Miller’s goal with 33.7 seconds left allows disappointing Rangers to escape with win over feisty Kraken, Gallant displeased, Zibanejad stays hot


K’Andre Miller scored with 33.7 seconds left to give the Rangers a 3-2 win over the feisty Kraken at MSG on Sunday. Despite the victory helping them pull back into second in the Metropolitan Division a point ahead of the Pens (4-3 losers to Kings), coach Gerard Gallant was less than thrilled with how his team played.

To be blunt, he had every reason to be annoyed. The Rangers didn’t deserve to win. They got badly outplayed by a scrappy opponent that nearly doubled them up in shots (42-24) and were the better team.

It wasn’t exactly a win you could be too excited about. Sure. Miller got the game-winner at 19:26 thanks to a big face-off win from the sizzling Mika Zibanejad. Give an assist to Chris Kreider, who banged into an incensed Riley Sheahan, who thought there should’ve been an interference penalty. Instead, it wasn’t called. That allowed Miller to step in and fire his third past Seattle starter Philipp Grubauer.

Was it a penalty? Maybe. I actually thought so. But Joe Micheletti called it ‘incidental contact.’ Opinions vary. No matter whether it was or not, it wasn’t called. Here’s an interesting viewpoint from Kraken captain Mark Giordano.

“There’s not much you can say about it,” the veteran defenseman told Geoff Baker in a story that appeared in The Seattle Times. “That wasn’t a breakdown or anything like that. It was just a faceoff win with a pick and they score. So, that’s about it. But other than that we played pretty hard tonight.”

“I thought we played a really good game throughout,” Giordano added. “I thought we generated a lot of shots. … We threw a lot of pucks towards [Shesterkin]. You’re not going to get more than two or three on that guy most nights. He’s a top goaltender in the league for a reason and made a lot of big saves.”

The praise for Igor Shesterkin was noteworthy. He might not be going to Vegas for the All-Star Game. But there’s little doubt about his impact on the Rangers’ season. Through 46 games, Shesterkin is 21-5-2 with a 2.10 goals-against average (GAA) and a league-leading .937 save percentage. At this point, he’s the favorite to win the Vezina followed by Juuse Saros and Andrei Vasilevskiy. To a lesser extent Freddie Andersen, Tristan Jarry and Jack Campbell.

Without the unflappable 26-year old Russian netminder, where would they be? Of course, one could debate similar merits over top defenseman Adam Fox. He missed his second straight game. They definitely can use him. He won’t be available for the final game against the Eastern Conference leading Panthers on Tuesday. Fox will become eligible to return from the injured reserve when the Rangers are back in action post break on February 15 against Boston.

For a second consecutive game, the three defense pairs went like this. Ryan Lindgren was paired with Braden Schneider. Miller stuck with regular partner Jacob Trouba. Libor Hajek and rookie Zac Jones teamed up as the third pair. Neither played over 13 minutes. But were okay throughout with Jones picking up his first point of the season on an Alexis Lafreniere goal at even strength.

If there’s an issue contributing to the five-on-five struggles, it’s the lack of forward depth. Without youngsters Kaapo Kakko and Fil Chytil, the Rangers are very top heavy. Even when they were healthy during the first half, they had a combined nine goals. Hardly enough production for third and fourth year players. Both will need to improve in the second half. Chytil is closer to returning while Kakko could be out a while.

The trio of Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin have provided the heavy lifting for the offense. Along with second center Ryan Strome and the versatile Barclay Goodrow, it’s mostly been the play of those five forwards that have contributed to wins. With Fox pacing NHL defensemen in scoring with 47 points in 44 games, you know who Gallant leans on. That’s especially true for the power play where Zibanejad joined Kreider into double digits with his 10th power play goal. Each could reach 20 by season’s end.

When you subtract Kakko and Chytil, it gets real thin up front. Lafreniere has been elevated to the top line with Zibanejad and Kreider. His ninth goal during the second period snapped a nine-game scoreless drought. The 20-year old former 2020 top pick is still figuring it out in Year Two. The positive is that his skating has looked better the last two games while moved up. The negative is his penchant for taking undisciplined penalties. Especially the one that allowed Mats Zuccarello to tie the score on Friday night. He must avoid such unnecessary penalties if he doesn’t want to ride the pine.

