Rangers win a wild shootout over the Devils in a very entertaining game, Another iffy Subban play injures Blais, Kakko finally gets going


This one had a little bit of everything. There were goals, end to end rushes, saves, hits and some animosity which you come to expect between two close rivals. In the end, the Rangers took the first of four meetings in the Battle Of Hudson over the Devils by winning in the seventh round of a shootout 4-3 before 16,130 at MSG.

The good part is it was a very entertaining hockey game played between Hudson rivals. The disappointing is their next game isn’t until March 2. Gotta love the NHL schedule makers. That’s a classic rival and they won’t see them again until almost Spring. But the Rangers will play the Blackhawks twice within a week span soon. Logic optional.

If you prefer open ice and skating, this was your kind of game. It had enough of that with the Rangers and Devils trading scoring chances. There also was some checking when things tightened up. Throw in Mason Geertsen and Ryan Reaves and you had some pleasantries exchanged during scrums.

Unfortunately, there was also controversy thanks to the latest iffy play from Devils defenseman P.K. Subban. His recent history shows an aging player who’s gaining a bad reputation around the league. It started in preseason with a dangerous slewfoot that injured Reaves, who fortunately wasn’t seriously hurt. Then came a couple of more incidents with Milan Lucic and rookie Trevor Zegras for which he got fined.

The play in question came when Subban and a forechecking Sammy Blais came together in the corner. Initially, it looked like a strange coincidence with an off balance Blais landing awkwardly into the boards as teammates stood by and watched helplessly as an injured Blais couldn’t put any weight on his leg. He was helped off the ice as boos rained down on Subban.

I’ll be honest. I couldn’t tell even with the replay on MSG. This was different from Subban slewfooting Reaves. It was more subtle. Hearing MSG Rangers studio analyst Steve Valiquette explain it, it clarified things. He was very critical of Subban, who did clip Blais enough to trip him up and cause what looks like a serious injury. It could be an ACL. Gerard Gallant had no update afterwards. He said it reminded him of the play on Reaves. There was no public outcry from the coach. If something happens, that’ll be up to NHL Player Safety. At this point, they need to take serious action. Nothing else needs to be said.

Playing a forward down again for the umpteenth time midway through a hard fought game, Gallant had to tweak his lines. On what was a well deserved breakout night for Kaapo Kakko, who finally scored a goal while also setting up another one, he opted to bump grinder Dryden Hunt up to the first line. He certainly works hard, but I doubt that’s a long-term solution. We’ll see what Gallant decides for Tuesday when Montreal visits. Filip Chytil is skating and will be eligible to return if he’s cleared.

Another positive development was that on a night none of the top guns scored, it was the kids who contributed. Alexis Lafreniere ended a six-game drought by stuffing home his fourth goal on a great play from Kakko, who passed for a Jacob Trouba shot that rebounded off Devils starter Mackenzie Blackwood right to the 20-year old for the much needed goal. That came after a power play expired. Regardless, it was Kakko’s first point of the season and helped boost both his and Lafreniere’s confidence. A welcome sight.

Trouba also made it three straight games with a point. Better than that, he and partner K’Andre Miller had one of their best games this season. After promising Devils rookie Dawson Mercer burned them in the first period with a splendid lead pass for a Jesper Bratt breakaway goal that beat Alex Georgiev five-hole, Gallant decided to task Miller and Trouba with the assignment on the Devils’ hottest line of Mercer, Bratt and Andreas Johnsson. They did a good job with in particular Miller making some excellent reads to break up plays. It was his best defensive game. He also jumped up on a rush and nearly created a goal.

There were some interesting storylines during the game. You had Georgiev getting his fourth start in 15 games. Gallant wisely opted to give Igor Shesterkin the night off following an injury scare on Saturday night. It was only the precautionary concussion protocol after Alexandre Texier accidentally was shoved into Shesterkin on his deflection goal by Patrik Nemeth. He was available. But Gallant informed Georgiev it would be his game Sunday night. He definitely was excited. He wasn’t perfect, but only allowed one stoppable goal while making some key saves when called upon.

For the Devils, it was Blackwood as I speculated. Why not after Jonathan Bernier was a 5-2 loser on Saturday. Ironically, he would come on to relieve Blackwood after he allowed a Kakko goal in tight and took a tough shot. It again was concussion protocol that saw a goalie exit a game for a backup. Although it didn’t seem bad, Bernier replaced him and did a good enough job to give his team a chance to force overtime. Bernier stopped all eight shots in relief including five in extras.

One of the most intriguing subplots was Lindy Ruff inserting enforcer Mason Geertsen into his lineup over rookie Alexander Holtz. Perhaps that was a mistake that I imagine Hasan will second-guess the veteran coach on due to how the game played out. I saw a few Devil fans critical of the decision due to the game landing in an unpredictable shootout that went seven rounds before Chris Kreider won it with his first attempt in eight years. There were no fights. Not even following the controversial Subban play.

The first game between the Rangers and Devils started off with plenty of skating. The entire first period was played exclusively at five-on-five. A welcome change from the specialty teams we often see.

