A big third period propels Rangers to seventh consecutive win in sweep of Blackhawks, Panarin records point number 500, Trouba hit injures Khaira


There’s so much to digest about last night’s game. In a rematch three days later at United Center, the Rangers used a big third period to win for the seventh consecutive time.

A three-goal third broke open a tie game as the Rangers defeated the Blackhawks 6-2 in Chicago. They swept the two-game series. While it was the third game for the Hawks over four days, this was a home-and-home series for the Rangers. They continue to win games and pile up points in the standings.

Now up to a shocking 17-4-3 record with 37 points through 24 games, they’re even leaving former star Henrik Lundqvist and one-time backup Steve Valiquette speechless. Both were blown away by what they’ve accomplished so far. Nobody expected them to be one of the league’s top teams at this point. It’s been an unbelievable rise.

With plenty of season left, let’s not get carried away. There’s still a long way to go. I want to keep perspective about where they are. It sure has been exciting to see this team winning consistently. On my birthday no less, they go for eight straight when the Avalanche visit MSG. That should be a good test. I’m looking forward to seeing how they do against an elite team.

Before getting to the nuts and bolts of Tuesday night’s victory, I want to say how much I love this team. I haven’t felt this way about the Rangers since ’13-14. Keep in mind, that was a special team ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. Let’s not compare them. That was a more experienced roster that had playoff success. The ’21-22 Rangers boast a few special players along with some key young guns who will play a role in how they do.

Credit goes out to Chris Drury for assembling this group and hiring Gerard Gallant. He’s established four consistent lines and three defense pairings along with a top flight goalie before Game 25. That’s significant progress. Even without Sammy Blais, you know what the four lines are and feel confident about each. They are a T-E-A-M.

So much of the fabric of these new and improved Blueshirts is Ryan Reaves. When Gallant asked Drury to acquire him, it was due to his familiarity with the 34-year old tough guy. He might not score much, but this is the kind of strong character this team needed. Reaves knows his role and plays it well. It’s nice to see him having success in NYC.

His impact has been felt. Reaves isn’t only a guy who will stick up for teammates. He’s a winning hockey player who understands what he’s supposed to do. Whether it’s a big hit or good forecheck, he has made the team harder to play against. Now, Gallant can roll four lines thanks to the contributions from Reaves, Kevin Rooney and Barclay Goodrow.

Now for the game. Unlike Saturday’s home win which wasn’t the most memorable, this one had a lot that happened. First and foremost, I want to send my best wishes to Jujhar Khaira. It was in the second period that the Hawks’ forward was caught on a swivel by Jacob Trouba, who delivered a clean hard hit that rocked him.

Nobody wants to see a player get seriously injured. Especially on such a hit. There was nothing dirty about it. Unfortunately, Trouba stepped up and caught a leaning Khaira with a hard shoulder to chest hit that also got his chin, sending him down on his back. The scary part was his head landed hard on the ice. He was clearly out.

It happened so fast that everyone in the arena were stunned. That included Trouba, who was visibly shaken up standing in front of the Rangers bench. He looked on the verge of tears. There was no intent to injure Khaira. It was a very unfortunate play where he had his head down. At last check, Blackhawks interim coach Derek King gave a positive update that Khaira was up and talking at the hospital after being taken out for precaution on a stretcher.

A good sign. Following the game, Trouba wasn’t made available to comment. I’m sure he feels bad about what happened. He plays a physical game. That’s part of the sport. I can only hope Khaira will have a good recovery and be able to return. Keep him in your thoughts.

I am not going to provide the video of the hit. I have no interest in seeing it again. I will post some images of photos I took following the play.

All photos by Derek Felix courtesy MSG Network.

For the second straight game, Alex Georgiev got the start in place of the injured Igor Shesterkin. He had another solid outing. Although the game didn’t start off great, the backup settled in making 24 saves on 26 shots to earn his second win in a row.

In what was the 900th career game for Marc-Andre Fleury, the future Hall Of Famer was going for his 500th win. I thought he had a shot to get it. But his team couldn’t sustain their level. You have to wonder what he’s thinking playing for the Hawks after all the success he had in Vegas.

The first period started off fast. In fact, Trouba scored his fifth of the season only 61 seconds into the contest. One storyline MSG built up was Artemi Panarin in search of his 500th NHL point. In just his 457th career game, he got it by assisting on Trouba’s goal at 1:01.

