This one was all about style. It wasn’t fancy. But rather a grinding, physical game that was hard fought. Despite playing without stars Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen, the Predators out-hit and out-grinded the Rangers to win a playoff style game 1-0 at MSG.
Juuse Saros finished with 32 saves including 16 coming in the third period to record his second shutout of the season. Of all the top goalies that are frequently discussed, he’s the least talked about. All the 26-year old has done is replace Predators legend Pekka Rinne without any problem.
Aside from having difficulty getting pucks past Saros, who made himself look bigger than his 5-11, 180 pound frame, the Blueshirts also found it tough to get through the Predators in the neutral zone. They really packed it in defensively. That was by design under coach John Hynes, who knew his team would have to win a low scoring game minus Duchene and Johansen.
It isn’t often an opponent out-hits the Rangers. However, they were the hunted on Sunday night. Nashville possesses some gritty players. Consisting of Yakov Trenin (6 hits, 5 SOG), Luke Kunin (5 hits, 3 SOG), Eeli Tolvanen (4 hits, 2 SOG), Tanner Jeannot (4 hits) and wrecking machine Mark Borowiecki (5 hits), those five players out-hit the Rangers 24-22. Overall, hits favored the Preds, 39-22.
That didn’t sit well with Chris Kreider. One of the team leaders, he called out attention to how he felt they played during a revealing postgame interview. It hit the nail on the head.
Both Steve Valiquette and Henrik Lundqvist agreed with his assessment. The proof is in how they’ve had most of their early success. This isn’t a team that relies entirely on skill. But on will. They like to outwork opponents by finishing checks and winning puck battles on the forecheck. They go to the dirty areas to score. There wasn’t enough of that last night.
Instead, it was the Preds who controlled the game. They hit hard and went after it. After beating both the Devils and Islanders, they weren’t satisfied with getting only two wins in the metro area. They put their hard hats on and dictated the terms to win a playoff caliber game behind Saros.
For a 1-0 game, it wasn’t dull. You had plenty of physicality and battles that intensified after a scoreless first period. Nashville was way better early by outplaying and outshooting the Rangers 13-6. They were tied due to Alex Georgiev, who continued his strong play by stopping all 13 first period shots en route to 23 saves.
Since Georgiev relieved Igor Shesterkin at the 44:52 mark of the third period in a shared shutout against the Sharks, he’s 3-1-0 with a 1.42 GAA and .951 save percentage. That steady play has allowed Shesterkin to take his time. He is getting closer to returning. But, it’s good to see Georgiev find his form. That’ll make the Rangers more formidable in net.
In a game where the refs kept the penalties to a minimum, it was the Predators who were able to earn the all important first goal less than two minutes into the second period. On an Alexandre Carrier forecheck, Filip Forsberg made a great pass up to Philip Tomasino for a good snapshot that went top shelf for the rookie’s fifth at 1:44.
Despite the Blueshirts picking up their play, that goal proved to be the difference. With the top two lines largely ineffective due to a stingy Nashville defense led by captain Roman Josi (4 SOG, 2 blocks) and Mattias Ekholm (3 blocks), the Rangers’ third line had the best scoring opportunities.
On the same shift, Filip Chytil had two wide open chances. Both came in transition where he’s most effective due to his skating. However, neither shot reached the net. While Joe Micheletti said both were deflected by Nashville sticks, I find that hard to believe. On one great chance, it looked like Chytil just missed high and wide. That’s how it’s gone for him.
While the 22-year old Czech was coming off consecutive games in which he tallied points, the bottom line is he needs to produce more than the three goals and four assists he has so far. It’s not enough from the third center. This isn’t to say there hasn’t been improvement in other areas. But his line isn’t facing the toughest competition. He’s the most experienced on that line. It’s up to him to lead the way.
I thought both Alexis Lafreniere and Julien Gauthier were more noticeable throughout. Chytil got one good shot on Saros that he saved due to a nice set up from Jacob Trouba. That was it. He also lost all five draws. Lafreniere was effective in a few shifts during the second. He nearly tied it when he stripped Josi and in one motion got a point blank shot on Saros that he saved. Despite being active, he hardly saw the ice late in the third.
Gauthier played well enough for Gerard Gallant to bump him up to the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider. With Kaapo Kakko again beginning to disappear following his one good stretch, Turk made a change in the third by moving up the more visible Gauthier and sliding Kakko back to the second line with Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin. Kakko had a very ineffective game in 12:08.
As for Gauthier, he did some positive things due to his strong skating. But he didn’t register a shot. It’s awfully hard to justify bunping him up when he has only one goal. I thought Gallant made a mistake by sitting Lafreniere. He seemed to have energy and is looking more confident. Instead, he wound up with 9:18 of ice time.
Consecutive strong shifts by the top two lines late in the second period seemed to be a good sign. Buoyed by a great open ice hit from Trouba that had fans chanting his name (what a difference), finally Zibanejad got a good shot on net. The Strome line then spent some time around the Nashville net. Both Strome and Panarin had chances as did Adam Fox, who sent a shot just wide. Ryan Lindgren missed the net too.
That was the kind of effort they needed. While Trouba drew attention from Trenin and Kunin for another strong hit, the Rangers outshot the Predators 10-6 in the second. Saros wasn’t cooperating. He made the key saves to keep his team ahead.
In the final period, the Preds decided to protect the one-goal lead. They hardly forechecked. Opting to continue playing a tight checking style that made life tough on the Rangers at five-on-five, Nashville clamped up the neutral zone and stood up at the blue line.
It took a superlative effort from a changing Fox to draw a rare penalty. After receiving a pass at center ice, he flew past Michael McCarron and forced him to take him down. He was sent off for tripping. It was the brilliance you come to expect from Fox in a game where he was marked well.
The second power play was exclusively the top unit. They certainly had their chances. Strome got the best two on good passes across that allowed him to fire through. On one chance, it felt like he would score. But Saros quickly recovered to make the save. He also got the better of Strome on another bid. He doesn’t shoot a lot in most games. But in this one, Strome finished with a game high eight shots.
A frustrating night. He had nothing to show for it. Some games, it’s like that. Zibanejad continued to fire blanks. A game removed from getting a break to end a scoring drought, it was back to shooting pucks into the crest. His best shot actually came early in the third from a tough angle when he fired a puck short side that Saros got over for along the post.
There wasn’t much happening for Ryan Reaves. He hardly hit and didn’t see as much time. Barclay Goodrow got off a tough shot on Saros in the slot that he denied. Kevin Rooney didn’t register a shot.
There was one lineup change. Libor Hajek got into his first game due to Nils Lundkvist being out with a non-related COVID illness. He was okay. In 12:53 while paired with Patrik Nemeth, Hajek had two shots on goal and didn’t make any glaring mistakes. He plays a no frills game. I don’t get why they even signed Nemeth for.
If Lundkvist can’t go on Tuesday in the rematch at the red hot Colorado, expect Hajek to get another game. Considering the Rangers now must travel with a stop at Arizona Wednesday before returning home for Vegas Friday, maybe Lundkvist misses the trip. It’ll depend on how he feels.
The Rangers did get 16 shots in the third. But I never got the feeling they would tie it. It was just the way Nashville defended. They protected the house. If Saros saw the shots, he stopped them. Kreider alluded to it afterwards. They didn’t get enough traffic.
Gallant pulled Georgiev with 1:34 left in regulation. They never seriously threatened. Credit the Preds for playing a hard-working and tenacious game. Although they lost, it’s exactly the kind of style game the Rangers can learn from. They must adapt.