Following tough loss, Rangers have big tests at Bolts and Canes before trade deadline

Gerard Gallant didn’t see the elbow Oliver Wahlstrom delivered that cut Ryan Lindgren. A missed call that led directly to the crushing Kyle Palmieri game-winner with 2:44 left in last night’s 2-1 loss to the Islanders before a great environment at The Garden.

However, he didn’t agree with two of the penalties earlier in the hard fought game that went against Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Strome. Unlike the narrative that came out of Thursday night, the experienced coach didn’t blame the officiating for the defeat.

Instead, he spoke about how much he liked the game. Particularly the way his team played. If there was a positive to take out of a one-goal loss to their bitter rivals, it was how the Blueshirts played. It was hardly fought in the trenches with both teams finishing checks and getting superb goaltending.

That’s the kind of style they’ll see in the first round. Whether it’s the Penguins, Capitals or a division winner (worst case scenario), they can take solace in how they competed against an experienced Islanders team that have had success in the postseason.

As Gallant noted, they are where they are due to a rough first half that included injuries and Covid. The truth is a healthier Isles are a good team. One that’s better than their record and point total. So, it didn’t come as a surprise that the second meeting between the rivals was so intensely fought.

Sometimes, you run into a hot goalie. Ilya Sorokin has been playing well for a while. The close friend of Igor Shesterkin has supplanted Semyon Varlamov as the Isles’ starter. He’s had a good year on a team that won’t qualify for the playoffs. The save on Artemi Panarin off a perfect feed from newest Ranger Frank Vatrano was remarkable. Sorokin had a great night to edge Shesterkin in an old fashioned goalie duel.

When you have both the coach and some players taking away the positives in a game they probably deserved a better fate in, that is the big picture. They know they were in a battle. They controlled a good portion. Even if it didn’t go their way due to the missed Wahlstrom elbow, it doesn’t take away from the game they played.

“I’ll take the effort we had tonight. We don’t like the result. But I’ll take that over some of the wins we’ve had this year with the game we played,” defenseman Jacob Trouba told reporters in last night’s postgame interview.

“I think there’s a lot we can take from this game.”

Trouba is also excited to have close friend Vatrano to play with. They played together during their teens and know each other well. He praised Vatrano for his hard work and honest game that should be a good fit. Especially his shoot first mentality. It’ll be interesting to see what develops this weekend for Vatrano, Panarin and Ryan Strome. As Trouba said, they have two tough games ahead in Tampa Bay and Carolina.

“We’ll learn a little bit ourselves this weekend for sure. We’re gonna need to bring this same effort. I think this effort going forward is the standard. We know we can play that way. If we play like that, we like our chances in a lot of hockey games.”

“It’s always good to see familiar faces. … I played at the U.S. program with Troubs for a couple of years. I played World Championships with Foxy and Kreids. … To know those guys coming in, it’s always very helpful,” Vatrano said after the game about the opportunity to play for the Rangers.

He definitely seems excited about the chance to play with a talented player like Panarin, whose recent stretch has been much better. Even though he didn’t have a point yesterday, he certainly generated chances and had quality shots like the point blank one that a sprawling Sorokin robbed.

Hopefully, that new second line can find chemistry quickly against two good opponents this weekend. It shouldn’t be easy visiting the Lightning and Hurricanes for back-to-back games. But it’ll definitely be a good test.

These are the exact kind of teams you want to battle against. Both are Cup contenders. The Lightning just went out again and added a good young forward in Brandon Hagel to upgrade their secondary scoring. They sure paid a premium in giving up depth forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk along with two first round draft picks to the Blackhawks in exchange for Hagel and two fourth round picks.

Already a loaded roster that’s won consecutive Cups, the Bolts are all in on trying to make history. There hasn’t been a team to three-peat since the Islanders dynasty between 1980-83. Even the Oilers and Penguins fell short of winning three in a row. In getting the 23-year old Hagel who has been on fire, the Lightning have added a good young player to a core that features established stars Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Considering how competitive the Atlantic Division is, it’s easy to see why they made the move. The Panthers remain in first with the Maple Leafs and Bruins not far behind Tampa for second. Home ice in the first round could prove critical. With Florida going all in for Ben Chiarot and possibly Claude Giroux (hot rumor), the next three days are sure to be busy.

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes lead the Metropolitan Division. They’re four up on the Pens and six ahead of the Rangers, who also have to worry about the suddenly resurgent Caps breathing down their neck. Carolina could have Tony DeAngelo back for the weekend. A key contributor to their offense from the back end, he’s having similar success in Raleigh that he did on Broadway two seasons ago.

The Blueshirts know they’ll have to bring their best hockey over the next 48 hours. Similar to how they played against the Islanders. However, they’ll have to provide more run support for Shesterkin, who could get both starts. If not, we could see Alex Georgiev once more. His status remains uncertain entering Monday.

For tomorrow when they try to sweep the regular season series from the Lightning with face-off not until after 8 PM, the lineup will likely be the same. Expect Gallant to have Vatrano with Panarin and Strome while 40-goal man Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Alexis Lafreniere continue to comprise the top line.

The third line of Filip Chytil, Barclay Goodrow and Dryden Hunt won’t change. They looked good together with Hunt moved down into the top nine. Gallant has liked what he’s seen from Jonny Brodzinski, who puts himself in good position. He’ll probably stay on the checking line with Greg McKegg and Ryan Reaves.

That should leave Julien Gauthier as an extra unless Turk decides to give the former Carolina first round pick a game on Sunday. Always a possibility. When Kevin Rooney is ready, he’ll be back in the lineup to bolster the fourth line. It remains to be seen when both Rooney and Kaapo Kakko return. It won’t be until post deadline.

Unless they think an upgrade on left D is needed over Patrik Nemeth, who’s looked better since returning from the birth of his second boy, the Rangers could look to add another depth forward to improve scoring. Phil Kessel, Rickard Rakell and Andrew Copp are worth exploring.

If they move on from Georgiev, then maybe they should consider adding a vet like Craig Anderson from Buffalo. I’d prefer him over Keith Kinkaid, who’s better off in Hartford. We don’t know what the market is for Georgiev, who wants out. It might wait until the summer.

The Rangers have 21 games remaining. How they play down the stretch will determine who they play. That includes two tough games over the next two days and three meetings left with Pittsburgh. Plus a pair with the Islanders, who are going to play spoiler.

It won’t be easy. It isn’t supposed to be. It’ll also be fun. We’ll see where they wind up. The next two games being a good measuring stick.

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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