Hometown kid Lafreniere gets game-winner to give Rangers first victory of season over Canadiens, Shesterkin stands tall


The biggest story entering the third game of the season was the return home for Alexis Lafreniere in Montreal. Although the former 2020 top pick is from the Province of Quebec, that’s right outside the big Canadian city. Playing in front of his family and friends for the first time, Lafreniere didn’t disappoint. He scored the big game-winner with over 10 minutes left to help the Rangers get their first victory of the season over the Canadiens at a packed Bell Centre.

What made it even more special is that he did it with his proud parents in attendance. Due to the pandemic, they never got to see their son play in the abbreviated ’20-21 season. For Lafreniere, it was a special moment for sure. Up to that point following Jonathan Drouin tying the game 26 seconds prior to put the sellout Habs crowd in a frenzy for their own inspiring player who’s overcome anxiety and depression off the ice, Lafreniere had come on strong during the game. Even better, the recently turned 20-year old left wing stepped up in a key moment to provide the spark the Rangers needed to get out of Montreal with a win. It gave them points in two straight and made their record 1-1-1 with an even tougher test tomorrow night at Toronto.

Playing the game without the COVID stricken Ryan Strome, the Rangers did okay even though it was their third game in four nights. They got stellar goaltending from number one starter Igor Shesterkin, who made some huge stops on his way to 31 altogether to earn the game’s First Star. He really came up big when the Canadiens started to press the action during the second half. That’s the kind of performance the Blueshirts will need from the aggressive Russian netminder to succeed. He tracked the puck well and also handled it to help his defense out.

A key area that was better was the special teams. Over the first two games, the Rangers had allowed four power play goals and only scored once on the man-advantage. In this one, they won the battle by killing off all three of Montreal’s power plays and went 1-for-4 on the power play. Once again, it was Chris Kreider, who did the dirty work to score for a third consecutive game breaking a scoreless tie nearly halfway through the contest. It was his second power play goal. Coincidentally, all three of his goals have come directly in front of the opposing goalie. The first two on tip-ins and the third on a rebound that he chipped past Habs starter Jake Allen. Of course, Allen is the Montreal number one with Carey Price getting help for an off ice issue in an NHL program. Hopefully, he is able to return.

Without Strome, Filip Chytil moved up to center the second line with Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko. Hartford call up Greg McKegg played mostly on the fourth line with Dryden Hunt. To make room for McKegg, Julien Gauthier was scratched. Barclay Goodrow wound up with Sammy Blais and Ryan Reaves on an effective checking line. Reaves had a particularly strong game drawing two penalties and making a nice defensive play in the neutral zone late to get a puck in deep. One issue coach Gerard Gallant ran into was that Kakko suffered a lower-body injury. He took nine shifts (6:16) before exiting the game. Right now, he’s day-to-day. We’ll know more tomorrow. If he can’t go against the Maple Leafs, that leaves the Rangers in a bind if Strome isn’t ready by Monday. Gauthier could be back in unless they recall Morgan Barron, who’s off to a quick start with Hartford having scored in both games. This is where you really wish Vitali Kravtsov was available. More on that later.

Due to being short a man, Gallant mixed and matched. He wasn’t shy about double shifting Zibanejad, Kreider or Panarin on a makeshift fourth line. That’s what good coaches do when their bench is short a forward. I thought he did a nice job managing the minutes. Of course, he leaned heavily on his top players while Chytil also received over 21 minutes. He didn’t hurt himself in the extended look on the second line. He also was the only Blueshirt who had a good night on face-offs, going 6-and-5. As a team, the Rangers lost 34 of 56 draws to the Canadiens. But it didn’t matter.

Following a long opening ceremony which MSG Network chose not to show for whatever reason (who would want to see the Canadiens with a great introduction to their first capacity crowd in over a year), the teams took to the ice and dropped the puck around 7:25 PM. So, it was almost like a 7:30 game on a Saturday night in Montreal. What’s better than hockey up north on a Hockey Night In Canada? Exactly. MSG really isn’t the same since Dolan put the screws to the viewers. I guess I would’ve preferred to see the pregame ceremony. I’m glad someone I follow posted a video from her seats. Awesome.

The Rangers took a couple of penalties in an otherwise solid road period. Even though the call on Reaves was tacky, the penalty kill got the job done. They didn’t allow many Montreal shots. Ditto for K’Andre Miller, who was off for a trip on the very elusive Cole Caufield. He really will be a rookie to watch. He’s got explosive speed and a great shot which he’s not shy about using. Someone oughta fill Panarin in. He had a lousy game. I know he got a secondary assist on the Kreider goal. But not once did he look to take a shot. If that’s how he’s gonna play, he’s stealing money. He hasn’t exactly gotten off to a strong start. I expect much better from him.

