Rangers’ fourth line and Kreider turn Islanders’ Thanksgiving into cold turkeys, Lafreniere sends message to Pageau


It’s something they work on in practice. … The other part of if is the other guys don’t shoot enough from the outside.” Gerard Gallant on First Star Chris Kreider’s power play success at the side of the net in the Rangers’ 4-1 win over the Islanders on Turkey Eve.

It’s all about one thing. Winning. That’s becoming a good habit for the Rangers, who went into UBS Arena and gave their fans a whole lot to cheer about in a rousing 4-1 win over the Islanders at Belmont.

The satisfying victory on Turkey Eve gave them plenty to be thankful for headed into the holiday. It also ruined the Islanders’ Thanksgiving. It’ll be cold turkey for Jean-Gabriel Pageau, whose cheap hit to the head of Ryan Lindgren in the third period was answered immediately by Adam Fox. The game’s First Star Chris Kreider sure enjoyed that as he did a Hulk Hogan pose during the celebration at Fox as he and Ryan Reaves laughed at the Isles’ expense.

For the Rangers, there’s plenty to be happy about. They did what they had to in beating a struggling rival who were without 10 players due to COVID protocol and injuries. By taking care of business thanks to a pair of goals from team leader Kreider (9th PPG) and effective fourth line forward Kevin Rooney, they handed the Islanders a seventh consecutive loss in regulation. The Isles are now 0-3 at their new arena. They’re a shell of the team that reached Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Semifinals.

It doesn’t matter how many guys were out. You still have to go out and play the game for 60 minutes or more. That’s exactly what the Blueshirts did to earn their 12th win in 19 games (12-4-3). They now lead the Islanders by 15 points in the standings. Granted. They’ve played less games due to their long 13-game road trip. However, every point is crucial. Banking as many as possible early on matters.

Even better, they got large contributions from the fourth line in the victory. It was the play of that new line with Barclay Goodrow added to Rooney and Ryan Reaves that provided the key goals at five-on-five. They won the battle. Even if they weren’t matched up against the Identity Line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck.

It was Rooney scoring his fourth and fifth goals to record his first career two-goal game. It was Reaves acting like a playmaker with some splendid passing to pick up his first ever two assist game. The setup for the second Rooney goal that answered Andy Andreoff’s goal 20 seconds later restored the Rangers’ two goal lead to quiet the Islanders’ fans amongst the 17,255.

You also had Kreider for good measure erase any doubt when he finished off his team-leading 15th from Mika Zibanejad for the final margin with 8:58 left in regulation. His first goal coming 29 seconds into the second period to break a scoreless tie in vintage Kreider fashion on a perfect deflection at the side to beat Semyon Varlamov on the power play.

O’ Captain! My Captain! The 30-year old Kreider has never played better hockey. He’s not only off to an unbelievable start with 15 goals in 19 games. But he’s playing better overall by coming back defensively to break up plays and penalty killing effectively. He’s also hitting and showing great confidence in every facet.

In a lineup change which he hinted at, Gallant decided to move Kaapo Kakko up to the first line with Kreider and Zibanejad. It was interesting considering how well he played with Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin in recording three goals and two assists over the past four games. I wasn’t crazy about it, but Turk stuck with it and Kakko rewarded him with a key secondary helper on the second Kreider goal. That extended his point streak to five.

Gallant flipped Dryden Hunt to the right side on the second line with Strome and Panarin. Without that other scoring right wing due to Alexis Lafreniere not being ready for a move off left wing or a top six role, Turk will continue to shuffle the deck. Sammy Blais was a good fit in the top six. He’ll be missed. It’s next man up.

Of course, this brings to mind the continued debate over Pavel Buchnevich. Some fans wish he was still here. While I get the point about the chemistry he had with Zibanejad and Kreider, it ultimately came down to Team President and GM Chris Drury deciding that he had to move Buchnevich due to his raise. He is signed through 2025 with the Blues at an average cap hit of $5.8 million.

Due to the organization knowing they had to sign both Zibanejad and Fox to hefty extensions that’ll currently has the team’s cap for ’22-23 at almost $71 million, there was little choice. It was either keep Buchnevich or trade Strome, who is a key fit as the center for Panarin. Without Filip Chytil having proven himself, it was too risky. Hopefully, he can continue to progress in his fourth season. Strome probably won’t be back next year.