The astonishing thing is that Lafreniere now is tied for second with Panarin and Goodrow in even strength goals (9). Only Kreider has more with a team best 14. Zibanejad has seven along with Strome. It gets bad after Kevin Rooney, who’s been stuck on six since Dec. 7. They can’t rely on guys like Dryden Hunt, Julien Gauthier, Greg McKegg and Ryan Reaves for goal production. However, that’s not the main job description for Reaves or Hunt with both providing grit.

It would seem that Team President and GM Chris Drury will need to make an upgrade to bolster the bottom six. What would a player like Vladislav Namestnikov cost? He’s been a solid contributor for the Red Wings with 12 goals. He definitely would be an upgrade on the third line and could be used in a checking role. What’s more? He’s played here before. The 29-year old has a cap hit of $2 million on an expiring contract. Considering the history between the Rangers and Detroit GM Steve Yzerman, it’s worth exploring. It probably wouldn’t cost too much.

With bigger holes to fill in the top six (unless Kakko, Lafreniere or Chytil improve) and on the third pair (Giordano, Chiarot, Staal?), it’ll be interesting to see what the organization decides to do as we draw nearer to the March 21 trade deadline. The Rangers should get healthier thanks to a two week break. By the time they return after Tuesday’s game versus the Cats, they’ll have five weeks to assess things.

A lot can happen over that span. Will they be all in or only partially committed if a trade makes sense? I’m not as high on acquiring a Jacob Chychrun for too many assets. They’ve been burned before. What about an underrated left D like Vladislav Gavrikov? He’s signed through 2023 at an AAV of $2.8 million. It wouldn’t be cheap, but might be a better option than the overpriced Chychrun.

These are good questions to ask. Of course, no answers will be provided until the Rangers make the key decisions with their personnel. It could depend on where they feel they are. This is a good team that’s exceeded expectations up to this point. Who ever would’ve believed they’d be 29-13-4 with 62 points while being amongst the elite? As has been evident in some of their play in losses to a few of the upper echelon teams, they might not yet be quite there. Shesterkin covers up a lot of mistakes along with the heavy hitters.

Playing the expansion Kraken for the second time, the Rangers again struggled to earn a victory. When they met in Seattle, they didn’t exactly win style points. But found a way. This was eerily similar.

Despite getting outplayed and outshot 14-6 in the opening period, it was the Rangers who got the game’s first goal. It came from a familiar face on the man-advantage. With Alex Wennberg off for tripping, it took less than a minute for Trouba and Panarin to combine to set up a Zibanejad one-timer from his office at 11:46. His 17th on the power play kept his great month going. In January, Zibanejad has nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points. He would add assists 10 and 11 later for a three-point day.

With the sharp Shesterkin keeping the Kraken frustrated, that allowed Zibanejad to set up a Lafreniere goal at 4:23 of the second to increase the lead to 2-0. On a good read from Jones, he passed across for a wicked Zibanejad one-timer that rang off the goalpost. With Grubauer scrambling around, Lafreniere pounced on the rebound to put it home for number nine. His nonchalant reaction said it all. Relief.

If there’s one thing that’s been an issue, it’s the lack of attention to detail. Turnovers have been common during an up and down stretch. It took the Kraken less than three minutes later to get back within one on Jared McCann’s 18th. On the scoring play, three Rangers forwards got trapped in the Seattle zone. That allowed the Kraken to transition for a three-on-two rush with Marcus Johansson and Jordan Eberle combining to feed McCann for a wrist shot that beat Shesterkin at 7:17.

More disappointing was the lack of response. They allowed the more aggressive Kraken to grab the momentum. With only six more shots on Grubauer, the Blueshirts made life hard on Shesterkin. He stopped 10 of 11 shots in another slop fest. When both Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti are pointing out the mistakes during the telecast, that’s usually not a good sign. Lucky for them, they have Shesterkin. He wound up making 40 saves on 42 shots in earning the game’s First Star.

