Kreider again stars in good win over Panthers to go into break the right way, Strome stands up as Rangers respond to coach’s challenge

If this were a summary of the first half, then the Rangers certainly followed the script. In what was a good win to enter the long break, they defeated the Eastern leading Panthers 5-2 at The Garden.

The character building victory over a playoff contender was the perfect finish as they enter the All-Star break. Unfortunately, they won’t play another game for two weeks due to the mandatory week bye. Not that there’ll be much complaining.

Here the Rangers are with 30 wins in 47 games with 64 points. An identical amount to the first place Hurricanes who have five games at hand. That doesn’t matter. The very fact they’re at that many points before the 50 game mark defies logic. But it’s also a credit to how the players have responded to coach Gerard Gallant. More often than not, he pushes the right buttons.

The biggest reason for team success revolves around Chris Kreider and Igor Shesterkin. Kreider continues to score at a great clip with two more to pad his career best total to 33 goals including a league best 17 on the power play. Might he be in the Hart discussion? There’s no debating the silent assassin Shesterkin, whose impact has been enormous. He made 34 saves on 36 shots to pick up his 22nd win in 29 games. The Vezina frontrunner has a 2.10 GAA and league-leading .937 save percentage.

Those are the most valuable players of the pre All-Star break for this team. You can add Adam Fox’s name as well. He is a game-breaker and huge difference maker on the blue line. That makes the win over a healthy Cats all the more impressive. They did it without Fox, who missed a third straight game. He has two weeks to recover before the Bruins come to town on February 15.

They might not have played well in the previous two games. The blown two-goal lead in a disappointing loss to the Wild on Henrik Lundqvist Night. Then, the garbage performance against the Kraken, who outplayed them by a wide margin. But K’Andre Miller to the rescue to steal two points. It didn’t stop a furious Gallant from voicing his displeasure to the media. Most notable was this quote.

“We’re a better team than that.” He’s right. This isn’t to say they’re on the same level of a Carolina, Tampa, or even Florida, who they won two of three from to take the season series. But nobody can deny that they aren’t on the right track.

At the moment, the New York Rangers are a good team capable of doing more. What that is remains to be seen. Are they by any stretch of the imagination a great five-on-five team? Not yet. However, they are very good on special teams. Kreider’s 17 PPG attest to that. Mika Zibanejad has 10. Both could go 20/20. When is the last time a Rangers’ duo both scored 20 apiece on the power play in a regular season? If I had to guess, I’d say Messier and Graves during the 90’s. But it could go back further to the GAG Line in the 70’s. I’ll research it.

As important as five-on-five is to being successful, so too are good special teams. An area this team excels at. Maybe it isn’t such a bad thing. They’ve won many games due to the combination of key goals on the man-advantage, strong penalty killing and timely stops from Shesterkin.

If there was a positive, it was how well they played the third period to protect a one-goal lead by finishing off the dangerous Panthers with another Kreider power play goal and an Artemi Panarin empty netter to beat a team that usually does a lot of damage in the third.

They weren’t all that good defensively the first two periods. They allowed too many easy Florida transitions that at times were scary. You can’t play that style against them. They were fortunate to be up. Credit Alexis Lafreniere for taking advantage of a mistake to net his 10th even strength goal from Kreider that tied it. Kreider then got the first of two on the power play thanks to a great breakout started by Shesterkin.

Even better than the much more disciplined third that saw Gallant shorten up to three lines which were able to forecheck and defend better, you had Ryan Strome standing up for himself. It was late in the second that Mason Marchment drilled him from the blind side to send Strome hurting to the bench. It wasn’t that late, but Gallant was visibly upset. Strome answered the bell after intermission.

Over five minutes into the period, Strome had taken a number. When he came together with the pesky Marchment who just came off a career best six-point game in a Cats’ laugher over Columbus, the fiery second line pivot didn’t wait. He dropped the gloves and Marchment engaged him. It was the smaller Strome who got the blows in and knockdown to cheers. The crowd loved it. So did Gallant.

One noticeable difference from last year is how willing our players are to get into the battle and respond. The additions of Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow have been home runs for Team President and GM Chris Drury. Both have made a huge difference in how the team plays. They’re no longer a predictable vanilla bore.

