Duclair, Cats’ big third period spoils Shesterkin’s return in tough one-goal loss


Finally, there was hockey played. For the Rangers, the early Christmas break allowed Igor Shesterkin and Artemi Panarin to return. But also meant no Ryan Lindgren and Kevin Rooney due to COVID Protocol. Both regulars were missed.

However, the Rangers were in good position to improve to two-for-two against the Panthers. But they blew a one-goal lead after two periods by allowing three Florida third period goals in a tough 4-3 loss on the road. A one-goal defeat that was winnable.

It happens. You’re not always going to be able to protect leads in the third period. Even in a home loss to Vegas where they got beat in a shootout, the Rangers didn’t handle prosperity well. Coincidentally, that was the last game they played before games were postponed.

Even with a 12-day layoff, they played well enough to win against one of the league’s elite teams. Let’s put it this way. The effort in the second meeting against the Cats was much more consistent than the one where they relied on Shesterkin to steal a 4-3 home decision on Nov. 8.

Unlike that game, the teams were on even terms. The Rangers didn’t get outplayed or outshot in the rematch. It was a simple case of Shesterkin having a rare off night while counterpart Sergei Bobrovsky stole the show. This time, it was the former two-time Vezina winner who came up with the difference making gems that allowed his team to post a sixth third period come from behind win.

Goals from MacKenzie Weegar, Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair reversed a 2-1 Ranger lead into a 4-2 deficit with 5:20 remaining in the third. Despite not playing their best, the Rangers didn’t give up. With Shesterkin on the bench for an extra attacker, Chris Kreider was able to find a loose puck for his team-leading 19th of the season with over 44 seconds left in regulation.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for a comeback. To their credit, the Panthers defended well and protected the one-goal lead to pull out the hard earned victory on home ice. A place they’ve only lost three times. They improved to 15-3-0 at FLA Live Arena (seriously?). If there is a consolation, the Rangers are the better road team. Even though they lost, they fell to 11-5-2 away from MSG. The Cats are only 4-4-4 on the road.

Normally, I don’t look at such things following tough losses. But if we aren’t honest about how this team handles business on the road, then we would be ignoring a positive fact. The truth is in Year One under coach Gerard Gallant, this team knows how to play away from The World’s Most Vaccinated. Even if they had about 40 percent of the crowd due to all the Ranger fans who live down South, more often than not they’re in these games. It was no different Wednesday night.

The difference between winning and losing can be very minute. The little details matter. Unlike most games we’ve seen, there was no edge in special teams. They were crap throughout. Both sides took the collar in two power play opportunities. This came down to even strength play and the two Russian netminders.

Considering they hadn’t played since Dec. 17, the Rangers looked okay early. In fact, after wasting an early power play, they got a few key saves from Shesterkin, who made his first start since Dec. 3 against San Jose. It was in that one that he was forced out due to a groin injury. Alex Georgiev relieved him and split a shutout. Shesterkin believes he needs to do more stretches. This isn’t the first time he’s had issues with his groin. The same thing happened last season.

One thing about the Panthers. They have a relentless attack. They’re extremely good in transition due to their skating ability combined with the skill they possess. They had Aleksander Barkov back for this match. In fact, all four centers played. That hasn’t happened often. One through four, the quartet of Barkov, Sam Bennett, Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen is as tough as any in hockey. Don’t forget Sam Reinhart can play center too. They’re a handful.

While Shesterkin took care of a dozen shots sent his way including a tough one from Duclair up high, Bobrovsky also was busy. He faced 15 shots in a wide open first that probably more favored the Cats. Despite that style, it was Artemi Panarin who made a brilliant play to score a highlight reel goal at 11:08.

Following a Jacob Trouba outlet to Ryan Strome, he made a nice lead pass for Panarin who did the rest. Able to make a great move to the outside on Aaron Ekblad to get in, he then went to the backhand and slid the puck between Bobrovsky’s pads for his 10th. It was an unbelievable play by a great player. Panarin had it working throughout.

Leading by one, the Rangers had a chance to go up more. Libor Hajek was able to stay on his feet and escape with the puck in his end. Verhaeghe reached in and tripped him to send them on their second power play. Unlike the first, this time they got good setup time. The top unit did everything but score. Bobrovsky made critical stops on Panarin, Zibanejad and Kreider to keep Florida within one.

That was a turning point. Against a great offensive countering team like the Panthers, who are never out of a game, I really felt the Rangers needle to score in that spot. They came close, but ultimately didn’t due to Bobrovsky (14 first period saves including 5 for 5 on PK).

After the teams combined for 27 shots and a lot more attempts, the second was more under control. The tempo was more deliberate. Each side settled in and played more cautiously. Unlike the first, defense wasn’t optional. Shots and scoring chances were harder to come by.

Even after Strome slashed Bennett in the defensive zone, the Rangers did a good job on the penalty kill. Shesterkin was never threatened. Credit the penalty killers for being aggressive and getting key clears to change on the fly. The Panthers did nothing with their first five-on-four.

Despite the successful kill, the Rangers allowed the Cats to regain momentum quickly. On a good offensive shift from the third line, Ryan Lomberg set up a quick Gustav Forsling low shot that Shesterkin couldn’t control. With Hajek in front and Strome too late, a wide open Lundell put home the rebound for his sixth at 5:09 to tie the score.

The very next shift, the Panthers got a great point blank opportunity to take the lead. Off the face-off at center ice, Mason Marchment stole the puck from K’Andre Miller and broke in on Shesterkin, who stopped his initial shot and then stuffed the rebound chance. On the play, only Trouba was back scrambling to try to get to the other side. It was all about Shesterkin there. He also was contacted from an attacking Marchment, who braced himself. Nothing malicious there.