On a play started by sidekick Ryan Strome, he got the puck over to Panarin. The 30-year old star drew attention before passing across for Trouba, who cut in and fired home his fifth past Fleury. That gave Panarin point number 500 against his former team. He began his NHL career in Chicago where he won the Calder and spent the first two years of his career before they traded him to Columbus. They couldn’t afford him. Part of the salary cap era.

But before you could get comfortable, the Blackhawks came right back to tie the game 43 seconds later when Erik Gustafsson scored his first of the season. On the play, it was a face-off win in the offensive zone. The puck came to Gustafsson at the point. He took a long shot that went past a screened Georgiev to tie the score.

At first glance, it looked like he just missed it. However, he was pretty animated. After it went in, Georgiev threw his hands up similar to Lundqvist. The reason for that was Patrik Nemeth set a perfect screen against his own goalie. That made it tough for Georgiev to pick up the shot. Goalies prefer to see shots. Nemeth likes to block them. He didn’t on this particular play, which allowed Gustafsson to even it up.

One thing about the first period. The Rangers didn’t exactly look sharp. They gave up some tough chances due to puck mismanagement. Something that couldn’t continue. On the second Chicago goal, another lost defensive draw resulted in Kirby Dach putting in a rebound for his fourth at 7:09.

This was another frustrating sequence. Dach beat Mika Zibanejad to win the face-off. Dylan Strome passed down for Alex DeBrincat, who decided to test Georgiev from a tough angle. His low shot caromed right out to Dach, who beat K’Andre Miller to notch his first goal since Oct. 27.

He hadn’t been producing. But he looks like more of a two-way center. That has Hawks fans frustrated due to Ducks’ gem Trevor Zegras. Let’s just say many teams missed on him. He is a special player. Don’t believe me? Check this play out from Zegras behind the Buffalo net where he made a lacrosse style pass for a Sonny Milano goal.

Pretty remarkable. While that show was happening, the Rangers were making life difficult on Georgiev. Fortunately, he came up with some big saves. The whole period was played at five-on-five. While both teams had nine shots, the Hawks had the better chances. Give Georgiev credit for holding his team in it. It could’ve been worse.

The second period was way more eventful. Penalties were taken. It became a battle of special teams. The way things are going, that’s a good thing for the Blueshirts. On a solid shift by the fourth line, rookie defenseman Nils Lundkvist made a subtle move in the neutral zone with the puck to draw a hooking minor on Henrik Borgstrom.

On their first power play, the top unit went to work. After moving the puck around along with the Hawks’ penalty killers for over a minute, they finally found the opening they needed to draw even. On a misdirection play started by Chris Kreider with a pass for Zibanejad in the middle, the center tipped the puck towards an open Panarin for his eighth at 3:19.

It was magnificent work by the trio. Zibanejad was featured in the slot area. They tried to connect with him prior. This time, Kreider was able to get the puck to him. Instead of shooting due to being tightly guarded, he simply redirected a pass to Panarin for an easy finish with Fleury down. After having trouble scoring, Panarin now has five goals over his last five games. He’s been on a major roll lately.

Astonishingly, that was the only goal in the second. Despite having the better of the play, the Rangers couldn’t get another one by Fleury, who stopped 12 of 13 shots. His best save came when he got across and robbed Kreider shorthanded on a Zibanejad pass. It was a terrific stop.

Prior to that, the play everyone’s still talking about is the brutal hit Trouba put on Khaira. It occurred at the 6:10 mark of the second period. As Khaira tried to control a rolling puck coming out of his zone, Trouba stepped up and creamed him with a clean check. He didn’t know he was there and was lying flat on his back as play was stopped.

After a couple of Hawks went after Trouba, things cooled down. With obvious concern for Khaira on both benches, a lengthy stoppage lead to the trainers carefully checking him out. While Trouba stood in front his bench with a look of discouragement, the entire Blackhawks bench got up to surround Khaira. As he was being carried out on a stretcher, former Edmonton teammate Ryan Strome gave him a tap as the crowd politely cheered. It was a tough scene.

At that point, the game felt like an afterthought. There were still over 33 minutes left to play and it didn’t feel like it mattered. All of our thoughts and prayers were with Khaira. Following a brief discussion between King and a referee regarding the Trouba hit not being penalized (it wasn’t a penalty), they finally returned to playing hockey.

