Backed by Shesterkin, Rangers continue successful road trip in wins over Toronto and Nashville, Panarin finally scores and Chytil clicks with Lafreniere and Blais minus Kakko/Strome


Sometimes, it’s as simple as the goalie standing tall against good opponents. Since giving up the Miro Heiskanen overtime winner in his season debut that he felt he should’ve had last Thursday, Igor Shesterkin has been on a roll. It’s been the brilliant play of the third year netminder that’s propelled the Rangers to three consecutive wins on the road.

After stoning the Maple Leafs on Monday with 40 saves including 16 in a lopsided second period, Shesterkin played another excellent game to help backstop the Rangers to a well earned 3-1 win at Nashville last night. He was able to outduel Predators’ starting goalie Juuse Saros to improve to 3-0-1 in four straight starts this season. Unlike Monday night when he was under siege due to the Leafs’ face-off domination prior to Mika Zibanejad going forward with a draw that resulted in a surprising Artemi Panarin overtime winner, Shesterkin didn’t have to face a barrage against the pesky Preds. He was good enough to make 28 saves which was one better than Saros, who also had a good night.

The difference in this one proved to be the newly formed second line anchored by Filip Chytil. After he had success by moving Panarin up to the right side to play on the top line with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, coach Gerard Gallant decided to keep the trio intact for last night. Without Ryan Strome and Kaapo Kakko, maybe he felt it was the best way to go for the time being. Although they didn’t hit the score sheet, that forced Nashville coach John Hynes to match his top line and number one pair against them. Perhaps that matchup helped the second line of Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere and Sammy Blais, who combined for five points (2-3-5), 12 shots on goal and a plus-six rating.

Following a good successful coach’s challenge from Hynes that negated a Ryan Lindgren goal due to Panarin being offsides, Adam Fox led a quick transition into the Nashville zone. After going wide to take a player with him, he was able to find a cutting Blais down the middle where instead of shooting, he made a nice pass across for a wide open Lafreniere, who buried the chance for the game-winner with 9:07 remaining in regulation. On that same shift, Lafreniere used some deception to get off a tough shot on Saros that he repelled. This time, the improving sophomore got his second of the season on some great passing from both Fox and Blais, who had his best game so far by recording a pair of assists.

When asked about the opportunity to play with Lafreniere, who was seated right next to him at a postgame conference call, he called the former top pick an “unbelievable player.” Some nice praise for a second year kid who’s not just relying on his skill to make a difference. He has a tremendous work ethic. Lafreniere isn’t all finesse. He will go to the hard areas to score goals. That amount of hustle will get rewarded. We know about the skating and speed he possesses. But he shows great maturity with his effort and the way he handles himself. He has the same calm demeanor as a great player he probably looks up to who plays in the division.

Unlike the game at Toronto where Shesterkin had to deal with the relentless shooting sniper Auston Matthews (8 SOG in 16 attempts), the Rangers got off to a better start in Music City. On a good play in the defensive zone started by Lafreniere, he moved the puck to Blais who then was able to find Chytil in transition. Using his explosive speed, the former ’17 first round pick was able to break in on Saros to create a two-on-one. Looking pass, instead Chytil surprised Saros with a backhand that beat him far side to the glove (he catches right) at 2:12 of the first period. It was the first of the season for Chytil. He needed it. He had some chances, but hadn’t gotten anything to go. That should give him a confidence boost entering Saturday’s 1 PM matinee at Ottawa.

The first was pretty back and forth between the two teams. They combined for 22 total shots. Nashville outshot the Rangers 12-10. Although they generated quality chances, Shesterkin was there to deny them. His best save came when he got across to deny a point blank opportunity from Mikael Granlund that looked like a certain goal. Not so fast. That’s how locked in Shesterkin is right now. In the last three wins, he’s stopped 99 of 102 shots. Not much is getting by him. The only Toronto goal three days ago came on a fluky Michael Bunting rebound in the second period. It was again another strange one from 20-year old rookie Philip Tomasino, who of course became the latest player to get his first NHL goal versus the Rangers. It came off a funny Ryan Johansen carom. That tied it 7:01 into the second.

The frustrating aspect of the game was the power play. They went 0-for-4 including blowing a two-man advantage earlier in the period. Part of the problem is without Kakko and Strome, Gallant is limited in his options for the second unit. He used the top unit a lot more than the second one which is lacking. That meant more of Zibanejad, Panarin, Fox, Kreider and Lafreniere. In the four opportunities, they managed eight shots on Saros, who stopped them in their tracks. Sound familiar? It’s like the groundhog seeing his shadow. Cue Bill Murray as Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. It doesn’t matter who coaches. Let’s hope things improve once Strome is cleared and Kakko returns. He did take the morning skate. He isn’t eligible for tomorrow’s game. But would be for Calgary when they are back at MSG after the weekend.

After 40 minutes, the game was tied at one. The shots favored the Predators, 24-22. Each side had a dozen in the middle stanza. Credit both Shesterkin and Saros, who as I said were good throughout. They’re both young number one goalies. Ironically enough, each was taken in the fourth round of their drafts. Saros went 99th in 2013 while Shesterkin was picked 118th in 2014. They took different routes with Saros coming over from Finland by age 21 to back up Predators’ legend Pekka Rinne, who just retired. Shesterkin stayed home in Russia where he played in the KHL until finally coming over in ’19-20 at age 24. Both have a cap hit of at least $5 million. Shesterkin gets $5.666 million AAV. Each have pressure to perform with Saros replacing Rinne and Shesterkin trying to fulfill expectations after getting a new contract. There’s definitely some similarities. Saros is 26 while Shesterkin turns 26 on December 30.

