Lafreniere shines in strong win over Capitals, Reaves turns Wilson into a ghost, Kreider gets 34th as Rangers move into second with the Penguins on deck

Way back in October, there was so much anticipation for the season opener at Washington. That fell flat along with the Rangers, who dropped a 5-1 decision to the Capitals on Oct. 13.

There were no fireworks then. In Game 51 of 82, it was a complete role reversal. Even as ESPN aimlessly lobbied for a showdown between Ryan Reaves and Tom Wilson that only Mark Messier dismissed, there was nothing but total domination. In the second of only three match-ups, the Rangers had their way with the Capitals. Led by Alexis Lafreniere, they easily won 4-1 at a packed MSG to avenge the early loss.

Taking advantage of a flat Caps team that hadn’t played in a week, the Rangers were simply better throughout the match. In fact, it was by far their best effort since returning from the very long break.

Unlike the sluggish starts that had become a bad pattern, it was the Rangers who had the better of the play. Although it might not have showed in the shots which favored the Caps 11-7, that was meaningless. Most of Washington’s 37 total shots including 17 in the third period came from the outside. That doesn’t work against Igor Shesterkin, who came within 62 seconds of a shutout. No thanks to Bob Wischusen.

Even though he didn’t get the zero next to his name which drives fans nuts, Mika Zibanejad didn’t seem to mind. In the postgame, he spoke about how the much the two points matter. While they won’t be pleased about losing focus late to negate the shutout, they are now up to 71 points. When they play the Pens for the first time on Saturday afternoon on ABC (time warp), the first of four meetings will be for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Combined with a 6-1 Pens’ loss to the Devils, the Rangers moved a point ahead of Pittsburgh.

It’s exciting to have meaningful hockey back. These division games are where it’s at. Too bad the NHL schedule makers think that emphasizing match-ups outside the conference are more important. It’s similar when you have our team playing the Atlantic Division the same amount of times in some cases as an old rival like the Capitals. It doesn’t make sense. Be that as it may, all they can do is play the games on the schedule and win.

While ESPN continued to exaggerate a false storyline that ended last year under former bench boss David Quinn, all the Rangers did was out-skate, outwork and protect the house better than Washington. Even with them getting T.J. Oshie back and Justin Schultz, most of the big name Caps were missing in action. Where were Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wilson? The latter could’ve been on a milk carton.

Credit Ryan Reaves for turning Wilson into a ghost. He didn’t run around once at any Blueshirt. Artemi Panarin had nothing to worry about. I’ve never seen Wilson reduced to a spectator. He did nothing. The best part was the one time he lined up opposite Reaves, they both skated and it was Reaves who forced Ovechkin into a turnover that led to Barclay Goodrow converting a two-on-one that made it 4-0.

Ryan Reaves assist, 5 hits, +1 in 12:54

Tom Wilson 1 shot, 0 hits, -2 in 14:57

Advantage Rangers. About that whole thing on not trading for and signing Reaves to another year? Wrong. In fact, his fourth line with Goodrow and Julien Gauthier were superb throughout putting together a few good offensive shifts. They were noticeable.

In terms of the game, the first went fast. It wasn’t played with much intensity. Whether it was the layoff or something else, the Caps were lacking. It was mostly their secondary forwards who got shots on Shesterkin, who had no trouble stopping all 11. He didn’t have to stand on his head.

More notable was the improvement of Lafreniere. The 2020 top pick looked like it in this game. Coming back to make a defensive play and get the puck out, or taking a Zac Jones outlet and then gaining a step before making a great drop for a Mika Zibanejad one-timer goal by Ilya Samsonov, he was a factor. In one of his best games, Lafreniere scored a goal (11th) with an assist while finishing plus-three. The effort was recognized by the press who gave him the game’s First Star.

On the Zibanejad goal, it was a strong power move by Lafreniere to give himself enough time to find the trailer Zibanejad for a shot that was clocked at 100 MPH. That might’ve been hard enough to throw Samsonov off. Zibanejad’s 20th went through him for the game’s first goal at 12:57. It marked the fifth consecutive season Mika has scored at least 20. For his career, he’s done it seven times.

Aside from a needless Ryan Strome minor penalty at the conclusion of the first, it was a good period for the Rangers. I didn’t agree with the call. But he always seems to get them. The one he took at the end of the second was even worse. Someone needs to get in his face and tell him enough already.

Despite giving the Caps power plays, the Rangers got it done on the penalty kill. In fact, Washington couldn’t even muster a shot on the first two. The first was negated by an Ovechkin hook on Kevin Rooney over a minute into the second period. Following some four-on-four, the Rangers actually got some set up time on an abbreviated power play. It actually was their best look. The second power play in the third was abominable.

For once, they did it all at even strength. All four goals scored came during five-on-five. An area that’s been a sore spot in an otherwise good season. As Brian Boucher noted during the ESPN telecast, they entered the match only plus-one in five-on-five goal differential. This was a step in the right direction.

