Rangers hang on to pass test against pesky Cats, Gallant not happy but win snaps three-game losing streak


“That’s a little maybe too nerve racking at the end. But we pulled it off at the end and got the win. … You try not to not think about it. They haven’t lost in regulation. We give them the first loss. We take these two points and move on. “-Mika Zibanejad on the Rangers’ 4-3 win over the Panthers, who had previously not lost in regulation.

The Rangers needed a win in the worst way. They got it by scoring four goals in the first two periods and then hanging on literally against the pesky Cats, who never gave up. It all resulted in a 4-3 win at MSG before 14,877.

That halted a three-game losing streak (0-1-2). Like Mika Zibanejad said following the win, they’ll take it. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch. However, you don’t get style points. At the end of the day, it’s a win on home ice against one of the best teams. That’s the positive takeaway along with the brilliance of Igor Shesterkin, who again was Mount Igor by making 42 saves to preserve a one-goal win in the closing seconds.

Coach Gerard Gallant wasn’t too pleased despite getting the win. He was happy with the offense which came on special teams and during a pivotal four-on-four that allowed them to build a 4-0 lead after two periods. Despite being outplayed at five-on-five and outshot by a wide margin (39-8 at 5-on-5) including 45-18 overall, they were very opportunistic to earn the two points.

What Gallant didn’t like was how many wide open chances the dynamic Panthers had. From the slot area, they were credited with 22 chances to the Rangers’ 9. It’s certainly an area Gallant wants to fix with a much needed four day break. Their next game isn’t until at Columbus on Saturday. Then, the schedule picks up again with the Devils the following night and Montreal a week from Tuesday.

One thing Gallant is correct about is that the schedule so far has been tough. He said that the nine games they’ve played on the road were the second most behind the Islanders, who are still on a 13-game road trip before they finally open their new arena in Belmont. That’s true. It isn’t easy to do all that travel and come out ahead. So far, they are thanks to the superior goaltending of Shesterkin and the continued superb play from Adam Fox, who was in the middle of it again tonight. His shorthanded goal with less than six seconds left in the first period was gigantic.

This game was won on special teams and during a crucial four-on-four. That’s where the Rangers hit the jackpot. With Florida coming in having dealt previously unbeaten Carolina their first loss, they had captain Aleksander Barkov back after he sat out with a lower-body injury. They only were missing Sam Bennett. As expected, Filip Chytil didn’t play for the Blueshirts. Instead of recalling Greg McKegg for the umpteenth time, they actually played Julien Gauthier (if you can call 8:46 TOI playing). He was on the latest third line with Barclay Goodrow and ghost Alexis Lafreniere (1 missed shot in 10:07 including a 31-second power play shift).

Moving up to the top line was the versatile Sammy Blais, who again was effective throughout. It doesn’t seem to matter where they put him. He only knows one way to play. He has one more point than Pavel Buchnevich, who some misguided souls are pointing to for the lack of scoring production. He of two goals and an assist on a good Blues team. Maybe he misses Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. This isn’t to suggest they’ve replaced him. Not yet at least. Although Kaapo Kakko had one of his better games.

Before I get to the particulars on the game, it was Military Appreciation Night. I’m glad they honor our veterans, who sure deserve the acknowledgement for all they’ve done for our country. One that remains divided. Maybe if they did more for the vets, there’d be less animosity and a lot more positive support. They’re exemplary people who deserve this honor. Not just on Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day either. Thank you! 💜🙏✨⭐

After they honored a veteran who dropped the ceremonial first puck between Barkov and Jacob Trouba (seriously), there was a great rendition of the National Anthem followed by the game. I thought I heard a smattering of boos for Trouba, who hasn’t exactly been lights out at the start of his third year in the Big Apple. More encouraging was that he had a good game as did much maligned K’Andre Miller, who sure picked a great time to score a highlight reel goal that had Gallant joking that he’d move him up to left wing for next game. If you watch the postgame interview above, Miller didn’t take the bait.

The first period was very fast moving and exciting to watch. One thing about the Panthers. They play a great style that involves skating, speed, skill and a strong forecheck. They aren’t shy when it comes to shooting the puck. The polar opposite of the Rangers, who rank dead last in average shots per game. That’s probably by design under Gallant. But even he knows you can’t get outshot by such a wide margin and have sustained success.

