Rangers’ late push not enough in tough loss to Avalanche, Zibanejad and Panarin struggle in second consecutive defeat, Kakko slumping


They certainly tried to make the most of an overturned J.T. Compher power play goal that looked like a very iffy call. Instead of being down and out, the Rangers had a new lease on life. They were able to pull within one goal with Alex Georgiev on the bench.

However, the late comeback push fell short in a tough 4-2 loss at Colorado. After Julien Gauthier was able to put in a rebound of a Dryden Hunt shot Darcy Kuemper misplayed to cut the deficit to one with 3:02 left, Chris Kreider came so close to tying it. But Kuemper made a sprawling save to deny him in front.

On a neutral zone face-off with Georgiev back in net, Mika Zibanejad lost the crucial draw to Nazem Kadri. Off the face-off, the scrappy Valeri Nichushkin wisely pushed the loose puck by Adam Fox and then turned it into a breakaway goal at 19:23 to ice the game for Colorado. A play where both Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin looked bad on.

Neither star played particularly well in the rematch against the elite Avs, who were without captain Gabriel Landeskog. Zibanejad went without a point in 17:26 with just two shots while Panarin picked up a secondary assist in an otherwise ineffective game for the Rangers’ leading scorer.

The Avalanche deserve credit for taking away Zibanejad, Panarin and for most of the night Kreider, who is in a mini-slump with only one goal in his last seven games. Undoubtedly, he’s been the most consistent forward this team has had. No other Ranger is in double digits. Kreider leads them with 17 goals. After that, Panarin has nine.

The problem is it’s now a four-way tie between Jacob Trouba, Ryan Strome, Alexis Lafreniere and Kevin Rooney with six. Zibanejad remains stuck on five with Fox, who’s point production has been consistent. You can’t have your top center with only five goals in 28 games over a week before Christmas. It doesn’t translate. They didn’t extend Mika at an average of $8.5 million so he could be a streaky scorer. He works hard at other areas. But he must start burying some shots. If not, this team is going to be in trouble.

Kaapo Kakko had another disappointing game. Since the stretch where he put up all eight of his points over seven games, he’s without a point in seven straight. Tonight, he lost a puck battle along the wall and took a penalty due to being too soft. It is a process for young players, but at what point does the former ’19 second pick start making more of an impact? He is a bad fit with Zibanejad and Kreider. It’s time to move him back with Strome and Panarin.

When Kreider isn’t finishing and Panarin isn’t going, the offense will struggle. Especially with Zibanejad firing blanks. Second center Strome has been getting it done. His redirection of a great Fox pass gave the Rangers some life in a more inspired second period. That goal cut a 2-0 deficit in half.

It was all Avs in the first period. If not for Georgiev coming up with some timely saves (10) in a lopsided period that saw the Rangers establish zero sustained attack, it could’ve been worse than a two-goal deficit. He made three good stops on the first of six Avalanche power plays. That bailed out Patrik Nemeth, who has become an eyesore.

With the game still scoreless, Nathan MacKinnon made a great play to set up line mate Mikko Rantanen for the first goal at 12:18. Carrying the puck, he went around Nemeth behind the net and came out and made a perfect backhand feed for a Rantanen finish behind Libor Hajek to open the scoring. On the play, Nemeth got beat and Hajek tried to help in front, but didn’t recover in time to pick up Rantanen. MacKinnon was able to also beat Alexis Lafreniere to make the gorgeous pass.

While the Rangers barely tested Kuemper, who could’ve been in a lounge chair, the Avalanche controlled play with their imposing combination of size, speed and strength. After he whined about an inadvertent Strome trip earlier in the first, Rantanen got a legit call when Kevin Rooney foolishly tripped him up in the Ranger zone.

That penalty hurt. Instead of escaping the period down a goal, the Rangers trailed by two thanks to Cale Makar ripping a laser by a screened Georgiev at 18:11. The sad part is it was his own player who made it impossible for him to track the puck. Nemeth screened out Georgiev on a perfect Makar shot that went blocker side to make it 2-0. The offensive dynamo leads all defensemen with 13 goals. He legit has a shot at 30. What a dangerous player.

After getting outplayed and outshot 12-7 in a flat first, the Rangers played a much better second period. They went to the power play early when Andre Burakovsky cross-checked Ryan Lindgren. On the man-advantage, they didn’t quite get the set ups they wanted. Colorado did a good job blanketing Panarin and Fox. Kreider wasn’t a factor either.

