Rangers not so Wild in ugly loss, Georgiev gives up five goal, Fox struggles, a tough homecoming for Miller

How can one sum up the Rangers’ 5-2 loss to the Wild? In a word, ugly. It was probably one of their worst performances of what’s otherwise been a surprising season.

Sloppy turnovers and poor defensive coverage were themes in their second defeat to Mats Zuccarello and the Wild. They also got beat on Henrik Lundqvist Night over a month ago. At least that was close.

This wasn’t. Even following consecutive goals from Dryden Hunt (first since 12/1) and Mika Zibanejad (shorthanded) which briefly tied the score, they fell apart in epic fashion.

Kevin Fiala responded to the Zibanejad shorthanded goal with a goal on the same Minnesota power play 66 seconds later. That really took the wind out of their sails. Something both Henrik Lundqvist and Steve Valiquette discussed on the MSG postgame.

The Rangers were never able to seize back control. Instead, total breakdowns led to breakaway goals from Marcus Foligno and Fiala before the second period concluded. When you don’t play near your best against a better opponent (than Winnipeg as Lundqvist noted), this is the result you get.

They didn’t get away with it. It was the Wild who came with more energy and were able to maintain the frenetic pace to run away with a big win to boost their playoff chances. They’re locked in a tight race with the Stars, Predators and Oilers. Their urgency allowed them to pass Dallas in the standings and stay a point up on Nashville for third in a very competitive Central Division.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as the opponent being better. That was the case throughout the second game of four on the road for the Rangers, who didn’t seem to have their legs. They weren’t that good in any facet. A lack of cycle game and checking left little used backup Alex Georgiev out to dry.

It added up to a tough night for Georgiev. An easy culprit when things go wrong, the 26-year old goalie allowed five goals on 28 shots. Sadly, he has lost his last five starts dating back to Jan. 10 at LA. In each of the last four, Georgiev has permitted four or more goals.

It’s been tough to watch. Whether you want to point the finger in the direction of the goalie, I don’t think it’s entirely fair. Far too often, he hasn’t gotten much suppprt. It’s almost like they play worse with him in there. Is that due to a lack of confidence, or mere coincidence? You be the judge.

What is understood is that Gerard Gallant can’t play Igor Shesterkin every night. He knows it. The Hart candidate indicated to the coach that he was tired. So, Turk gave his best player a breather. Igor will be back for the rematch with the Blues. A team that’s also slumped since their loss last week to our team. What excuse will Ryan O’Reilly come up with if his team doesn’t win on Thursday?

Gallant said he wasn’t happy with how his team played. He felt it would be a different game. Instead, the Blueshirts didn’t give their best effort. The Wild did. They had slumped badly losing six of seven and eight of 10.

Minnesota got key gritty forward Jordan Greenway back. He isn’t the point producer Kirill Kaprizov, Fiala or Zuccarello are. But the big strong forward is an integral part of the Wild’s identity. Coach Dean Evason uses him on the big second line that features Joel Eriksson Ek and Foligno, who ironically snapped out of it with a three-point night to earn the game’s First Star.

The addition of Greenway with Matt Dumba, who just returned to stabilize a struggling blue line, definitely gave Minnesota a boost. They had an extra jump in their step.

At the start, it wasn’t lopsided. There was plenty of skating, open ice and zero penalties. With the game exclusively at five-on-five, you had few stoppages. It made for compelling action.

The most interesting aspect is that the teams combined for only four shots in the early going. Ryan Lindgren got a long shot on Cam Talbot, who made his first save. On the flip side, Georgiev started out okay by denying both Ryan Hartman and Kaprizov. Perhaps the lack of shots didn’t help his rhythm.

There was some hitting from Patrik Nemeth, who delivered a couple of thumps on one shift. His play has been night and day since the birth of his second baby boy. He and Braden Schneider are working well together on the third pair. That no longer is an issue. If they want to go out and add a veteran for security, fine. But it isn’t urgent.

At the halfway point of the first, Artemi Panarin had a good shooting opportunity in the high slot. All set up, he fanned on the shot. That would hurt. On the same shift, Kaprizov picked up the puck and blew into the Rangers zone, dropped for a Hartman wrist shot that went right through Georgiev to give the Wild a 1-0 lead at 10:38.

It happened that quickly. Kaprizov is such an electric skater that once he gets going, you expect something to happen. The Wild fans definitely were out of their seats on a few of his rushes. Kirill The Thrill made a great dash to back up the defense and passed back for a Hartman shot that deflected off Georgiev’s blocker and in. It was a bad goal. One he should’ve had.

Following Hartman getting his 23rd, Georgiev then robbed Kaprizov after he was left alone in the slot for a good one-timer. That time, he was square to the shooter and closed up the five-hole to make a good save.

However, that stop didn’t spark the Blueshirts. Rather than swing the momentum, they did some puck watching on Eriksson Ek, who was able to redirect a Foligno wide shot over Georgiev for a 2-0 Wild lead at 14:41. Adam Fox was the closest on the play. He and Lindgren haven’t been the lock down pair since whatever was ailing him prior to the games he missed before the break.

There was some hitting after Eriksson Ek got his 17th. Both sides didn’t pass up an opportunity to finish checks. There also was the customary Julien Gauthier rush that turns into nothing. Back in the lineup for Libor Hajek, he skated into the Minnesota zone and tried a centering feed that missed completely.