Before five minutes had been played, Patrik Nemeth took another penalty when he grabbed onto Sam Reinhart during a puck battle along the boards. Nemeth has to stay away from those penalties. He’s a key penalty killer who blocks shots. Good thing Shesterkin and the Rangers had his back. It also helped that Carter Verhaeghe got his stick up on Ryan Lindgren to make it four-on-four for 24 seconds. That penalty was one they took advantage of.

Once up five-on-four, it was the Blueshirts who grabbed the 1-0 lead thanks to some splendid work down low from the trio of Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad and Kreider. It was Panarin who setup an open Zibanejad in front for a quick one-timer that a sliding Spencer Knight stopped. He made a very good save, but couldn’t control the rebound that went right to who else but Kreider for his league-leading sixth power play goal. His team best ninth was a perfect way to start it off after Kreider called out the team for their awful play in Calgary. He has been terrific so far. The true leader of this team.

After leading in shots with eight in the early going, the Rangers started giving up the blue line to the swarming Cats’ attack. They possess a lot of speed through the neutral zone and can transition like a speeding express train. Aside from Shesterkin making some great stops including an incredible pad save on a shot he couldn’t have seen, the Panthers missed the net from point blank range a few times. That even included Barkov prior to the Kreider goal.

With under a minute to go, Kevin Rooney got a strange unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty. He wasn’t happy even mouthing off before going to the box before a stoppage. It looked like a weak call. But rather than be passive, the penalty kill was aggressive. That paid off when on a good Zibanejad rush, he passed for Goodrow, who made a terrific back pass to a cutting Fox for a huge shorthanded goal at 19:54. Goodrow made the play to essentially send Fox in. One on one with Knight, he went to the backhand to beat the rookie for a 2-0 lead. Just brilliant.

In the postgame, Zibanejad felt they played two good periods. Even though they didn’t have the puck a lot in the first, they were only two shots down (9-11) and led by two where it counted. I know the shots for the second favored Florida 17-6. But I felt that was the Rangers’ best period. They didn’t give up as much off the rush and defended better. Most of the shots on Shesterkin came from the outside. If he’s on and can see it, he’s going to stop it most of the time.

Ryan Reaves drew a cross-checking minor on Brandon Montour off some strong work by the fourth line. However, they didn’t do much with the power play. In fact, Knight never even saw a shot. Ironically, he faced three more shorthanded shots including Fox’s foxy shorty. The special teams was much better than the previous losses in Alberta to both Edmonton and Calgary. It proved crucial.

On a battle during a shift, Lafreniere looked to have drawn a power play on Aaron Ekblad. The Cats’ ace defenseman held him. But somehow, they also called Lafreniere for embellishment. I didn’t see him go down. Another iffy call. I wondered if the extra open ice would benefit the Panthers. Much like my score prediction (5-2 Florida), I couldn’t have been more wrong.

First came the goal of the night. On what can best be described as a WTF moment, off a Kreider pass, Miller exploded around Florida defenseman MacKenzie Weegar and then drove hard to the Florida net and made a great move and shot far side to beat Knight for a 3-0 lead at 12:48. That’s one for the highlight reel. He used his speed and strong skating to look like a forward. It was a terrific play. He once was a forward. You never know.

With Florida clearly out of sync, a Trouba lead pass for Panarin started a clear two-on-one rush. He could’ve shot had he wanted to. However, the unselfish Bread Man dished across for Ryan Strome, who easily buried the shot into an open side for a 4-0 lead with 6:42 remaining in the period. It was his second goal of the season and first since Oct. 29 in a win over Columbus. That gave them two goals within a 30 second span during the four-on-four.

Game over? Not so fast. When you face a good opponent, they’re not going to go away that easily. Florida never stopped attacking. Had they put away some of their chances and Shesterkin been human, it could’ve been a different game. By the same token, Panarin had a goal wiped out on what would’ve been Kakko’s first point of the season earlier. A great example of him possessing the puck and going around the net to feed Panarin for a goal. But Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette successfully challenged that Strome interfered with Knight. It was incidental contact. A marginal ruling.