I still maintain that they mishandled Vitali Kravtsov during training camp. He looks capable of helping them fill the Buchnevich void. Instead, he’s playing for Traktor in the KHL. They lost 7-6 in overtime to Moscow Dynamo yesterday. He didn’t have a point, but hit two posts including one in extras. We’ll see what develops with the Rangers and Kravtsov next Spring.

One thing that isn’t up for debate is the balance the team has. Even without either Panarin or Zibanejad hitting that extra gear, it’s the supporting cast chipping in. Rooney has five goals. One more than either Panarin or Zibanejad. Kreider has been the story with his 15 by far leading the way. There’s also Goodrow continuing to put up points with his primary assist leading to Rooney’s fourth. He’s up to nine points.

At some point, the stars have to perform like stars. Even though he has 19 points including 15 assists so far, Panarin has been too predictable so far. He was probably the only player I was disappointed with last night. He spent too much of the game on the perimeter and didn’t attempt many shots. He hasn’t been the same player. They need him to start burying a few and being the difference maker we saw in ’19-20.

At least both Fox and Zibanejad got points against the Islanders. Even if if took a mostly Bridgeport defense to do it, it was positive. Not that it was Fox’s best game. To their credit, the Isles did a good job limiting his time and space. He’s going to continue to get that attention. He doesn’t mind.

From a game standpoint, it was strange. Blame the refs. They made a lot of calls. A few were questionable. There were 11 total power plays. The Rangers went 1-for-5 while shutting out the Islanders in six chances. As good as the penalty kill was, the Islanders’ power play was brutal. They didn’t get many Grade A chances on Igor Shesterkin, who finally recorded his first win versus them. He made 20 saves.

In a by the book move, Barry Trotz opted for Varlamov due to his recent history against the Rangers. He didn’t have a win yet. For the most part, he kept his team in it with some key stops when it was 2-0. But he wound up allowing four goals on 21 shots to take the loss.

If it were me, I’d have gone with Ilya Sorokin. He started well. I’m not a coach. Trotz also played former Devils Kyle Palmieri and Zach Parise on the top line with Mat Barzal. They of a combined 1 goal. Barzal had no one to pass to. Gotta give Trotz an assist. Neither scares anyone.

Oliver Wahlstrom was on the third line with rookie Otto Koivula and Andreoff. Pageau (also 1 goal) centered their second line flanked by Anthony Beauvillier and Richard Panik. Neither line exactly posed a huge threat. It was the Identity Line and the unknown third line who were most effective.

For as many players as they had out, the Islanders put together a good first period. With the likes of Sebastian Aho, Thomas Hickey, Robin Salo, Grant Hutton and Paul LaDue added to Scott Mayfield on the blue line, they managed to keep the Blueshirts off the scoreboard.

When the officials weren’t getting duped for phantom calls, it was the Islanders who were the better forechecking team early. They got eight shots on Shesterkin, who was strong. The Rangers also had eight on Varlamov. It was the play of the third line of Chytil, Lafreniere and Julien Gauthier that were noticeable. So too was the fourth line when they got out for shifts.

At the start of the second, Barzal hooked into Rooney following the opening face-off to get an undisciplined minor for hooking six seconds in. That lead to Kreider finding a dead spot next to Varlamov for a great redirection of a Strome pass into an open side at 29 seconds. It was so predictable that I called goal as soon as Strome passed the puck for Kreider, who’s been money down low.

The march to the box continued. Strome picked up the first of two minors when he tripped up Hickey in the offensive zone. One of those needless penalties he has to avoid. While Hickey went down easily, it was a penalty.

After the Islanders did nothing with the power play, this time Barzal sucked Chytil into taking him down. It was embellishment. But they didn’t call it. So, the Isles were on another power play. Again, they barely did anything. There was over passing and little simplicity. Barzal also had a turnover that let the Rangers clear the zone for a change.

The odd part is there was so much special teams that even strength play was rare. For the game, shots were 13-12 Blueshirts at five-on-five. That’s how strange the game was. Overall, shots were even at 21 apiece. You can do the math for the rest.