Afterwards, Steve Valiquette had a good criticism. He said that Gauthier should shoot the puck more. He got the hint in the second period. The frustrating part is that as hard as he works, the former Hurricanes first round pick doesn’t contribute enough offense. I don’t see him staying in the lineup once Chris Drury decides to upgrade. At least Colin Blackwell has hands. He got his eighth for the Kraken last night.

The second had to be better. At least that was my prevailing thought. It started promising enough. After a Wild chance that Georgiev stopped, Panarin made a defensive play to move the puck out for Ryan Strome. This led to a two-on-one sequence where Strome got the puck across to Hunt for his first goal in three months at 5:03.

Predictably, on another shift Strome tried one of those dying quails for Panarin that was easily intercepted. Ugh. These two remain stuck on a combined 27 goals. Hardly enough production from the second line if this team is to make a run. What are they waiting for?

Astonishingly, there was just one penalty called. It happened when Nemeth took down Nick Bjugstad. That one Wild power play really determined the outcome.

On it, Zuccarello made a big mistake. Trying to reset by carrying the puck into his own zone, he lost control. That allowed Zibanejad to close quickly. At live speed, it appeared he hooked down Zuccarello before scoring a shorthanded goal to tie the game at 8:07. But the replay MSG provided later showed that Zibanejad lifted the stick and then made a great shot on Talbot for his 22nd. A great individual effort by the team’s best forward.

However, the Wild were still on the same man-advantage. They made the most of it. On a good play down low, Foligno was able to draw Miller to him with Jacob Trouba already in the vicinity. This left a wide open Fiala all alone for a tap in to put the Wild back up at 9:13. Credit Matthew Boldy with the pass. He’s a good rookie.

The Rangers never recovered. Following that back breaking goal, not much happened. But an aggressive Kaprizov tried to go around Miller. Instead, Miller delivered a great open ice hit to knock the ultra talented Russian star down. It was impressive.

Miller used his body a lot more during this game. Although his homecoming playing in front of family and friends didn’t go the way he hoped, I liked the physicality. He’s playing with more purpose. Chalk it up to him trying to do too much.

Following a turnover, Dumba sent Foligno in on Georgiev where he absolutely abused him by going to the backhand for his 19th on a breakaway. Both Miller and Trouba got dusted on the play. That made it 4-2 Wild.

Things unraveled. A bad Fox pinch led directly to a Minnesota quick transition for another breakaway goal. This time, Fox lost control of the puck inside the Wild blue line. Zuccarello picked it up and sent Fiala flying in where he also was able to find room on the backhand to beat Georgiev for his second of the game.

Just like that, it was 5-2 Wild. They scored three unanswered over eight minutes. This was one team utilizing their speed, skill and grit to overwhelm the Rangers. Our side hardly got anything done on the forecheck.

Even with Alexis Lafreniere getting a couple of shots on Talbot, Gallant went away from that match-up. He opted for Ryan Reaves, who took the final two shifts of the period and started the third with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

Here’s the thing. As good as both have been, neither distinguished themselves in this game. Kreider and Zibanejad each had one shot on goal. Zibanejad scored shorthanded. Kreider had one of his quieter nights. I thought Lafreniere was the most noticeable of the three.

When asked why he made the switch, Gallant felt the match-up wasn’t good. But he also praised Lafreniere and said he’s very happy with him. This was a choice by the coach. It didn’t spark anything.

The third period wasn’t much to write home about. Lafreniere played with Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow. I was listening in the car when I caught Dave Maloney critiquing the passing part of Chytil’s game. It really sounded like an indictment of him as a center. He doesn’t make line mates better. I’ve said it for a while. He needs a change.

Although they got 12 shots through, Talbot stopped all dozen to earn the win versus his former team. He needed it for his confidence. It was the first time he allowed two goals or fewer since Feb. 12.

When it ended, a rare scene saw both teams go to center ice and shake hands with referee Brad Meier, who’s retiring. No matter what you think of refs, they’re good people. I thought this was extremely classy. Joe Micheletti also noted that this is it for Ian Walsh. A nice gesture following the game.

There isn’t much to take away here. The Rangers stunk. Far too many good players were ineffective. That included Fox, whose play has slipped at even strength. People are noticing. He had one lousy giveaway that led to a point blank opportunity Georgiev stopped. Very uncharacteristic.

Is it the injury? Who knows. Right now, i feel more comfortable when Miller is out with Trouba at five-on-five. They didn’t have a good game either. That’s how it went.

Next up are the Blues. They’ve been doing a lot of losing lately. They even were beaten by the Senators on Tuesday night 4-1. Pavel Buchnevich might not play tomorrow. He’s in concussion protocol.

You know St. Louis will be desperate. They’re not that far ahead of Minnesota, Nashville or Dallas. Four points separate second from fifth. A lot can change.

As for our team, they didn’t lose any ground. The Pens lost at home to the Panthers 4-3 in regulation. Both teams remain at 77 points with the Blueshirts having an extra game left. They’re each six ahead of the Caps, who won a third straight by coming back to defeat Calgary 5-4.

Alexander Ovechkin tied Jaromir Jagr for third on the all-time goal scoring list. His 764 trails only Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. I have my own thoughts on Ovechkin and how Russian players are being treated by hockey circles. That’s for another day.

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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