Despite encouraging win over Blue Jackets, Rangers not doing Lafreniere any favors


Winning is supposed to be fun. But if you think this is a Cup contender, you need your head examined. Making the playoffs is a goal for this team. By winning 5-3 over the Blue Jackets, the Rangers checked off another two points and their eighth victory against only three losses in regulation (8-3-3).

That’s the encouraging part. The discouraging aspect is again, Alexis Lafreniere hardly played. The 20-year old first overall pick in 2020 is a ghost under coach Gerard Gallant. Despite playing on the third line, he received the least amount of ice time (9:44). It can’t be good for his confidence that the coach doesn’t even have enough belief to play him with the team ahead by three goals.

Lafreniere didn’t have a shot in the win. Would it be the worst thing in the world if they stop jerking him around and send him down to Hartford? At least in the AHL, Lafreniere could get regular shifts including top power play and regain his confidence. The way he’s been handled is like a hand grenade. That’s the direction the organization has taken. They care about wins. Not helping develop a potential franchise player who is lost in the shuffle.

This short-sighted thinking could actually cost the Rangers over the long-term. They won because their highest paid player decided to show up. Artemi Panarin scored twice including his second during a sudden turnaround. Following an Eric Robinson goal that went right by Igor Shesterkin, who didn’t look particularly good on two of the three he allowed, the Rangers responded with three straight goals over a 63-second span.

Jacob Trouba started it when his smart pinch down and perfect feed allowed Chris Kreider to bury his 10th to tie the score 43 seconds later. Kreider had another big game getting his team-leading 10th and 11th including yet another power play goal that proved crucial early in the third. A self-inflicted wound from Columbus starting goalie Elvis Merzlikins led directly to Ryan Strome setting up an open Panarin for his second of the game 36 seconds later to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.

They weren’t done. On a strong shift behind the net, Julien Gauthier won a board battle to get the puck over to Barclay Goodrow. Goodrow then centered for Trouba, who actually hit the net for his first goal of the season. Speaking of overpaid players who haven’t lived up to the contract former GM Jeff Gorton gave along with the customary NMC like candy. For once, Trouba looked like the defenseman he was in Winnipeg, recording a goal and assist in the victory. More performances like that and he won’t be an easy target for the fanatics.

That three-goal barrage turned the game around. It really swung on a Merzlikins turnover. He aggressively came out and misplayed a loose puck that wound up going to Strome. He was able to find Panarin for the go-ahead tally. The Rangers never trailed again. Strome quietly had a good game. He had two assists including a key secondary on an odd man rush that saw Adam Fox get the puck over for an easy Panarin finish with 2:31 left in the first period. It was a big goal because they didn’t exactly play well in the first. But a better finish allowed them to tie the score.

It answered a power play goal from Jakub Voracek. Not a known shooter due to his playmaking capabilities as he continues to do with the Blue Jackets as he had with the Flyers, he scored his first goal in his second stint with Columbus at 8:59 of the first period. With Sammy Blais off for a cross check that broke his stick on Alexandre Texier, rookie Cole Sillinger and Oliver Bjorkstrand combined to get the puck over to Voracek, whose sinking wrist shot fooled Shesterkin for the game’s first goal. It was a nice play off the rush with Bjorkstrand staying onside to set Voracek up. The Rangers wisely didnโ€™t challenge.

For a good portion early, the Rangers struggled to sustain much puck pressure. The Blue Jackets had the better of the play getting eight of the game’s first 12 shots on Shesterkin. Outside of the Voracek tally which was stoppable, he made some key saves when his team wasn’t establishing much at five-on-five. Eventually, the Blueshirts settled down to finish the period better thanks to Panarin’s first goal at five-on-five. Shots were 12-9 CBJ.

Sometimes, all it takes for a great scorer is getting that one goal to get the monkey off their back. That’s what I thought after Panarin scored. Even though it was both Strome and a patient Fox, who did most of the work, Panarin found open space and finished. Exactly what Gallant wanted to see. Maybe he needs to face his former team more often. The six shots were a season high. The prior two games, he didn’t register one. Despite hearing the boos, the Bread Man produced. In two games (both NYR wins), he has five points (2-3-5). Too bad they only see Columbus one more time on Jan. 27. That’s the NHL schedule for you. Utterly ridiculous.