Following that sequence, a Kreider shot was denied by a sharp Bobrovsky. Things settled down. The Rangers tightened up after a stoppage. The Cats found it tough to get shots through on Shesterkin. The defense did a much better job containing the neutral zone and limiting the Florida counter attack.

With not much happening, Panarin made another terrific play that led directly to Zibanejad scoring for a third consecutive game. After a smart play by Hajek to keep the play alive in the offensive zone, a slick Panarin lifted the stick of Radko Gudas and stole the puck. Coming in with lots of speed two-on-one, he then threaded the needle across for a Zibanejad one-timer past a helpless Bobrovsky for his eighth at 12:43. That gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead.

These are the kind of superstar plays Panarin made in his first two seasons on Broadway. Like I said, the jump was back. He really looked like the elite player he is. Worth the price of admission. It’s also nice to see Zibanejad finishing again. It was the third straight game he had a goal and assist giving him six points (3-3-6) over three. That’s what they need from the number one center.

Things got a bit testy late in the second. Throughout, Cats’ pest Patric Hornqvist was running around hitting Rangers while mucking it up during a few heated scrums. That’s who he is. Whether it was with Pittsburgh or Nashville, he’s always right in the middle of the action. He even exchanged pleasantries with Ryan Reaves during a stoppage as both went back to their benches. He is a chip off the old block.

Finally, it boiled over. After Hornqvist delivered a clean check on Adam Fox that was a little high, Hajek went right after him in defense of his teammate. During a scrum behind the Ranger net, Hornqvist remarked, “What. I’m not allowed to hit [Fox].” He had a point. We see clean hits all the time answered quickly. It’s nothing new. I have no problem with the hit or Hajek defending Fox. That’s hockey now.

Of course, Hornqvist got no penalty afterwards. Instead, both Hajek and Lomberg each received two minutes each for roughing with 48 seconds left in the period. The teams skated four aside for the remainder of the period and first 1:12 of the third. However, nobody knew how important those penalties would wind up.

Still playing while both players were serving their penalties, they finally were able to return to action. The trouble was Hajek came back out and wasn’t able to change. That meant he was the third defenseman on for an extended shift with Trouba and Miller. Playing as a forward high, Hajek was on when the Panthers had one of their counters that resulted in Weegar tying the game at 5:56.

On the play, both Marchment and Luostarinen combined to find Weegar open for a good shot that might’ve tipped off Dryden Hunt by Shesterkin. Either way, it’s normally a shot he has. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to stop it. Weegar’s first of the season gave Florida new life with 14:04 left in the third.

Despite that tying goal, it was the Blueshirts who would get a couple of great chances to reclaim the lead. First, Strome took off and let go of a wrist shot that rang off the goalpost. That close. Then, a good keep in from Alexis Lafreniere created a two-on-one down low. Filip Chytil passed for Julien Gauthier on the doorstep. But a hustling Bennett broke it up.

Afterwards, with plenty of players back for a Florida transition, Verhaeghe let go of a wrist shot in the circle that snuck right between the pads of Shesterkin for the go-ahead goal with 9:29 left. This was a horrible goal to allow. It was a low shot that didn’t have a lot on it. But he let it go through him. Making matters worse, Gudas picked up an assist as did Forsling.

With over five minutes to go, it was another Florida quick hitter that helped put it away. With the Strome line again out, they got lost in coverage. A Bennett perfect feed for an open Duclair saw him go top shelf for his 10th to make it 4-2 in favor of the Panthers with 5:20 remaining. He also made the defensive play to start it before doing in his former team.

The thing about the Panthers is they have a strong supporting cast. In a game where Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau were held in check along with Ekblad and Reinhart, it was the depth players who got it done. Lundell, Weegar, Verhaeghe and Duclair scored the goals while Forsling (2 assists), Gudas, Marchment, Lomberg and Luostarinen hit the score sheet along with Bennett. That depth is what will present a problem for whoever they draw in the playoffs.

The Rangers got nothing from their supporting cast. Only the main characters. While the fourth line created a few opportunities including one for Reaves and another for Barclay Goodrow, the third line didn’t get enough done. As much as I like them, two shots (both from Chytil) isn’t scaring anyone. There were positives from Lafreniere, who is willing to go to the hard areas. But he needs to show more.

Even though he wound up with an assist when a Zibanejad shot accidentally tipped off him for a late Kreider goal that made it interesting, I didn’t like Kakko’s game. He didn’t do enough to impress. The statistics say three shots and a plus-two with an assist. But he wasn’t that noticeable. It’s up to Kakko, Lafreniere, Chytil and Miller to improve their production. Gauthier can be included because he creates enough chances.

That’s really what the season is going to be about. We know what the stars can do. It’s the young core that will have to step it up. The games only get harder. They got the defending champion Lightning on New Year’s Eve. That’ll be a big one for Goodrow, who’ll get his Stanley Cup ring and a video tribute from the first class Bolts. He was part of back-to-back championships. It’ll be special.

In terms of where we are with games returning, there’s still way too many cancellations due in large part to Canada. There’s 80 games at last count to make up. They can’t keep postponing games. That won’t work. Let’s hope things turnaround.

I also have close friends who have COVID-19. Most are vaccinated including close friend Brian, who’s triple vaxxed. It really is scary. Sending my best to all of our friends. Take care. For anyone out there, be careful.

THREE STARS 🌟 🤩 ✨

3rd 🌟 Anthony Duclair, Panthers (game-winner at 14:40 of 3rd, 10th of season)

2nd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, NYR (goal and helper in a virtuoso performance)

1st 🌟 Sergei Bobrovsky, Panthers (30 saves on 33 shots including some clutch stops in the 3rd)

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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