The second saw the old Patrick Division rivals even in shots (9-9). It just didn’t feel that way. While the Caps did generate shots on Shesterkin, only one or two could be considered quality. He didn’t face any traffic due to the defense boxing out. In particular, K’Andre Miller had a great game. He was very active throughout and used his skating and reach to create takeaways and stifle Washington. It’s one of the best games he’s played.

When the Capitals did get a few opportunities, it was mostly off a few Rangers’ turnovers. The best one was Garnet Hathaway. He got a step on Lindgren following a stretch pass. But Lindgren forced him to go to a backhand that Shesterkin easily read to deny.

With a little over a minute left in the period, a Caps’ mishap resulted in Lafreniere getting loose to tip-in a Lindgren point shot past Samsonov for a big goal. That increased the lead to two with 1:12 remaining. Ironically, I told our friend Jon that I thought Lafreniere was finding more chemistry with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. His confidence is growing. It was evident on Thursday night. Fortunately, our friend saw him succeed live in a win. A nice reward for a good guy.

Even with the ridiculous Strome (that’s what I’m calling it) at the end of the second, it couldn’t put a damper on a good night. This time, the Caps got three shots on their third power play. Only one was dangerous with Shesterkin kicking out a shot and easily denying a Kuznetsov rebound in which Lindgren checked him. Washington went 0-for-4 on the man-advantage.

While it was the more desperate opponent who got more shots through in a 17-5 third period, it didn’t matter. Most weren’t high quality. Even Ovechkin found it tough to get off shots from his office. Even if he got one in garbage time to ruin the Shesterkin shutout, he was reduced to a non-factor.

It was just a matter of time before the Blueshirts put this one away. A familiar face decided to do it on a play he’s known for. During the broadcast, Leah Hextall noted that Kreider had a league-leading 15 goals off tips and deflections. The most since Tomas Holmstrom over a decade ago. Sure enough, he deflected an Adam Fox point shot that Samsonov couldn’t handle and easily put home the rebound for number 34 at 6:57. That broke a three-game drought. What a year for Kreider. If Shesterkin is Team MVP, Kreider deserves the Steven McDonald Award.

Following the goal which made it 3-0, finally the Caps showed some passion. They got more physical by going after Jones. He absorbed a heavy hit on a tough shift that later led to a turnover. Oshie also caught him at center ice, leading to Braden Schneider having words with the forward. Not surprisingly, the hitting picked up. Morgan Barron nearly got into it near the benches during a heated shift.

Even with the Caps continuing to throw shots on Shesterkin, he was a brick wall. For the game, he made 36 saves to improve his Vezina candidacy. He is 25-5-3 with a 1.98 GAA and .940 save percentage. Nobody has better numbers at this point. It’s astonishing how quickly the 26-year old has dominated at this level. His stick handling allows teammates to play freely.

Even with the increased physicality, it was a play by Reaves that really typified the night. He stripped Ovechkin of the puck and sent Kevin Rooney and Goodrow on a two-on-one. Rooney patiently got the puck ahead for Goodrow, who opened up the five-hole of Samsonov to tuck a backhand past him for his 11th at 11:09.

Game. Set. Match. They were that much better. It was decisive. So what if the shots were 37-21. That statistic didn’t matter. Anyone who watched closely knows it. This was a very satisfying win. One that really signaled how far this team has come since that ugly season opener.

The Rangers won’t be pushed around. Conor Sheary got into a battle with Lindgren in front of Shesterkin. That led to the two wrestling. The refs broke it up. Each received four minutes to end their nights. Lindgren is a glue guy. He might not be the biggest, but boy is he tough. He’s a warrior. Think Paul O’Neill. One of my favorite Yankees. Or Dan Girardi. He always got the jersey dirty and face. That’s Lindgren.

Unfortunately, Shesterkin lost the shutout when Ovechkin tallied career goal number 762 with 1:02 remaining. To be honest, it was doomed once Wischusen mentioned the word “shutout” with a few minutes to go. He got some hate for it. I laughed it off.

Now, it’s the Penguins tomorrow at 3 PM on ABC. Is it 2001 or 2002 again? I hated getting up early for those afternoon games in Bristol. Especially on a weekend. But once everything was sent out to the production crew, we took in the game on the ESPN Live Feed. If you’ve never experienced that, it’s classic. We got to hear the broadcasters off air make funny jokes and other cool stuff. Can I time machine back? That was fun.

Battle Of Hudson Three Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 Igor Shesterkin, NYR 36 saves on 37 shots including 16 of 17 in 3rd

2nd 🌟 Ryan Reaves, NYR assisted on Goodrow goal, 5 hits, turned Wilson into a pumpkin

1st 🌟 Alexis Lafreniere, NYR goal (11th), assist, +3 in 14:05

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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