It was the Blueshirts who started well by generating some opportunities on a sharp Blackwood, who made a few good saves. In particular, the second line of Ryan Strome, Artemi Panarin and Kakko were buzzing. One early play was a close call that saw an open Kakko fumble a pass down low. He would’ve been all alone on Blackwood. He went to the bench hanging his head, but got a tap from Rangers assistant Mike Kelly. He’d also get a glorious chance later, but missed wide with an open net. At that point, I half wondered who would score first. Kakko or Julien Gauthier.

On another great chance, Kreider had a shot from the right circle deflected by Subban up in the air. It broke his stick. As he skated to the bench for a new twig, Subban got the puck over to Mercer. With Adam Fox pinching in, Mercer skated out and caught Kreider with a perfect lead pass for Bratt that sent him in for a clean breakaway. On it, he waited before shooting five-hole on Georgiev, who didn’t challenge. Bratt’s fourth from Mercer and Subban made it 1-0 Devils at 15:23.

There were no other goals scored in the first period. However, Kreider nearly set up Blais for his first. Off a three-on-one where Miller stepped up in transition, Kreider made a great back pass for an open Blais only to have his one-timer clang off the crossbar. That close. Blais is still searching for his first goal as a New York Ranger. Now, he’ll likely be on the mend a while. Bummer.

In what was an evenly played opening 20 minutes that had the Rangers ahead on shots 11-10, they knew they had to pick it up. That wasn’t a problem. For a second straight game, they played a very good second period. They outshot the Devils 15-7 and outscored them 2-1.

The tying goal was another example of the brilliance of Fox. On some strong work from Julien Gauthier, who followed up a shot, Lafreniere also had a follow-up that Blackwood kicked out to defenseman Damon Severson. Feeling some pressure, he coughed up the puck right to Fox. The rating Norris winner moved in and again used a deceptive backhand to fool Blackwood for his fourth unassisted at 3:11. It was quite a play. Credit Gauthier and Lafreniere for the grunt work. They didn’t get points, but were largely responsible for the Fox tally which tied the game.

Following a successful Devils’ penalty kill of a Subban slashing minor on Strome where it was the little used second power play unit that was better in their 31 seconds, the hitting picked up. Blais crunched Severson and Reaves finished his check on Jonas Siegenthaler. After a Subban hit on Gauthier, even Lafreniere didn’t shy away by getting a good hit on Siegenthaler. It felt like the strategy was to pressure their defense more by forechecking and physical contact. It worked.

On a shift from Lafreniere with the third line, he drew a slashing minor on one-time Ranger Jimmy Vesey. Now a journeyman, he’s carved a decent role on the Devils’ fourth line. After another ineffective shift from the top unit that even forced Georgiev to make a shorthanded stop on Ryan Graves, out came the second unit of Kakko, Lafreniere, Blais along with Trouba and Nils Lundkvist.

Once again, they did a better job managing the puck. Trouba had a good keep and eventually helped create a scoring chance for Kakko. He sure looked like he should’ve took the shot. But instead, he saw a better play by passing to a wide open Trouba for a tough shot that Blackwood got a piece of. With the puck in midair, it took a Rangers’ carom right to Lafreniere who steered it in for his fourth to give them a 2-1 lead at 11:24. Kakko and pleased teammates were all smiles as they got back to the bench.

Having played a better period on goals from Fox and Lafreniere, the Blueshirts also were very active defensively. One of the best players was Panarin. Not known for his defensive acumen, he came back to break up several plays and had a couple of nice takeaways in the neutral zone. So too did Kakko, who’s a good overall forward. If he can string together some consistent scoring, then there’s still hope for the ’19 second pick. He certainly needed the big game he had.

On what can best be described as two players battling for position in front of Georgiev, Ryan Lindgren was sent to the box for a very soft interference on Nico Hischier. The replay showed both battling with Hischier losing his balance. Was it due to Lindgren, or did the refs blow the call? I didn’t agree and neither did Gallant, who gave them an earful later on.

Awarded their first and only power play, it took the Devils all of 17 seconds to tie the game up. Pavel Zacha and Bratt combined to get the puck up to Dougie Hamilton. With key penalty killer Kevin Rooney falling down at center ice, Hamilton was able to elude the other three defenders and let go of a rocket that whizzed by the glove of Georgiev for a power play goal at 13:20. It was his fourth.

It wasn’t exactly a good goal for Georgiev to give up. It came off a rush and he simply missed. Of course, the Georgiev critics had a field day. But did they forget that Shesterkin gave up a similar goal to Eric Robinson from similar distance on Saturday? All was forgiven following a three goal Ranger barrage over 63 seconds. Sometimes, I get the criticism. Other instances, I think it’s overreaction due to him being the backup. It’s ironic how much hate he’s gotten since you know who was forced out after the political crap from a biased portion of our fan base. Pot meets kettle?

The ugly incident was just ahead. With under 90 seconds remaining in the period, an attacking Blais got into a race for a loose puck with Subban near the boards. With the faster Blais clearly about to get there first, down he went in a heap with his leg exposed. It was every bit as bad as it looked. The fans booed and had a few choice words for Subban. Nothing over the top thankfully. But this didn’t look good. Right away, Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti pounced. The MSG production must’ve had the package cued up because it was shown very quickly.