In the third, the Blueshirts killed off a Barclay Goodrow roughing minor to keep the game tied. Predictably, it was a bit tighter. You didn’t have as many shots or scoring chances. In fact, the Rangers clamped down to hold the Preds to only five shots. That along with some strong play in the neutral zone allowed them to earn their third consecutive win. After starting the season with back-to-back losses including a tough OT defeat to the Stars, they’re up to 3-1-1. An important thing considering how competitive the Metropolitan Division is. Both Carolina and Washington are off to quick starts. So are the Blue Jackets, who seem to be out to prove they can compete without a star player. Elvis Merzlikins is the biggest reason for that. He’s dedicated the season to close Latvian friend Matiss Kivlenieks, who tragically passed away on the Fourth of July. He’s been great so far.

On kind of a strange play, the Blueshirts thought they had the lead when Lindgren had a shot take a good bounce off a Predator to sneak past Saros. However, Hynes immediately challenged for offsides. He got some good input from his video replay staff as Panarin was pushed over the blue line before the puck fully entered play. That made it offside. There was no protest from the Rangers bench. They probably knew it. It would’ve been a lucky bounce. That’s not exactly how a well played game should be decided. Especially in net. Instead, you had a better ending.

Shortly after, Fox made another one of those subtle plays that really reminds me of a Hall Of Fame defenseman that played for a bitter rival. No. He doesn’t compare to any former Rangers legends. It’s another player, who Fox plays eerily similar to. I won’t say at this moment. It’s not the right time. On the winning play, Fox smoothly skated through the neutral zone, gained the Nashville blue line and was able to thread a perfect seam pass for Blais while being covered. That led directly to Blais feeding Lafreniere for his game deciding goal at 10:53 of the third period. It really was a great passing play. Fox was the reason why. This far, he’s got four points (1-3-4) in five games. He’s also a plus-five while logging the usual enormous minutes at five-on-five and on the penalty kill against the best players with overlooked partner Lindgren. They’re becoming one of the league’s most dependable tandems. Both are 23. Fox will be signed to a rich extension soon.

I could go on about Fox. I didn’t take him to repeat for the Norris. I thought Cale Makar would win it. He’s off to a lousy start along with the Avalanche. However, things can change. Don’t expect Colorado to continue to struggle. I’m sure Makar will be in the conversation with Fox. However, I’m going to now ask the question. Who would you rather have? I didn’t think Fox was in that category a while ago. But the way he plays the game has changed my mind. It’s number 23 who is the Rangers’ best player. Without him, they’d be lost. If you subtracted Fox from the lineup, the Rangers would crumble. He’s proving it daily.

Goodrow, who was strong in the third defensively, earned his first as a Ranger when he scored into an open net. It was the consistent play from the supporting cast that decided it. Lines two through four got it done. That even includes Greg McKegg, who got key minutes at even strength and the penalty kill. Morgan Barron played on the fourth line while Julien Gauthier sat out. Gauthier is becoming another team ornament. If he can’t break into a lineup without two top six forwards, what’s he still doing on the roster? Nothing is ever as it seems with this team. Chris Drury kept Gauthier, Libor Hajek and Dryden Hunt. How can they justify that? At least Hunt plays the kind of edgy style Gallant prefers. Hajek is AHL fodder. Gauthier is the new Brett Howden. Stone Hands Part II.

Meanwhile, a little update on Vitali Kravtsov, who remains home in Russia. He’s waiting for the Rangers leadership to do something. It is apparent he’ll never play another game for them. Not as long as Drury is around. Especially after finding out he berated the former first round pick twice. I think he knew once they made the organizational changes, he was gone. More is coming to the surface with Arthur Staple now doubling coverage on the Rangers despite being an Islanders insider on The Athletic. He took over for Rick Carpiniello, who retired. Gallant did call up Kravtsov to try to change his mind. But it was too late. If the Rangers don’t come off their demand of a top six forward, it won’t be easily resolved. For the time being, it doesn’t matter as it doesn’t affect the roster moving forward. Time will tell if Kravtsov is right. I’ll never understand how he didn’t make the roster.

At least the Rangers are off to a good start. That matters. You don’t want to fall behind early in such a division where every point is so valuable. That includes the one they got against Dallas. I wonder about Alex Georgiev. How many starts will he get? Would you start him at Ottawa with a quick turnover? Or do you ride the hot hand in Shesterkin? I like that Gallant made it clear who his starter was. A huge difference from David Quinn, who never committed to Shesterkin. It’s obvious that he’s the guy. They’re going to depend on him a lot this season.

It’s refreshing to see a supporting cast take some pressure off the top guns. Panarin remains stuck on one goal. So does Zibanejad. You need balance to be successful. Guys like Blais, Goodrow and the underrated Kevin Rooney really help. Lafreniere and Chytil came through. They’ve won three of five without getting anything from Kakko. That is a net positive.

So was the defensive play from Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller, who both had their best games. They were strong defensively and reliable. Trouba had some key shifts late and prevented a potential tying goal by taking away a Matt Duchene pass when he probably should’ve shot. He was on his backhand. Trouba stayed home to break it up. Patrik Nemeth also gavwe the Blueshirts 20 big minutes. As usual, Nils Lundkvist was on the bench down the stretch. He didn’t do anything wrong. At some point, they have to trust him.

That’s gonna do it for now. I’ll have more either later today or Saturday.

BATTLE OF HUDSON THREE STARS

3rd ⭐ Sammy Blais, NYR (2 🍎, 4 SOG, +2 in 12:06)

2nd ⭐ Alexis Lafreniere, NYR (GWG 2nd goal plus 🍎, 4 SOG, +2 in 16:07)

1st ⭐ Igor Shesterkin, NYR (28 saves on 29 shots, 3-0 in last 3 starts with 99 stops on 102 shots)

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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