What a difference two months make for improved Blueshirts, Lafreniere and Miller emerging after win over Oilers

It was two months ago that they met the same opponent at Edmonton. At that time, the Rangers were winning hockey games. But relying largely on Igor Shesterkin. It wasn’t sustainable. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl exposed them in comeback fashion while Alex Georgiev struggled.

They then were blown out completely by the better Flames. It was also a road trip that saw them blow a third period lead to the Canucks before they made a coaching change. The only win on that trip was over the expansion Seattle Kraken out Northwest. They were lucky to get the two points.

It’s almost exactly two months later. A lot has changed. Playing a better overall game under Gerard Gallant, the Blueshirts are winning by outworking opponents. It isn’t all about the stud goalie, who got a night off due to a busy schedule. It’s also become about Georgiev, who played very well in backstopping the Rangers to a satisfying 4-1 home win over the struggling Oilers.

It’s Edmonton who looks like they need a face lift. Following a strong start led by the dynamic duo of McDavid and Draisaitl, they’ve fallen on hard times. So much so that it’s possible the Rangers might’ve helped send coach Dave Tippett to the unemployment line soon. His team relies too much on the skill of the game’s best two players. They don’t have the will like the grittier Blueshirts.

Let’s highlight that grit. By adding high character players like Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves last summer, Team President and GM Chris Drury is looking like a genius these days. His hire of the experienced Gallant behind the bench is paying off. He continues to push all the right buttons while having a calm demeanor win or lose.

It isn’t only the veterans who are excelling. Highlighted by a three-point game out of Ryan Strome and 33 saves from a refocused Georgiev fresh off the protocol, the Rangers also got arguably the best game of the young career of Alexis Lafreniere. The emerging 20-year old former top pick recorded a goal and assist while being assertive throughout. He was named the game’s Second Star for his effort.

He wasn’t alone. There has also been a noticeable improvement during this winning streak from K’Andre Miller. The second-year defenseman seems to be maturing. After logging a team high 26:52 in an impressive 4-0 win over the Lightning on Saturday, he continued to make outstanding reads and have an active stick against the likes of McDavid and Draisaitl. Although he and physical partner Jacob Trouba didn’t hit the score sheet, they were rock solid at five-on-five. Miller got the most even strength minutes (21:47) with Trouba (20:31) right behind.

Buoyed by the return of Ryan Lindgren, who had an assist and one very strong hit on Slater Koekkoek, the Rangers had consistent play from all three defense pairs including Libor Hajek and rookie Zac Jones, who stayed in the lineup over Nils Lundkvist. Each received at least 15 minutes and were responsible. Adam Fox was involved offensively with a pair of assists while making subtle defensive plays as usual in over 21 minutes.

If there was one contrast from Edmonton where they don’t like to play in their end, the Rangers blocked 22 shots to the Oilers’ three. In fact, both Trouba and Hajek each had four blocks. Kevin Rooney made three in his return out of protocol. Although he would be bailed out by Georgiev, who made the save of the game to rob McDavid on a crucial Edmonton power play. Rooney definitely gave Georgiev some love in the postgame.

As is also part of their identity under Gallant, they finished checks against the star players in Oilers jerseys. That even included Fil Chytil knocking down McDavid at the end of a shift. If that doesn’t show commitment, what else will? As a team, the Rangers out-hit the Oilers 29-12. Some of that was due to the puck being in their end in the second and third period. But for the most part, they didn’t allow either superstar to break loose like the run n’ gun nightmare on Nov. 5.

This was a complete effort by 20 players. Let’s call it The Turk Effect. He has successfully changed the way the Rangers play. You notice it with a maturing Lafreniere in how he comes back harder defensively and breaks up plays. You see it with Kaapo Kakko too. Even though the scoring is still an issue, the other 20-year old high pick works hard. It is that commitment to all three zones that Gallant has been able to get his emerging team to execute.

When they need a big save, Shesterkin or in Monday night’s case Georgiev can give it to them. It’s become a good trend. It’s why they are where they are in the standings. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. Go read other hot takes. The truth is through 34 games, they find themselves in good position thanks to a 22-8-4 record with 48 points. What that means is a good first half. It’s not time to toot our own horn. There’s more work to do.

In a first period mostly controlled by the Blueshirts in the second game of a back-to-back, it was a smart dump in by Lindgren that caused problems for Koskinen. With the puck outside the designated area (crapezoid), Koskinen got into trouble when a hustling Strome beat him to the loose puck and centered for Lafreniere, who buried another one into a vacated net. For the cynics who cry over everything, Lafreniere puts himself in the right spots to get those goals. He’s now up to eight. All at even strength.

After holding Edmonton to only six shots, the second period was different. The Rangers would have to defend a lot more. However, not before Barclay Goodrow continued his consistent play. On a subtle defensive play from Strome, he moved the puck up the boards trapping Duncan Keith. Out with the puck came a flying Lafreniere. He knew what to do dishing across for Goodrow, who scored for the third time in three games. That gave Lafreniere a two-point game. He earned it.

There weren’t many penalties in the game. However, a Koekkoek hold on Mika Zibanejad gave the Rangers a golden opportunity to extend the lead. But before they could do much of anything, a Kakko hook evened things up.

Afterwards, they still had chances. Zibanejad rang one off the crossbar. A lot of their plays came off counters due to forcing Oilers into turnovers. That even held true for McDavid and Draisaitl. They take risks. That can be exposed by harder working teams. Something our team is becoming.