At that moment, everyone knew Trouba would be held accountable. It didn’t matter that it was a clean hit. In hockey, when a player is seriously injured, you know teams will go after that player. That’s part of The Code. Trouba knew at some point, he would have to answer the bell. He would do so later in the period.

Before that moment came, Panarin got physically involved when he boarded Calvin de Haan from behind. It wasn’t a good penalty to take. The perplexing part is the ref who was looking right at it didn’t make the call. Instead, it was made by the trailer. Utterly ridiculous.

It was Adam Fox who had a tremendous penalty kill. He was dominant. Blocking shots and breaking up a pass that likely would’ve been a potential goal, he was everywhere. This was as good a defensive shift as you’ll see. Overall, Fox played a superb game. He recorded two assists and had five blocks. What a player.

With his team playing better in front of him, Georgiev didn’t have to stand on his head. He made eight saves in a less stressful second. Also, the Hawks weren’t the same offensively following the Khaira injury. It had to have an emotional effect. You didn’t notice Patrick Kane much. He was held without a point.

The fight finally happened. With under nine minutes left in the period, Riley Stillman went after Trouba near the benches. He obliged against the son of former NHL star Cory Stillman. After Riley Stillman got started quickly, Trouba responded with some good shots. Then, it was over. Exactly what you’d expect from Trouba.

Although they had the better of the play, the Rangers were forced to kill off a hi-sticking minor on Dryden Hunt. They had no trouble taking care of business. Chicago struggled to establish anything consistent. When they did get shots through, Georgiev turned them aside.

If there was a notable difference, it was the Rangers’ play on special teams. A place they’ve had a distinct advantage on during the run. They successfully killed off all four Chicago power plays while going a perfect 2-for-2 on the man-advantage.

After Miller was called for a phantom trip on Dylan Strome with under seven seconds remaining, they again got out of trouble. The penalty kill got it done to finish off the remainder of the Hawks’ power play at the start of the pivotal third. A period that killed the home team.

A few minutes in, it was ’19 second pick Kaapo Kakko who drew a slash on ’19 third pick Dach. That allowed the Rangers to go back to work. On their second power play, this time they went back to the formula that’s worked a lot. Panarin got the puck up top for Fox who waited for Kreider to get into perfect position. He then made a good shot pass for the Kreider redirection for his 10th power play goal at 4:59. Well executed.

A Trouba hooking minor on Dominik Kubalik sent the Hawks on their fourth power play. But like the previous three, they were unable to take advantage. Instead of tying it, they lost momentum due to another Rangers’ kill.

There had been some discussion about the fourth line during the first. Absurd stuff I don’t understand. Why is Reaves playing? They’re not having a good game. Have these people not learned anything? It’s the work of the checking line that’s made them a more complete team.

As if to prove a point and drive it home, that fourth line was involved in a huge insurance marker. On a good play by Reaves, he made a between the legs backhand pass over for Fox, who then found a cutting Rooney for his sixth with 7:50 left in regulation. A splendid play started by noted playmaker Reaves.

Trailing by two, the Blackhawks lifted Fleury early with over three minutes left. That decision backfired. A good defensive play from Zibanejad allowed Trouba to get the puck to Panarin for an easy empty netter that made it 5-2 with 3:10 to go. It was his fourth point of the night.

In two games versus his former team, Panarin lit up the Hawks like a Christmas tree 🎄 for seven points (3-4-7). Since scoring a goal and adding an assist in a win over Boston on Nov. 26, the 30-year old Russian is 5-6-11 in the past five games. He’s overcome his slow start to lead the team in scoring with 30 points (9-21-30). Elite.

After the goal, Ryan Carpenter took a run at Hunt boarding him. It didn’t take long for Ryan Strome to respond. He had Hunt’s back. Immediately going after Carpenter and exchanging punches, Strome earned the last 2:52 off with a double minor for roughing and misconduct. The strong response wasn’t ignored by Joe Micheletti or Lundqvist and Valiquette in the postgame.

With the game decided, that fourth line padded the cushion when Rooney and Reaves combined to set up Goodrow for his 4th at 18:41. That gave Reaves two assists and Rooney a goal and a helper. Pretty satisfying.

With it being my birthday, all I really wanted was a win. They got one already in Chicago. However, now Colorado comes into MSG. That is a much better match-up. It features Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri and their own Norris candidate in offensive juggernaut Cale Makar (11 goals). This should be a good game to find out more about the Rangers.

I’m definitely looking forward to it.

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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