Reaves’ impact goes beyond his statistics. Look at what he does. He drove the net for the Zibanejad goal that was accidentally put in by defenseman Gustav Forsling at 35 seconds in. He forechecks well and finishes checks. Gallant has been able to rely on him for more shifts without Kaapo Kakko or Fil Chytil. You can argue he’s contributed more than either young gun. Ditto for Goodrow, who had no trouble sliding into Strome’s center slot and take a few shifts with him in the box. Not to mention his 10 goals are a career high. A versatile high character player who’s won two Cups.

The mentality has changed for the better. Not in our wildest dreams did we envision the Rangers where they are in the standings. But what I liked most about tonight was how they shutdown the Panthers in a tighter checking third. You didn’t see Barkov or Huberdeau (very quiet) get loose for breakaways. There also weren’t as many openings for key Florida defensemen like Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar to fire uncontested shots. An issue the first 40 minutes.

Simply put, this is one of the best wins of the season. It has to be a confidence boost. After being outshot 15-7 in a lopsided first despite being tied, the Blueshirts came back to outshoot the Cats 28-22 the rest of the way. That included a 13-9 edge in the third. Well. Really 12-9 if you subtract the Panarin goal on the vacated net.

At the start, Zibanejad took advantage of a Florida miscue in the neutral zone to create a two-on-one situation with Reaves. His centering feed deflected off Forsling and by Spencer Knight for the game’s first goal at 35 seconds. When you’re hot, you’re hot. If Reaves doesn’t drive the net, no goal. Give Gallant an assist.

The rest of the first was controlled by Florida. Playing their usual fast skating and countering style, they really dictated the pace. The Rangers had no forecheck. They had nothing going. But held the lead until Florida thought they had the tying goal. Owen Tippett took a drop pass from Ekblad. However, the Rangers successfully challenged. It was just offside to negate it.

Following a stoppage, A.J. Mleczko reported back to Bob Wischusen and Brian Boucher that Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette told his team not to worry and get it right back. Ironically, they did following her report. It came from a familiar face.

On a strong rush from Sasha Barkov, he moved the puck for Jonathan Huberdeau, who found a wide open Anthony Duclair. With confusion between Libor Hajek and Zac Jones, the Duke made no mistake beating Shesterkin upstairs to tie the game with his 19th at 10:44. It was a beautiful snipe by the former Ranger. He really has become a good player in Florida. It took him a few teams before he found a home.

For most of the remainder of the period, the Rangers were on their heels. They kept giving up the dangerous Panthers’ transition where they pinch a defenseman high for wide open looks. Particularly Weegar. He had some great opportunities. He had five shots on goal. Shesterkin came up with the saves.

Aside from an ineffective first power play that saw Zibanejad miss way wide on a one-timer, there wasn’t much happening. Miller did get one good shot on Knight, who blockered it aside. He had a strong game. Gallant leaned more on the pair of Miller (26:04) and Jacob Trouba (team high 27:41). Ryan Lindgren and Braden Schneider were used as the second pair in the big match-up on ESPN Plus. Thank God for an alternative to view the game.

Tied at one, the second didn’t start the way the Rangers wanted it to. Sam Reinhart got a step on Miller, who hustled back and went for the stick check. Of course, the arm went up from the ref once Reinhart fell down. I didn’t like the call. He didn’t hold Reinhart. It looked okay.

Instead, the Panthers went on the power play. After Ekblad handed off to Barkov inside their zone, he skated freely into the Rangers’ zone and found enough space to surprise Shesterkin with a wrist shot that went off the goalpost. The puck came right to Reinhart, who put in a backhand rebound as Hajek watched. He was culpable on the Duclair goal.

This was more on Shesterkin, who didn’t expect a shot. I don’t know what purpose having Hajek in the lineup over Nils Lundkvist serves. He is bad. How they opted to keep this guy over Vitali Kravtsov really irks me. Not going any further with that.

With the Panthers ahead, it didn’t last long. A mishap between Ekblad and Radko Gudas allowed an attacking Kreider to steal the puck and pass in front for a Lafreniere backhand that went right through the wickets of Knight at 3:27. His tying goal answered the Bennett power play goal 1:09 later. It was big. That made it consecutive games with a goal for Lafreniere, who got to 10 at the break.

Following Zibanejad drawing a Gudas tripping minor, the Rangers again managed nothing on the power play. They were out of sync. It’s a good thing they got more opportunities because it made a critical difference later on.