When Gerard Gallant went to his second unit, Hunt got nabbed for a pick play at the Avalanche blue line. Compher sold it to make it four-on-four for 43 seconds. After the Rangers were able to kill the Colorado five-on-four, Hunt drew an interference minor on one-time Blueshirt Jack Johnson by driving the Colorado net. A good play by a gritty player.

Although the second power play had better looks, they couldn’t cash in against Kuemper. He made the saves he needed to and the Avs killed the rest. If there was a notable difference, special teams went to Colorado. In most of their wins this season, the Rangers have won the battle of special teams. Tonight, they had four less power plays and allowed one power play goal.

In what can best be summed up as an intense heavyweight battle, Kurtis MacDermid got the decision over Ryan Reaves in an entertaining scrap. After Reaves landed some early shots, MacDermid came back with some of his own before two rights finally got the takedown. A rare loss for Reaves.

Sometimes, teams get lifts from fights. Even though Reaves lost, it was advantage Rangers. Less than a minute following the fisticuffs, Fox made a terrific play by moving the puck down low for Strome. He was able to get the tip in for his sixth to cut it to 2-1 with 9:24 remaining. A superb effort even if it wasn’t conventional. It still counted just the same.

On the next shift, a flying Zibanejad broke in on Kuemper. But his backhand attempt was denied by the Colorado starter. A huge momentum turning save. Afterwards, a frustrated Zibanejad took a silly penalty by grabbing Johnson for holding. One of those regrettable offensive zone minors you can’t take against such a lethal opponent.

Even though they killed the penalty, the Avalanche are the last team you want to put on the power play. If there was one gripe about the game, the Rangers took too many penalties. Georgiev sure gave them a chance. He made nine saves on 10 power play shots and was good throughout despite allowing four goals on 31 shots. The loss wasn’t on him.

For most of the second, they did so many things right. But then they began turning over pucks to fuel the Colorado transition. Zibanejad had a bad one. It was finally a turnover by the fourth line that really came back to haunt them. Eventually, the Avs turned it into a goal when Kadri took a low shot on Georgiev for a rebound with two bodies in front. With only Lindgren back and Fox behind, Nichushkin steered in his eighth for a 3-1 lead with 1:15 to go.

That was a backbreaker. The Rangers had all the momentum. But the sloppy play crept in and really cost them. Of course, the guys on ESPN Plus were heaping praise on our players for playing a very clean period. It was like they jinxed them. All that talk about no turnovers and more shot attempts went up in smoke like the fancy chart garbage analytical nerds use.

The third period was interesting. The Rangers never gave up. But at times, it felt like the Avalanche were ready to put them away. A huge Georgiev save to stop Nichushkin point blank kept them alive. I know the statistics will say 27 saves and four goals allowed. But if you watched the game, you know better. He played well.

The Avalanche are such a deep team that it doesn’t matter who’s missing. They come at you in waves. They’re very big and fast. It can be a handful. There’s a reason they’ve been so hot and scoring tons of goals. This wasn’t a blowout like last week’s 7-3 dusting on my birthday.

The Rangers competed. They didn’t look outgunned. But they also aren’t yet in the Avalanche’s league. That’s fine. You aren’t going to be complete less than 30 games in when you haven’t sniffed the playoffs in five years. I don’t count the Play In Qualifier. That was expanded due to COVID. This team is still learning.

If there was a player who frustrated me, it was Kakko. He isn’t doing enough to play on the top line. He had two shots and a slashing minor because he wasn’t strong enough along the boards and chopped MacDermid’s stick in half. He isn’t there yet. I’m not sure about him. He needs to prove he can score consistently.

Filip Chytil is another young player that isn’t getting it done. He isn’t finishing on plays like the one he had in front. The overall play has improved. But he’s been around long enough where offense should be expected. He doesn’t draw the tough assignments. They must get more out of the third line to be successful. If not, a trade is needed.

Games like Tuesday night emphasize the importance of Sammy Blais. His size, strength and grit is sorely missed. Gallant wouldn’t be playing Kakko on the first line. Blais fit better because he’s more mature and can handle the physical toll. I’m not going to use the Pavel Buchnevich excuse. Blais was doing well until P.K. Slewban Subban ended his season. His career will be over soon. I bet Devils fans can’t wait for him to be gone.

