Good teams win even when not at their best, a happy holiday season for Rangers fans

Some games aren’t going to be Picasso’s. If you’re a good team, you can still find ways to win those. On Saturday night, the Rangers weren’t at their best. They still were able to defeat the Blackhawks 3-2 to post a season high sixth consecutive win.

They also overcame the refs. The Blackhawks had two goals count that were questionable. Confused is how Sam Rosen and Joe Michelleti sounded on the Alex DeBrincat tally that cut it to 3-2 with 1:19 remaining. It took a lengthy video review to determine if the shot DeBrincat took which Alex Georgiev saved actually was a goal. While it did look to cross the goal line, there was a question about whether Kirby Dach helped push it in.

Regardless of coach Gerard Gallant protesting at the bench after it was initially ruled no goal, his team composed themselves to close out the one-goal victory on home ice. An important one for Georgiev, who made 25 saves on 27 shots to earn his first win since Igor Shesterkin was placed on the injured reserve due to a lower-body injury. Afterwards, he acknowledged that coming in and playing nearly the final 15 minutes against San Jose helped his confidence.

A truthful admission for a goalie who’s had his struggles. Despite that, Gallant showed plenty of faith in Georgiev along with teammates, who were happy for him. That included Ryan Strome, whose hot play continued with a power play goal for a second straight game along with two assists. He and Artemi Panarin were the story last night. They each had a goal and two helpers to combine for six points to highlight the team’s 16th win of the season.

Through 23 games, the Rangers are 16-4-3 with 35 points. One of the best starts in franchise history has them a point out of first in the Metropolitan Division. They trail only the Capitals, who have played two more games. The Hurricanes are third with 33 points. Only the Penguins look like a threat to the top three. They won again at Vancouver to stay close with 27 points. The rest of the division isn’t strong. A lot can happen. But right now, the Rangers are among the division’s best.

Admittedly, their second game of a back-to-back wasn’t a great performance. It was okay to beat a mediocre opponent who they’ll again see this Tuesday in Chicago. To be honest, they got a bit lucky. I didn’t watch much of the game due to opting to take in an NWA pay per view even Hard Times 2 courtesy Fite TV on my phone. However, I still caught the third period on my Android in the background. It didn’t look particularly exciting.

The one takeaway is that they kept the shots down. A must if they want to get wins with Georgiev in net. We don’t know how long Shesterkin will be out. Take the three games they said with a grain of salt. What I was able to gather after catching the game highlights is that they gave up too many high quality scoring chances against a team that still has Patrick Kane and the emerging DeBrincat. They must’ve hit five goalposts.

Three came in a flat first period where the Rangers only got five shots on Hawks’ backup Kevin Lankinen. When Michelleti is calling to attention some of the bad turnovers they had that directly led to great opportunities for Chicago, you know it wasn’t an ideal start. Gallant hinted at it in his usual fashion following the game. He is blunt in his assessment when he doesn’t like things. But also can highlight what he liked. Obviously, Panarin and Strome we’re at the top of the list.

The Blackhawks got a strange first goal late in the first to grab the lead. On a quick transition off some sloppy play, Seth Jones had a high shot go off Brandon Hagel, whose stick looked high. However, the puck then went off Georgiev, who looked puzzled. That allowed Kane to sneak in and slip in the rebound for his seventh at 19:37.

Of course, many felt it shouldn’t have counted including Gallant, who challenged it. But if a player touches a puck with a high stick, it can be negated negated once an opposing player plays it. In this case, Georgiev which made the scoring play legal. So, it was 1-0 Hawks after a ho hum opening period.

More encouraging is that the Rangers were able to successfully kill off the delay of game minor penalty that comes with an unsuccessful coach’s challenge. Following the important kill, Filip Chytil drew a double minor for hi-sticking on Henrik Borgstrom. On the ensuing power play, some nifty passing allowed Panarin to dish across for a wide open Strome, who rifled home his fifth on the man-advantage into an open side to tie the score at 4:41. Adam Fox drew a secondary helper.

The Rangers picked it up afterwards. They held a 13-9 edge in shots. Lankinen was forced to come up with some good saves. For a backup who’s only in his second NHL season, he’s not bad. He gave his team a chance throughout the final 40 minutes. Lankinen made 23 of his 28 saves over the last two periods. The Rangers outshot the Blackhawks 26-20 over that stretch.