The dangerous Carter Verhaeghe drew a pair of minors on our side. He is a very sneaky good skater who can find open space to create chances. Sometimes, he gets lost in the shuffle for the Cats. He was good with Tampa too. But became a cap casualty. The good news is the Rangers were able to kill both penalties. On one, Zibanejad nearly had Kreider for a shorthanded breakaway. But the pass was too strong, allowing Knight to recover.

Despite the period having more special teams, neither goalie faced a lot of shots down a man. When the play was at even strength, the Rangers did a better job playing physical and getting shots on Knight, who was allowing rebounds. The increased physicality and more simple approach worked. They got better as the second went on.

With the game still tied, Strome drew a hooking minor on Verhaeghe by staying on his skates and getting a step. After Panarin fiddled around with the puck refusing to shoot on the delayed call, the power play went to work. On what was a smart play by an aggressive Shesterkin he quickly moved the puck up for Panarin who then led Strome for a two-on-one. He patiently waited and made a great pass across for a sweet Kreider finish for the go-ahead goal with 2:35 left.

In discussing the play during the conference call, Kreider indicated that he’s never had a goalie who can play the puck like that. It wasn’t a Lundqvist strength. He noted the difference, indicating that it makes the job of the defense easier. Shesterkin is similar to Andrei Vasilevskiy, who also is another Russian star goalie who is good at being the third defenseman. No wonder he’s got all the hardware in Tampa.

Leading by one entering the third, the Blueshirts stepped it up. Gallant decided to sit his fourth line. Considering they are off for a while, the move made a lot of sense. I thought the key to the period was the checking line that featured Reaves, Kevin Rooney and Greg McKegg. They were on for the first shift and set the tone by getting the puck in and cycling. A sharp contrast to the previous two periods. Reaves nearly had McKegg for a goal later.

It was at that point that Strome dropped Marchment for his cheap shot. In a one-goal game, he had enough faith in the other skaters to fight his own battle. It sure helps to have a guy like Goodrow, who can shift over to center.

It also was good to see Lafreniere play an assertive game. After being moved back on the top line, he was visible throughout. Whether it was attempting more shots or finding open teammates, he was good. By now, we understand that it isn’t going to come easy for him. But the improvement overall has been noticeable. Hopefully, he can build on it when play resumes.

At a key point of the third, Zibanejad skated past Marchment, who hi-sticked him. Power play, Blueshirts. Given the chance to help improve their chances of winning, they did. It was a great pass from Zibanejad between the skates of a Florida defender right to Kreider for a tip in for number 33 at 14:39.

One line they did stifle was the Florida third line. That’s the one that features Anton Lundell, Reinhart and Marchment. They’d just torched the Blue Jackets by combining for 16 points. Lundell looks like the Calder frontrunner with Detroit defenseman Moritz Seider. He entered with 32 points and a plus-26 rating. He was held in check.

If you only give up one five-on-five goal to the explosive Panthers, you’re doing something right. It’s not to suggest they didn’t have chances. They scored once on 30 shots while the Rangers got two goals on 31. A big improvement against a quality opponent.

With Knight somehow confused that Brunette was screaming for him to come to the bench to make it five-on-five with Barkov off for tripping Zibanejad, the Panthers never got anything. Instead, a loose puck in the neutral zone came to Panarin who easily skated it out and sent it home for his 13th unassisted at 19:19.

This was a satisfying win. One the Rangers can feel proud of. Now, they have two weeks off. Kreider will go to the All-Star Game as their only representative. A well deserved honor. Fox will miss it. Zibanejad, who was voted in, decided to use the time off. Shesterkin also will be off. He’s the best goalie in the division. But I’m not complaining.

What is there to be upset about? This team is in a good spot. With 35 games remaining, there will be plenty of meaningful hockey the rest of the way. That’ll include big games versus division rivals Pittsburgh and Washington. Plus Carolina. Yes. There will be the Islanders too. Plus Boston twice.

The fun lies ahead. Kudos to the Rangers on where they are. Let’s enjoy the ride.

Battle Of Hudson Three Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 Igor Shesterkin, NYR 34 saves on 36 shots including 25/27 first 2 periods, 22-5-2, 2.10 GAA, .937 save percentage in 29 GP, Игор!

2nd 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, NYR goal plus 🍎, 10-for-19 on face-offs, +1 in 22:00, 49 points at the break

1st 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR 2 goals for league-leading 33 including 17 PPG, assist, 33-14-47, +13 in 47 GP, MVP caliber

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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