Although the intensity picked up in a higher volume third period, the Blueshirts never could put away their pesky opponent. There also was the matter of the officiating. You had a first-year linesman who wouldn’t drop the puck right away. This caused confusion and lead to boos from the crowd. There also were some calls made that were questionable while others were ignored. It didn’t make sense.

In between the penalties and howling due to the delay in face-offs, the teams combined for 29 shots. Seattle again had more with a 17-12 edge. They outshot the Rangers for the game 42-24. A wide margin that wasn’t a fluke. They played harder. They really deserved a better fate.

Even though Shesterkin made some big stops, it was Grubauer who gave his side a chance at the comeback. During a four-on-four following bogus calls on Vince Dunn (hooking) and Kreider (holding) three seconds apart, Miller made a great defensive play. He cleanly stripped a player at the Rangers’ blue line and turned it into a clean breakaway. One on one with Grubauer, he was turned away by the veteran goalie who calmly blockered it into the corner.

It was also Grubauer who flat out robbed Panarin on a one-timer ticketed for the upper portion of the net. He was set up perfectly and fired in the left circle. But Grubauer was able to get the shaft of his stick on it to push it over the top of the net. Astonishingly, that was Panarin’s only shot. This after he was invisible on Henrik Lundqvist Night with also only one shot. As great a point producer as he is, the Rangers can use more shots from the Bread Man. They aren’t loaded like Florida, Tampa or Carolina.

As the Kraken continued to press for the equalizer, Zibanejad got nabbed for tripping up McCann. This was a legit call. It took away their best penalty killing forward with over three minutes left. That would prove crucial.

After failing to get anything going due to splendid work from Goodrow and Rooney, the Kraken finally lifted Grubauer for an extra attacker. Now playing two men up as the power play was set to expire, they finally were able to execute a perfect play to tie the game up.

Following a face-off win, McCann moved the puck over for Giordano on the right side. He fooled everyone by making a perfect dish for a great Yanni Gourde one-timer that went short side top inside the bar on Shesterkin. That tied the score with 68 seconds remaining. I knew they were going to tie it. Just had a feeling. It was how well they played and how lousy the Rangers were.

It sure looked like it was destined for overtime. While it might’ve been fun to watch some three-on-three, K’Andre Miller had other plans. After being foiled by Grubauer earlier in the period with a chance to ice it, he would win the game.

It was as simple as Zibanejad winning an offensive draw back to Miller. Before he wound up, Kreider bumped into an unsuspecting Sheahan who threw his hands up. No whistle. Play on. Miller had enough room to move in and fire a snapshot past Grubauer for the winner at 19:26. The goal was his first since Nov. 21.

It was nice to see a much critiqued kid get the winner in that fashion. While it was unexpected, it gave Miller a nice grin after the buzzer sounded. He got congrats from happy teammates. It was also good to see a player help Shesterkin get the win. He does so much for this team. He can’t do it alone.

If there was one thing I noticed, it was backup Alex Georgiev again giving Shesterkin a hand tap. Not cool. What is his problem? Is he that jealous of Shesterkin? He really strikes me as a weird dude. Who knows what the story is.

I’m glad Gallant called out his team for their inconsistent play. Normally, he accentuates the positives following wins. Not yesterday. He sees it. They have to get better. If not, their slip in play will start resulting in losses. It also was the right time with the Panthers on tap.

That one will be the third and final meeting. The teams split the first two. Now, they’ll settle the score at 2 Penn Plaza on Broadway. Who knows. You could see these teams meet in the playoffs. For the Rangers, that better be later.

One thing I fail to comprehend is how they’re about to wrap up the season series with the Cats and have already done so with ‘rivals’ like Vegas, Colorado, Nashville, Chicago and Arizona. They have yet to play the Pens. Only one game has been played versus the Islanders. Ditto for the Caps and Devils.

How does any of this make sense? Only the NHL.

Battle Of Hudson 3 Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 K’Andre Miller, NYR scored game-winner with 33.7 seconds left in regulation, team high 4 SOG, 4 hits, 3 blocks, +1 in 23:46

2nd 🌟 Igor Shesterkin, NYR 40 saves on 42 shots, 9-0 when making 40 saves or more

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, NYR power play goal plus 2 🍎, 12-for-19 on draws, 6 attempts, +2 in 19:08

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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