One thing I noticed was how many one-on-one battles they won. They got their sticks on pucks against both McDavid and Draisaitl to break up plays. Miller was a standout during a four-on-four. He was very aggressive and made the right reads to break plays up and use his skating to go in the opposite direction.

However, the Oilers began to tilt the ice in the second half of the period. Consecutive strong shifts from the McDavid line and Draisaitl line had the Rangers working extra hard. Following an icing, an exhausted Fox was able to get free for a two-on-one. But over two minutes into his shift, he couldn’t quite finish with a diving Koskinen able to get on top of the attempt and cover up. That kept the score at 2-0.

Ironically, it was actually the Oilers’ support players who finally made it a game. On a good play along the boards to gain entry by vet Kyle Turris, he got the puck over to Tyler Benson. With Chytil defending, Benson was able to slide the puck in front for a Ryan McLeod finish to cut the deficit to one with six minutes left in the second. It was a well executed play.

With momentum, Edmonton sure came. They spent more time looking for the equalizer. But unlike the game a couple of months ago, the Rangers didn’t break defensively. They were still able to keep the Oilers to the outside. When there was a good opportunity, Georgiev was locked in and made the key saves. He definitely looked like he had something to prove. It was understandable.

Entering the third, the Rangers were nursing a one-goal lead. Lately, third period leads have not been automatic. But this time, they got some huge insurance on special teams. On nothing but sheer hustle from gritty veteran Greg McKegg after stealing the puck, he drew a tripping minor on McLeod.

With the game hanging in the balance, the top unit went to work. After Fox twice fed Zibanejad in his office for good shots with Koskinen kicking one out with the other attempt just missing, a good Kakko recovery kept a play alive. Although he didn’t get a point, it was that determination that allowed a patient Fox to calmly shoot a low wrist shot for a Chris Kreider special. He got just enough of it to squeak it through Koskinen, who couldn’t quite hang on.

That gave Kreider a new career high with 12 power play goals. It also was his 20th of the season. It marks the seventh time in his NHL career that he’s reached 20 goals in a season. The big difference is the 30-year old is having a career season. Now up to 31 points (20-11-31) in 34 games, Kreider has never played better. He continues to make defensive plays and lead by example. O’ Captain! My Captain!

That goal would prove large. Not only because it made it 3-1. But due to the Oilers. A desperate man, Tippett double shifted Draisaitl with McDavid. They are like two horses when together. Think Crosby and Malkin. As imposing as they are, the Rangers were up to the challenge. Jones even got baptized by fire having to go up against McDavid for a shift. He was successful.

Things got interesting. Following Strome drawing a slash on Kailer Yamamoto, Trouba caught Colton Sceviour up high for a hi-sticking minor penalty. This was after the Rangers spent the first 1:38 on a five-on-four that could’ve sealed the game. Instead, there was some four-on-four followed by the dangerous Edmonton power play.

It looked like the penalty kill would escape. But with a clear opportunity to shoot the puck down, instead Rooney made a puzzling puck decision that almost proved costly. He decided to pass back. As I yelled, “No!!!!!”, at the TV, Draisaitl intercepted it. Everyone knew where the puck was going. Over for McDavid, who would score. Not so fast. A quick reacting Georgiev got over and made a fantastic save. Fantabulous. A word I once made up to describe such things. Save of the season?

The key to that 10 bell save was how aggressive he was. Georgiev knew what Draisaitl would do. He’s not the best passer in the game for nothing. He just anticipated it and absolutely stole a sure power play goal for McDavid. If he scores there, who knows. Maybe it’s a different finish. They never got to that point. How’s that for confidence from a goalie we were ready to run out of town?

To his credit, Gallant never stopped supporting Georgiev. He continues to call both Georgie and Igor great goalies. They sure have been a good tandem. Even though we know how special Shesterkin is. You gotta give Georgiev a lot of credit. He stayed ready by taking shots in practice. But more than that, he turned his year around after Shesterkin went down. He stepped up. That shows true character.

Following the save, it was obvious that Edmonton was done scoring. It didn’t matter that McDavid had seven shots. He was held off the score sheet with Draisaitl for only the fifth time all season. A total T-E-A-M effort by the Blueshirts.

If you needed confirmation of how good a night it was for Strome, he took a Goodrow pass and came up ice and had his centering feed bank in off an Edmonton player. His eighth from Goodrow and Fox put it away with 5:49 remaining.

Despite getting outshot 14-5 in the third, the Rangers closed it out for their third straight win. For now, it counts as another victory against a playoff team. I’m skeptical about the Oilers. They don’t play like a together team. There’s too many passengers.

One thing is certain. The Blueshirts are a true team in every sense of the word. Remember how much they used to struggle without Artemi Panarin? No problem anymore. They have the players who step up including Strome, who didn’t need Panarin to earn the game’s First Star with a goal and two assists. He is a leader. Just listen to his postgame interview. He has a bright future as either a coach or color analyst. That’s after his career which is peaking.

Next up are the Golden Knights in a rematch from last month. Good. Bring on another good opponent. They’ll be without Max Pacioretty for a while. But they’re playing well and are back in first having left Edmonton in the dust. Vegas is a tough place to play. That’s on Thursday.

The Rangers also will be out West for the improved Ducks, Kings and Sharks. They conclude a five-game road trip at Philadelphia on Jan. 15. That’s if there’s no more surprises in the schedule. The next game at MSG is not until 1/19 versus Toronto. The final regular season meeting.

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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