In the second, with not much going on, Zach Werenski and Jake Bean got the puck up to Robinson, who simply gained the zone and fired a high shot that sailed by Shesterkin’s glove far side. The shot was good. But it’s one you expect our top goalie to have. It was surprising.

The way the Rangers responded was perfect. Less than a minute later, a smart Trouba pinch allowed him to make like Fox and center for a quick Kreider redirect that beat Merzlikins at 7:39. Kreider is a different player this year. He’s burying his chances with most coming directly in front. If there’s a real positive under Gallant, it’s the play of Kreider. I believe his style fits perfectly under Turk, who prefers grit. Kreider looks every bit like one of the game’s best power forwards. He wasn’t done.

After Panarin notched his fourth from Strome thank to an early Christmas gift from Merzlikins, Trouba got a head start on Thanksgiving by finishing off a Goodrow feed from behind the net to suddenly make it 4-2 Blueshirts. It happened that quickly. If you blinked for a moment, you missed it. The best part is they scored at even strength. An area they dominated in a much improved second that saw them outshoot the Jackets 19-7. A nice turnaround from being down 12-9 after one. They led 28-19 after two.

A foolish interference minor penalty on Blue Jackets’ captain Boone Jenner with 35 seconds remaining in the second put the Rangers on a power play. Although they didn’t convert on the first part to end the period, they made the most of the remainder at the start of the third.

Following a Fox pass down low, Zibanejad patiently waited before sending a great pass across for an easy Kreider tip in at the 52-second mark of the third. Zibanejad is such a shooting threat that he keeps opponents honest. The Columbus penalty kill completely forgot about Kreider, who scored on the backdoor. It was his NHL-leading seventh power play goal. Right now, there isn’t a better net front presence than Kreider, who continues his hot start with 11 goals in 14 games.

It got interesting in the second half of the third period. On just a ridiculous play from Patrik Nemeth, who shoved a player right into Shesterkin, Texier scored on a deflection of a Vladislav Gavrikov shot pass to cut the lead to 5-3 with 6:45 left. Somewhat predictably, a hobbled Shesterkin left the game. Gallant indicated that he should be available for the Devils later tonight. Given what’s coming up over the next week, I have no problem with Alex Georgiev getting the second half of a back-to-back. He only faced two shots in the final 6:45 stopping both.

We’ll see what Gallant decides. At least he kept Gauthier in over Greg McKegg, who was a recall from Hartford with the injury prone Filip Chytil going on IR retroactively. I honestly think Chytil should play on the right side with Strome and Panarin, replacing the ineffective Kaapo Kakko. How can anyone argue when he still is without a point? In over 16 minutes last night, he didn’t register a single shot. I’ve seen enough. Put him on another line.

As for Lafreniere, I wish I didn’t see it coming. But when they took him first overall after how hyped he was by Canada, they didn’t take into account the Ranger Factor. They don’t know how to use top picks. Does anyone think they thought they’d wind up winning the two part NHL Draft Lottery? They had already extended Kreider, who’s looking worth it. Panarin isn’t going anywhere. Lafreniere plays the same position as both Panarin and Kreider. That makes him third on the depth chart.

Unless he can learn to play the right side, it looks like a waste. I was concerned about this very scenario. It’s playing out because Gallant quickly scrapped the Lafreniere right wing experiment on the top line early. Now, there doesn’t seem to be a role for him. Is this normal? He can’t even get consistent shifts game to game or power play time. When there’s more defined roles for fourth liners Ryan Reaves and Dryden Hunt, that’s a problem. Don’t expect any other NYR blogger to address it.

Despite all the spin, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The 8-3-3 start is nice. It allows them to feel good about themselves. Especially in a competitive division where points are tough to come by.

Next up are the Devils. They’ve played some surprisingly good hockey without Jack Hughes. Dawson Mercer was in that same draft as Lafreniere. He’s got 10 points (5-5-10) and plays a real role. His game is eerily similar to Mathew Barzal. All 10 of his points have come on home ice. We’ll see how he fares in his MSG debut.

THREE STARS ๐ŸŒŸ OF GAME

3rd ๐ŸŒŸ Jacob Trouba, NYR (1st of season plus ๐ŸŽ, 6 SOG, +2 in 22:38)

2nd ๐ŸŒŸ Artemi Panarin, NYR (2 goals, 6 SOG, +2 in 19:42)

1st ๐ŸŒŸ Chris Kreider, NYR (2 goals including 7th PPG, 5 SOG, 11-3-14 in 14 GP)

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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