It was hard to tell what happened. But Micheletti was critical. Subban has a history now. This was a different play from the slewfoots we’ve seen from what’s become a dirty player. It took me until the MSG PM show that featured Rangers’ great Adam Graves and Anson Carter with host Michelle Gingras to realize that Subban had indeed gave a subtle trip that seriously injured Blais. The boos were deserved. What made it confusing is there was no response even from Kreider, who must not have seen it at live speed. Nothing happened. A few players had words with Subban. That was all.

It set up a good third. With the score tied, Strome made a heads up play. The effective playmaking second line center could’ve passed for Panarin. Instead, he realized that he had Kakko coming in fast for a one-on-one with Blackwood. What happened next was a brilliant power move from Kakko, who deked and tucked the puck around Blackwood, who absorbed body contact on a beautiful go-ahead goal at 6:29. It was the goal Kakko had needed. It was great to see him drive hard to the net and finish.

Following his goal, a hobbled Blackwood was visibly shaken up. However, he initially stayed in the game. It wasn’t until a stoppage with 11:23 left that he left the game for concussion protocol. Bernier relieved him. With the Rangers in full protection mode nursing a one goal lead, Bernier only faced three shots.

The Blueshirts chose to defend by cutting off the neutral zone and chip pucks deep. It was working pretty well. Georgiev wasn’t asked to make many tough saves. His best came off a redirection that he gloved. He also did a good job getting whistles for face-offs to slow things down. For the game, he made 24 saves.

With Gallant continuing to roll four lines, he had Reaves out with Rooney and the dependable Barclay Goodrow for a shift. However, they all got caught too high in the neutral zone. That allowed Tomas Tatar and Hischier to set up Zacha for a shot that went off Hischier right back to Zacha, who buried the rebound for his seventh with 2:44 remaining. On the play, Fox got caught too high leaving only Lindgren back. Zacha did the rest to force overtime.

In the three-on-three, the Devils seemed to dictate the terms. Playing very deliberately by resetting a couple of times, that kept Fox, Panarin and Strome out for an extended shift. But to their surprise, the trio were up to the defensive challenge. Georgiev only saw one Devil shot which he stopped.

Remarkably, it was Panarin who was still out for two minutes that was with Mika Zibanejad and Trouba for an offensive shift. Zibanejad couldn’t find the angle and Panarin was out of gas. Trouba got a good chance along with Kreider. But nothing was doing. Despite a 5-1 edge in shots, they couldn’t beat Bernier. It was shootout time.

The shootout was every bit as unpredictable as the game. After both Severson and Zibanejad were foiled in Round 1, Bratt went five-hole and Kakko scored on a backhand in Round 2. Then, Hamilton got just enough on his shot to squeak it by Georgiev, who got a piece of it. With the pressure on, Panarin moved in deep and somehow whipped a laser off the goalpost and in top cheese to force Round 4.

The fourth round featured young guns Mercer and Lafreniere. Neither were able to score. In the top of the 5th, Andreas Johnsson went five-hole again to again put the Devils within one save of victory. But this time, it was Strome who went through the wickets of Bernier to send it to the sixth round.

After three straight misses from Tatar, Rooney and Zacha with one highlight being Georgiev making a desperation scorpion save that the legendary Martin Brodeur made famous, the stage was set for Kreider. A player who is never used in the shootout, he came in with great speed and faked Bernier out by going to the backhand for the win in the bottom of the 7th.

O’ Captain! My Captain! It was fitting that Kreider was the unlikely shootout hero. He hadn’t took one in eight years. When told that by reporters, Gallant joked that he noticed Kreider hiding down the bench with Fox, who would’ve been next. But he talked about how great Kreider is. He sure celebrated it basically telling Reaves on ice that he couldn’t bleeping believe it. All smiles for the true captain of this 9-3-3 team. He deserves it. That’s how good he’s been.

In regards to Blais, we’ll know more later today. I don’t expect it to be good news. It’s sad that such a sneaky play will likely cost him significant time. If that’s indeed the case, I don’t give a rat’s you know what about George Parros. NHL Player Safety must come down hard on Subban for his cheap bs. A message must be sent.

The Rangers couldn’t because they were in a close game with the Devils. Try explaining that to the dinosaurs who don’t get why Reaves is on the team. This isn’t the same sport it once was. There’s no eye for an eye like the wild and crazy days of the 80’s or 90’s. Even some of the 2000’s had that element. You can’t do that anymore. Too bad these rivals don’t meet up again until freaking March. Insanity.

THREE STARS 🌟 OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Jesper Bratt, NJD (breakaway goal plus 🍎, shootout goal in 18:26)

2nd 🌟 Miller/Trouba, NYR (assist, 6 combined SOG in 9 attempts, 4 hits, 3 blocks, +3 rating in their best game so far)

1st 🌟 Kaapo Kakko, NYR (1st goal and 1st assist of season, shootout goal, +2 in 20:01)

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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