To Henrik Lundqvist’s point following the game, they didn’t let the call bother them. They responded by extending the lead to 4-0 after 40 minutes. Up to that point, Shesterkin was unstoppable. He made 28 saves the first two periods. Shots were 28-15. But the Rangers led in face-offs 23-12. A key category they usually struggle at. Strome had a good night going 11-and-5.

That changed in the nervous third. Before you even could look up, the Panthers scored 20 seconds into the period. Eetu Luostarinen was able to put in a rebound past Shesterkin, who was clearly interfered with by the annoying Patric Hornqvist. How many whacks can he get away with? The ref was right there. Just because he’s a veteran doesn’t make it right. A few Bolts fans went ballistic over it. For whatever reason, Gallant didn’t challenge it. A mistake? More like a miscalculation.

The Rangers spent most of the third period on their heels. They again sat back way too much. The Panthers were allowed to gain easy access and get off good shots on Shesterkin, who was up to the challenge. One thing I’m getting sick of is seeing opponents take hacks and whacks after the whistle at our goalie while nobody does a thing. Shouldn’t the D knock someone down? Where’s the snarl? If someone had knocked Hornqvist on his ass, the controversial first goal never even happens. That must change.

With the whole third played exclusively at five-on-five, Florida dominated. They fired and fired to hold a lopsided 17-3 edge in shots. For the game, it was 45-18. But even worse if you went by total attempts. They out-attempted the Rangers 91-37. That’s absurd. Forty-six never reached the net.

From my count, the Blueshirts had two good shifts to at least take some pressure off. They really need to shore the third periods up. Prior to getting shelled by Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, it had been their best period. Counting the three Florida got, by my count it’s 11-1 over the past four games. Yikes. It sounds like the old AV play book against LA. Never mind.

Facing a dangerous Panthers offense, they couldn’t run the clock out fast enough. Off a lost defensive face-off, Reinhart finally was able to beat Shesterkin when he took an Owen Tippett feed and buried a one-timer past the goalie to cut it to 4-2 with 1:26 left. Suddenly, you wondered as they controlled play if things were about to get dicey. A Bill Pidto expression.

With Knight off for an extra attacker, it did. On another lost face-off from Zibanejad, a Barkov win back for a quick Hornqvist shot made it 4-3 with still 39.5 seconds remaining. To hear Sam Rosen tell it, he let out a whoa. Exactly how every fan felt watching.

It came down to the final seconds. Shesterkin had to make two more saves before a delayed penalty (at least that’s what was up on MSG) saw a desperate Panthers try for one final shot. Ekblad was unable to control the puck cleanly which helped run off a few seconds. A shot went wide and then the buzzer sounded.

They survived. As scary as the ending was, they got the job done. Thanks in large part to the unflappable Shesterkin, who was named the game’s First Star with 42 stops. He didn’t come out. Maybe he was frustrated. He’s similar to Lundqvist, who hates giving up goals. That’s good. Now, he and the team will get a much needed rest. Hopefully, they can work on some of the issues that must improve.

Let’s take a deep breath. Breathe a sigh of relief. They won. It’s a lot better than losing. So, the Rangers are 7-3-3 with 17 points. Good for second place in the Metropolitan Division. They’ve played more games than anyone else in the division. Three more than six teams including the Hurricanes, who remain in first with a 9-1-0 start. We know that Islanders will gain ground. The rest are in the middle aside from the Capitals, who won over the Sabres last night to get to 16 points in 12 games. Alexander Ovechkin tied Brett Hull for fourth all-time in goal scoring. Congrats to Ovi.

As for the Rangers, they just completed their third game over four days with travel across two continents. Maybe that is why they had nothing left in the third. At least that’s what I’m hoping. Gallant said they’ve got to be tougher. He’s right. Let’s see if they make some adjustments for Columbus. Enjoy a few days of stress-free hockey minus our Rangers.

THREE STARS 🌟 OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, NYR (2 assists including great feed on Strome goal, more noticeable)

2nd 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR (PPG for team best 9th of season plus 🍎 on Miller goal)

1st 🌟 Igor Shesterkin, NYR (42 saves on 45 shots including 28/28 in first 2 periods)

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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