling us he can’t make back-to-back starts in the first two games? Granted. The Rangers start off with a busy schedule that includes a visit at Montreal Saturday for three games in four nights. It definitely was a head scratcher. The

Even though Georgiev allowed five goals on 27 shots, this wasn’t his fault. As Gallant pointed out afterwards, they were undisciplined taking too many penalties. The Caps scored three power play goals to take full advantage. That included T.J. Oshie putting in a rebound to open the scoring with Patrik Nemeth watching following a slashing minor. The penalty kill left too much space down low for a cross ice pass that Oshie was there to knock in.

Even though they trailed early on, the Rangers had the better of play for most of the first period. At one point, they led in shots 13-6. But that soon changed. The Capitals began to take over. They would turn things around by getting 15 of the next 16 shots.

Maybe playing the tough lineup was a mistake. If Gallant thought there would be bloodshed with Tom Wilson, he was sadly mistaken. While Sammy Blais established himself with some thunderous hits, there were no fisticuffs to the amazement of Wayne Gretzky on the NHL On TNT. In fact, the highlight of the first game on the station was a funny intermission segment featuring NBA analyst Charles Barkley, who wore recently retired Predators goalie Pekka Rinne’s glove and blocker to try to stop Gretzky on five shots. He was lucky enough to make one save. That was more fun than the game.

Most of the chances for the Blueshirts came in the first half. Vitek Vanecek stayed right with Adam Fox to deny his early bid. He also denied Kaapo Kakko, who was one of the best Rangers finishing with five shots. He looks a lot more confident. On one opportunity, he took an Artemi Panarin pass and shot quickly only to see Vanecek get across and make the big stop. If Kakko continues his progression from preseason and the first game, the goals will come.

But while the third year Finn was very noticeable throughout, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome and Panarin were barely identifiable. Neither Panarin nor Zibanejad registered a shot on goal. Kreider eventually did when he was able to tip in a Strome feed down low over Vanecek for a power play goal that broke up the shutout. However, none of the four leaders were good. In fact, a missed keep in from Panarin resulted in a Caps goal from rookie Hendrix Lapierre off an odd man rush. His first NHL goal came thanks to a nice feed from Oshie, who took advantage of Jarred Tinordi to help set up their third goal.

Previously, another penalty allowed the Caps to go to work on the power play. This time, Alex Ovechkin combined with Evgeny Kuznetsov to set up Justin Schultz for a one-timer that deflected right off Zibanejad and past Georgiev. There was nothing he could do about it. It was just bad luck. The only goal he should’ve had was the Lapierre tally 24 seconds later. Even though it was a tough chance due to only Tinordi being back, Lapierre snuck his wrist shit through Georgiev to become only the sixth Washington Capital to score his first goal as a 19-year old. Not bad for a player who dropped in the 2020 NHL Draft due to injury history. The Rangers traded out of the pick to select defenseman Braden Schneider. Lapierre is a center who will be good. So will Schneider. But he’ll have to wait.

The penalties took the Rangers out of the game. Their inability to avoid putting a historically good opponent on the power play really cost them. For every hardworking shift from Ryan Reaves, there wasn’t enough fluidity. They want to get in on the forecheck and wear opponents down. That wasn’t the case Wednesday night. Instead, there were a combined 34 penalty minutes and 11 power plays. No fireworks. The Rangers won at the physicality out-hitting the Caps 27-12. The problem was while they did finish checks, Washington focused on playing smart hockey. Even lightning rod Wilson didn’t step out of bounds. Unless you consider an accidental trip of Blais where his stick got caught in Blais’ skate something to heinous.

It wasn’t as if the Rangers didn’t have chances. Even as they got dominated at five-on-five where the Caps held a 17-12 edge in shots and scored once, the New York guests had looks on the man-advantage. But they didn’t cash in on their first four. The Caps got the saves from Vanecek (stopped 8 of 9 shorthanded). Unfortunately, Georgiev didn’t make the stops (6 shorthanded saves on 9 shots). Not that he was to blame. The first one was a smart passing play started by Ovechkin for a Kuznetsov shot that Oshie put home. The second was Kuznetsov finding an open Schultz at the point for a one-timer that went right off Zibanejad and in. By the time the third period rolled around, all Blais could do is watch from the penalty box as Ovechkin pounced on a weird carom off Anthony Mantha’s chest to surprise Georgiev, who lost sight of the puck. It was another bad bounce. That’s hockey.