At least the Rangers did a good job defensively. In particular, Ryan Lindgren had his best game to date. He was physical and blocked a game high six shots while teaming with wunderkind Adam Fox to play 3:26 shorthanded. Each third year defenseman played shutdown hockey at even strength. They also were on the ice for two Ranger goals. Well, Fox was on for all three including the Kreider power play tally and Kevin Rooney’s empty netter at 19:50. What else would you expect from the rating Norris winner, whose game looks even better. He’s on a different level.

It wasn’t until midway through the second period that someone scored. After failing on their first two tries, the Rangers got a third consecutive power play when Jacob Trouba was hooked by Mathieu Perreault. This time, they made it work. With Panarin feeding Zibanejad for a quick shot, the loose puck caromed to Kreider as he got just enough of it to squeak it by Allen for a 1-0 lead at 9:59. That stick to it mentality is something he’s done in all three games. I think his style really fits the way Gallant wants to play. Maybe I was smart to grab Kreider in my fantasy league. He’s really backing up his words. It’s nice to see him silencing the critics. He has an important role on this team and is a good leader.

Following his goal, the desperate Canadiens pushed hard. However, every time they created a good scoring chance, Shesterkin stopped them in their tracks. He was very good taking away shots down low while controlling rebounds and using his quick glove to take away anything high. He made 13 saves in the second and then held it together in a busy third where he turned aside 13 of 14 shots for a combined 26 saves the last two periods. That was after only facing five in the opening frame.

Despite being outshot 13-9 in the second, the Rangers had four straight power plays. Had they taken advantage of some undisciplined Habs’ penalties, they could’ve put the game away. Especially with Montreal struggling to score in the early going. Instead, they took a one goal lead to the locker room.

It was during the third that that lack of killer instinct nearly cost them. With Montreal continuing to carry the play against a tired Rangers team, they were more on their heels. After again successful killing a penalty on Lafreniere for tripping, the Rangers got a little sloppy. Ninety seconds later, Drouin tied the game when he took a nice feed from Christian Dvorak and quickly beat Shesterkin from in front at 9:24. On the play, Brett Kulak passed the puck for Dvorak, who went wide on Miller behind to he net. With Trouba occupied with another Habs forward, that meant both defensemen were behind the net. A no no. No forward made the switch on a wide open Drouin, who buried his second of the season. It had to feel great. He sure got tremendous support from the crowd. Why not. They listed it as 21,105. A sellout.

Regarding Trouba and Miller, they need to be better than the shenanigans we saw in the third. It wasn’t only the goal against they were on for. Following the clutch Lafreniere goal on just an outstanding passing play started by Fox with Zibanejad perfectly setting up the young forward for a nice belated birthday present, the dynamic duo were out for another shift where they nearly got victimized. After Miller turned over a puck, Trouba got completely faked out only for Shesterkin to bail him out with an easy glove save. Let’s put it this way. He made it look easy even though it was a good chance. That’s a credit to how well he played.

Predictably, Gallant opted not to use Nils Lundkvist down the stretch. While I get the logic behind the move, could he have been any worse than Trouba? I want to see the rookie learn. We know he’ll put up points due to his skating and skill. But they also must learn to trust him defensively. It’s going to be crucial. Partner Patrik Nemeth got more ice time. That was understandable. But Gallant went with his horses in Fox, Lindgren and Trouba. Miller and Lundkvist are keys to the season. One former first round pick is in his second year while the other just completed his second game. It’ll take some time.

Following the Trouba scare, the Rangers did a sound job protecting the lead. They got two key soft clears off the boards that weren’t iced from Kreider and then Fox. That allowed them to get changes. Those are very smart plays from two of the team’s best players. They also trusted Reaves late with Rooney and Blais. It’s good to use different players and feel confident that they can get it done in close games. We know how bad this team was in one goal games last year. This was a step in the right direction.

With time winding down, a clear to the neutral zone allowed Rooney to get the loose puck and gain center ice before skating and firing his first into a vacated Montreal net to seal the win. Exhales for the bench and the fans. All in all, it was a solid performance. Any time they win in the House of Horrors, that’s a good thing. We can feel better about Halloween.

BATTLE OF HUDSON THREE STARS 🤩

3rd ⭐ Fox/Kreider, NYR (🍎, PPG, 5 SOG, combined +4)

2nd ⭐ Alexis Lafreniere, NYR (game-winner at 9:50 of 3rd, 1st goal of season, 5 SOG, 3 hits, +1 in 16:16)

1st ⭐ Igor Shesterkin, NYR (31 saves on 32 shots including 26/27 final 2 periods for 1st win of season)

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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