A good Jacob Trouba hit on Pageau behind the Rangers’ net resulted in the gritty center retaliating by hi-sticking Trouba. It was a shift where he got himself in trouble in the corner, but then recovered with the big hit to put the Rangers on the man-advantage. Defensively, Trouba had a good game. He was the best defenseman followed by Nils Lundkvist, who showed more confidence.

Although they didn’t capitalize, the Rangers scored less than a minute after the power play expired. On just a great shift started by Reaves, he made a centering pass that deflected to Goodrow for one shot which was followed up by Rooney for a 2-0 lead at 14:28.

Another Strome penalty for interference on Beauvillier left him questioning the call with under two and a half minutes left in the period. It was very soft. As the Isles continued to fumble the puck around as if it were a grenade, they finally got the one chance they wanted. On a Kakko turnover, the puck came to Wahlstrom in front. One on one with Shesterkin, he went for a fake instead of shooting only to be stuffed.

Right after the save, Kakko hit Strome for a breakaway out of the box. But he was back checked well enough where his shot was denied by Varlamov with time winding down. The Rangers took a two-goal lead to the locker room.

Even with the Islanders lacking the firepower, you knew if the Rangers didn’t get the next goal, it would get interesting. It did when Andreoff got position on Lindgren and was able to tip in a Koivula shot for his first of the season. A Ranger special. It was also the first NHL point for Koivula. He was one of the better players on the home side. What does that say for their regulars?

But on the very next shift, the fourth line went to work. One thing I’ll say for Gallant. He has a good feel for his bench. He noticed what I did. That line was going. He sent them out and they again struck for the goal of the game.

Off an Islanders’ offensive draw they won back to Wahlstrom, three Blueshirts converged on him to force a turnover. Patrik Nemeth sent Reaves in on an odd man rush. What happened next was astonishing. Reaves completely faked out the defense before sending a perfect feed across for an easy Rooney finish at 4:12. That goal silenced the Islanders’ contingent.

Kreider would increase the lead to three 6:50 later. On a smart dump in from Kakko that allowed Zibanejad to come out with the puck, he quickly found Kreider in the slot for a quick wrist shot that beat Varlamov for goal number 15 at 11:02. That sealed it.

With the game decided, Pageau decided to get chippy. On a play where he had the puck, Lindgren absorbed a high hit from the Isles’ center. Right away, Fox jumped in and came to his aid. He punched Pageau and sent him to the ice. The replay showed that the controversial hit was a head shot. Pageau led with his shoulder that caught Lindgren in the helmet to drop him.

Of course, they missed the illegal check to the head. Gallant absolutely fumed at both officials. He was upset. So was the team. Out of that, they handed the Islanders a power play. Fox getting the only two for roughing up Pageau, who may as well be renamed Punkeau for his shenanigans. He intentionally did it. Very sneaky. A cheap play.

I doubt they’ll suspend him. Lindgren went to the room and was checked. He did return to the bench. A good sign. Hopefully, there are no setbacks. The Rangers are in Boston on Black Friday.

With things intensifying due to the dirty play, it was only a matter of time before it escalated. On another shift where Pageau was tripped by a furious Lafreniere, he went after him for his cheap hit. Here’s a kid still learning. He had no problem dropping the gloves and taking on Pageau, who went down. That is a great characteristic for a young player to have. The skating still needs improvement. But what Lafreniere did was commendable.

In the final minute with time winding down, Hunt didn’t like a Wahlstrom hit. So, he went back at him with a slash leading to more chaos. After Wahlstrom chopped back, Andreoff stepped in and pulled Hunt down by his jersey. That’s a clear third man in. Even if he was playing peacemaker, that should’ve been a minor on him. Instead, Wahlstrom got an extra for roughing with 14 seconds to go.

Perplexing. I’m not sure if it means anything. But Rooney was out for the remainder and attempted a shot. Obviously, Gallant put him out to try for the hat trick. But the game was over. Will there be any payback in the Garden rematch on Sunday?

We’ll have to wait and see. The Islanders should have players back for that game. That’ll probably be a more interesting game. This was an easy win. Even if they had to work for it, they put the Isles away.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving! Happy Turkey Day!

THREE STARS OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Ryan Reaves, NYR (2 assist game for first time in career, 6 hits)

2nd 🌟 Kevin Rooney, NYR (first career two-goal game, 4th and 5th)

1st 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR (2 more goals for 14 and 15, league best 9th PPG, dominant)

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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