With not many penalties called during the middle stanza, most of the play was at even strength. I prefer five-on-five because Gallant has established four lines he trusts enough to roll. We know what the top six provides offensively. Even with Mika Zibanejad continuing to have trouble finding the back of the net, they’re going to generate offense. It was the second line that delivered.

What the supporting cast brings is a strong work ethic. The third line continues to improve. We’re seeing more confidence from Alexis Lafreniere, who’s been much more noticeable on the forecheck. He’s going to the right areas and creating space for both Fil Chytil and Julien Gauthier. At some point, they need to bury some of their chances. The second power play unit also is showing improvement when Gallant uses them. Positives to consider at this point of the season.

With the offense running mostly through the second line (Line 1 B), the trio of Strome, Panarin and the gritty Dryden Hunt got it done. On a good cycle in which Panarin was directly involved versus his former team, he created a rebound opportunity with Hunt. Following a Lankinen save amidst a maze of players, Fox followed the play up and snuck in to put the rebound past Lankinen for a 2-1 lead with 2:35 left in the second.

I would describe the play Fox made as being a very smart player. All he did was read and react. He went to the net like a forward because he knew the puck would be there. That is why he’s such a good player. This is one of the best defensemen in the game. He knows when to activate. He got rewarded for his scoring instincts with his fifth goal.

To their credit, they didn’t sit back in the third. To hear Gallant tell it, he wants this team to be aggressive. They’re not a great defensive team that can just sit back and shut it down. All you have to do is watch K’Andre Miller play defense. It wasn’t a good night for him. He made some poor decisions with the puck. It was his bad pinch that resulted in the Kane goal. He also got bailed out by Georgiev on a brutal turnover. Miller must improve his positioning. Jacob Trouba can’t do it all on that pair.

The Hawks tried their best to hand the Rangers a bigger lead. But they failed to capitalize on two early power plays. Not for a lack of effort. Zibanejad got one excellent opportunity off a perfect setup. But his redirection was shutdown by a sharp Lankinen. He had two good chances to score, but it’s not going in. At some point, that’ll change.

Lankinen also denied a Kreider bid off a rush by coming out to challenge and easily gloving the shot. He wasn’t the problem for the Blackhawks. They’re offensively challenged at five-on-five. Remarkably, they rank near the bottom in goals at five-on-five with the Islanders. Jonathan Toews still has no goals. Maybe it’s over for him. But he’s too good a player not to have at least one. Let’s hope he gets it tonight. Not Tuesday.

Dominik Kubalik had a couple of great chances. But both shots rang off the goalpost. Georgiev’s best friend in the game. Kane also hit a post back in the first. Sometimes, you need some puck luck to win. It was on the Rangers’ side.

Still clinging to a one-goal lead, finally they got some much needed breathing room thanks to the dynamic duo of Panarin and Strome. After a good pinch from Trouba that pushed the puck down low, Panarin went to work. First, he nearly had Strome for his second. But after just missing, Strome made a head’s up play by chipping a backhand pass across for a quick Panarin shot with Lankinen scrambling over. His seventh of the season with 5:14 remaining seemed to put it away.

For the most part, the Rangers defended well enough. But with Lankinen on the bench for an extra attacker, Kane was able to find a seam pass across for a DeBrincat one-timer that Georgiev made a save on with 1:19 left. However, a closer look showed that the puck went off the post and then crossed the goal line with Dach in the vicinity. Mass confusion followed.

In what felt like an eternity, the refs finally decided that the original ruling of no goal was overturned. Of course, Gallant was furious. They let him get his argument in. The delay took a while. Whether or not it was a good goal, I don’t know. Yes. The puck was in. Was it after Georgiev seemed to make the save? Who knows. When it comes to video review, nobody knows WTF is going on. Gallant didn’t have a challenge left.

It didn’t matter in the scheme of things. Ultimately, the Rangers did enough to get the ‘W.’ That’s all that matters. Was it perfect? No. But if you’re a good team which they are, you find a way.

Right now, we can relax and enjoy other games. It’s a nice change. Thank God they hired Gallant. He’s accomplished more than David Quinn did in his time here. There’s four lines and three pairs. There’s more structure and grit along with character. Characteristics a good team needs. All established before 25 games.

Plenty to be thankful for if you’re a fan of this team. The holiday season is upon us. It’ll be a happier one.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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