Without Blais, Gallant continues to employ Hunt in a top six role. As much as I admire his work ethic, he isn’t that player. Stick him on the third line where he can create more space for Chytil and Lafreniere, who isn’t ready for a top six role. If he was a right wing, I’d feel differently.

At this point, I think Turk should bump up Gauthier to the first line. He puts in a lot of effort and is around the net a lot due to his skating and North/South style. I know he only just got his second goal. But what other choice do they have? This is where not having Blais hurts. Vitali Kravtsov sure would be intriguing if he were available. That’s not happening.

Let’s get to the Compher no goal. With Hajek off for delay of game, the Avalanche got the puck up top to Makar for another hard shot. Compher somehow managed to redirect it off the goalpost and then beat Trouba to put in a rebound for what looked like an insurmountable 4-1 lead.

But after some discussion with the refs at the bench, Gallant decided to take his shot at challenge for goaltender interference. From the replays ESPN Plus showed, I didn’t think much of it. While there was initial contact between Compher and Georgiev, it came before the puck arrived. It had nothing to do with the play. I felt it should’ve counted. To my astonishment, they overturned the call and ruled it no goal.

Overkill. They’ll do anything to protect goalies. It was soft. I would’ve preferred it to count and not lose the way the Rangers did. But that’s what the league has become. A predictable soft as Carvel league except when a certain player slew foots and injures opponents. Mind boggling. About as much as ESPN not showing most of their games on cable TV. Not everyone wants to pay a premium for a streaming service. Luckily, I can stream the games for nothing. I don’t get it. They’ll show collegiate sports over NHL hockey. How does that promote the sport?

In regards to the final few minutes, it was interesting to see Gallant shift Hunt back to the fourth line. With Reaves on the bench and Rooney also taking a seat after a second consecutive ineffective game, it was a new look checking line that produced a goal on the six-on-five.

With Georgiev on the bench, Goodrow won an offensive draw back for Hunt, whose shot rebounded off Kuemper right to Gauthier, who flipped in a backhand for his second to make it 3-2 with 2:02 remaining. All it wad a simple face-off play where Gauthier went to the net and got the loose change. There wasn’t enough of that from the top six.

With Georgiev again lifted, it looked like Colorado would seal it with an empty net goal. But a great hustle play from Lafreniere denied a bid when he batted the attempt out of the air with his stick. He got shifts at the end because he was effective. Gallant felt he was too cute when he sat him out the last 10 minutes against Nashville. I like Laf’s grit. He definitely works hard and has more sandpaper to his game than some of our other young players.

That one defensive play from Lafreniere almost led to Kreider tying it. He got to his spot. Off a face-off win, Fox moved the puck over to Strome, whose shot pass was redirected by Kreider into Kuemper. He got one crack at a rebound, but was shutdown before Makar checked him. That was the chance to force overtime.

Finally, Kadri won a draw at center ice from Zibanejad. Nichushkin made a smart play by pushing the puck ahead and slipped through both Fox and Zibanejad to earn a one-on-one with Georgiev. He made a good move and went forehand deke upstairs to salt the game away with over 36 seconds left.

It was a frustrating way to end the game. Especially given how they never quit. They were that close to forcing overtime thanks to an overturned goal that to me should’ve counted. The NHL remains very confusing.

Now, there’s another COVID outbreak. There are players all over the place testing positive. The Carolina/Minnesota game was canceled. Calgary and Chicago didn’t play on Monday. Supposedly, both the NHL and NHLPA are going to have a discussion over all the players in COVID Protocol tomorrow. I’m curious to see what happens. It isn’t only affecting the NHL. But the NBA and NFL. It’s worrisome.

The Rangers are back at it when they visit Arizona. It’s probably good to get another game. But what about the travel factor? What about the issue with Nashville, who just visited? Yeah. There’s concern. Players have expressed similar issues with participating in Beijing. I don’t feel it’s worth the risk. That isn’t a good idea.

That’ll do it. The Rangers want to bounce back. They’re now third in the division with the red hot Penguins gaining ground. That’s a surprising team to keep an eye on. I’m curious to see how the Rangers will do against the more defensive minded Pens. Don’t forget the sizzling Golden Knights visit MSG Friday. There then is a break in the schedule.

See you later.

THREE STARS 🌟 OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche (2 assists, 5 SOG, 7-for-13 on draws in 22:32)

2nd 🌟 Nazem Kadri, Avalanche (3 assists in 20:01)

1st 🌟 Valeri Nichushkin, Avalanche (2 goals, 3 SOG, +2 in 16:21)

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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