By that point with 17:23 remaining in the third, the Caps were ahead 4-0. A Dmitry Orlov cross-checking minor on Jacob Trouba finally handed the Rangers another power play. This time, they made a simple play to get on the scoreboard. After Panarin slipped the puck to Fox, he moved it over for Strome, who looked pass all the way. His perfect shot pass for Kreider at the side of the net allowed the longest tenured current Ranger to do what he does best. He neatly deflected the puck over Vanecek into the net for his first of the season at 9:13. That cut the deficit to 4-1.

There was some brief hope that they could make it a game. Following Barclay Goodrow, who was quiet, hi-sticking Orlov, eight seconds later, Oshie took down Fox to even it up. That created a four-on-four. But even in a situation that likely benefited them, the Blueshirts couldn’t get much going. There wasn’t any room. Credit the Caps for playing strong defensively. They were diligent checking and didn’t allow Panarin, Zibanejad or Fox to create anything.

Shortly before the Oshie penalty expired, Kuznetsov made a smart read. Noticing that Ovechkin was still on with the Rangers only having an abbreviated eight second power play, he made a diagonal pass off the corner boards. With the Great Eight flying, K’Andre Miller got turned around. His late reaction allowed an attacking Ovechkin to recover the puck and break in on Georgiev and easily beat him with a nifty backhand for goal number 732. That allowed the living legend to pass Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time in goal scoring. In a game he was questionable for, the amazing 36-year old Russian sniper again reminded the hockey world why he could someday challenge Gretzky’s record. Not only did he get his first two goals, but helped set up a pair as well for a four-point effort to earn the game’s First Star. Remarkable.

That was it for the scoring. Not much else happened of note. Once a game is decided, you always wonder if things will turn nasty. Other than a few scrums, there wasn’t much. No message sending. Not enough intensity shown. Dryden Hunt, who they chose to play over Julien Gauthier, logged less than 10 minutes. I fail to see why he’s on the roster over the exiled Vitali Kravtsov. Libor Hajek sat out along with Nils Lundkvist, who watched Tinordi get turned around and turn over the puck a few times. No doubt he’ll make his NHL debut tonight. Hopefully, that means no Trouba on the second power play. Gauthier should get in and play third line, which was ineffective except for Blais. Filip Chytil was also very quiet.

Not enough players pulled their weight. If they do that on an emotional night where they’ll honor the memory of legend Rod Gilbert, it’ll be cause for concern. Gilbert was front and center long after his Hall Of Fame career all spent with the Rangers. The all-time franchise leader in goals and points was the team ambassador who always greeted adoring fans with a big smile. Whether at games or Rangers special events, he was a prideful man of class. His number 7 was the first jersey the franchise retired. It will hang from the rafters with pride all season. Hopefully, the players representing the Blueshirts remember that by honoring him the right way.

They have to turn the page. The Stars should be good. It shouldn’t be an easy game. We’ll see how they respond.

The Rangers did show improvement in one key area. They dominated on face-offs winning 61 percent by going 31-and-20. Kevin Rooney was the best center winning 8 of 10. Chytil went 6-and-2 while Zibanejad won 8 of 13. Goodrow went 5-and-2. Only Strome struggled finishing 4 of 12. This is an area to follow. They’ll get tested by a good face-off team later.

THREE STARS OF THE GAME

3rd ⭐ T.J. Oshie, Caps (PPG plus 🍎, +1 in 14:57)

2nd ⭐ Evgeny Kuznetsov, Caps (3 🍎, +1 in 21:22)

1st ⭐ Alex Ovechkin, Caps (2 goals and 2 🍎 including goal number 732 to pass Dionne for fifth all-time)

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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