Rangers Clinch: Dominate Senators to return to Playoffs, Kreider gets numbers 48 and 49, Panarin puts up three points, tie Hurricanes for division

It’s official. The New York Rangers are back in the playoffs. They clinched their first postseason since ’16-17 by dominating the Senators 5-1 before a raucous atmosphere at MSG.

This was the perfect way to wrap up a playoff berth. They did it by taking over the game after an early wakeup call when Austin Watson scored only 2:22 in. It was all Blueshirts the rest of the way. They got the game’s last five goals to cruise in style.

There were plenty of highlights. Headlining the list is Chris Kreider. His dream season continues. Facing the defenseless Senators, he flat out dominated. On a night he could’ve had four or five, Kreider scored twice to reach 49 goals. In getting numbers 48 and 49, the true captain is one away from 50.

By hitting 49, Kreider’s now tied with Mike Gartner for the fourth most goals scored by a Ranger in a single season. His next one would make him the fourth ever player in franchise history to reach 50. Vic Hadfield hit 50 in ’71-72. Adam Graves broke his record with 52 in ’93-94. Jaromir Jagr is the current record holder scoring 54 in ’05-06.

Another big headline was the continued hot play of leading scorer Artemi Panarin. He’s caught fire over the last month. Playing a stronger all around game that’s seen him come back defensively and shoot the puck more, Panarin keeps getting better. He scored his 21st goal and added two more assists to give him a career high 67.

The Bread Man needs two points for 90. Twelve to hit the century mark. Something that didn’t look possible two months ago when he was struggling. Since March, he’s turned it on. With a three-point night, Panarin is up to 32 points (7-25-32) over his last 20 games.

Even better, the chemistry he has with Andrew Copp is undeniable. The good Copp continues to pile up the points while adding more of a North American style to the second line with Panarin and Ryan Strome. The entire line each had a goal and were a combined plus-eight with five points (3-2-5).

Copp has 11 points (4-7-11) since coming over from Winnipeg. He’s been everything advertised. A good player who makes smart plays with the puck. Since Strome returned, that line is dangerous. It’s a big difference having Copp in the top six. He’s made an impact and helped balanced the scoring along with Frank Vatrano.

Speaking of Vatrano, he didn’t score. But set up Kreider with a perfect lead pass that allowed him to cut in and beat Anton Forsberg for his 49th with 2:31 remaining to put the exclamation point on the big victory. Frankie V adds that speed element and shoot first mentality to the top line that’s made things easier for both Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.

The key additions of Vatrano and Copp have really changed the dynamic of this team. Even without Filip Chytil and Tyler Motte, they’re better equipped. Tonight marked the returns of Kaapo Kakko and Kevin Rooney. One struggled while the other fit back in to help offset the loss of Motte. Rooney can fill the void on the fourth line and penalty kill.

Kakko got his first crack on the third line. He played with Alexis Lafreniere and Barclay Goodrow, who shifted back to center. Goodrow dominated on face-offs winning an incredible 76.5 percent (13-for-17). Goodie was effective on the penalty kill and had four shots. Both Kakko and Lafreniere struggled. They’ll need to be better in the final nine games.

One other change saw veteran defenseman Justin Braun come back into the lineup for Patrik Nemeth. Gerard Gallant is doing what I figured. He’s rotating both Braun and Nemeth in and out on the third pair where they’re working with poised first-year defenseman Braden Schneider. So far, so good.

If you’re keeping track, Saturday’s win allowed the Rangers to catch the Hurricanes. They’re now tied for first in the Metropolitan Division. Both teams have 100 points.

Technically, Carolina has the edge due to having an extra game and the first tiebreaker. But the Rangers have closed the gap. They’re up to 39 regulation overtime wins (ROW) while the Canes have 40. Carolina plays tomorrow against the Ducks at home. The Canes will visit the Rangers on Tuesday.

It was a light night for Igor Shesterkin. He hardly was tested. After only making two saves in a lopsided first, he stopped six more in an uncompetitive second. He did see 13 shots in the third. He finished with 21 saves on his way to his 34th win. He heard “Ig-or, Ig-or”, chants late as the fans saluted him. They’re not here without him.

The game was delayed a few minutes due to it also being on Hockey Night In Canada. MSG Network had it locally.

At least we had Henrik Lundqvist paired with Steve Valiquette, who again went Staterrific with his clear sighted Scienterrific crap. Two words I made up in reference to close buddy JPG. I call him the Statmastah. You can only imagine why. I think Valiquette and him got their degrees in Stateology.

FYI. It’s sarcasm folks. Valiquette likes to use a lot of statistics to make himself look better. While I appreciate the hard work he puts in, it can be a bit much. Especially when he starts citing Expected Crap and defining Stolen Wins. I can deal with the Slot Chances. It at least informs the audience that the Rangers have improved offensively on those rushes off transition.

Lundqvist is more straightforward in his analysis. He uses game insights from a great career. He’s fun to listen to and doesn’t bs. I enjoyed what he said about Ottawa following the second period. He basically said they were very bad and had nothing. It showed.

Everyone who pays attention knows the Senators rely heavily on Anton Forsberg. He’s had a heavy workload. He seems to have found a home in Ottawa, who recently extended him for a couple of years. A smart move since Forsberg sees a ton of rubber and is a good puck stopper. But tonight, he was overwhelmed due to the lack of defense.

The Sens feature some good players who are a big part of their rebuild. Led by captain Brady Tkachuk and top goalscorer Josh Norris (stolen in the Erik Karlsson trade), they have some pieces.

That includes Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson, Mathieu Joseph (acquired from Tampa for Nick Paul), Shane Pinto (injured) and top defenseman Thomas Chabot Shalom. Chabot has been out a while. Stutzle and Batherson didn’t play either. 

Basically, what happened was expected. The Rangers took care of business. This wasn’t a cautious game plan like recent wins over Pittsburgh and New Jersey. It was an all out blitz.

The ironic part was the start. As if they needed to be reminded, the third line got victimized on the only Ottawa goal. On a good early cycle from Parker Kelly and Mark Kastelic, they combined to find Watson open in the slot for the game’s first goal at 2:22.

It was the third pair of Braun and Schneider out. But they were back. Lafreniere missed the assignment. He was late getting back and made a lazy attempt. Too late. Watson buried it for his seventh.

If you were looking for Kakko and Lafreniere to find chemistry, it never happened. Neither registered a shot and were a minus-one.

Kakko added nothing to the third line in his return. It made me long for Chytil. Kakko will have to show more to remain in the lineup. If he can’t, Gerard Gallant should do what’s best come First Round. If that means he sits, so be it. They’re in it to win it.

Following the goal against, Zibanejad got a great opportunity to tie it. Adam Fox made a good pass from the corner to find him in front. But he fanned on the shot sending it wide. It probably would’ve been a goal.

Then came the annoying part of the broadcast. We all love Sam Rosen. But when he and Joe Micheletti start talking over the action, they’re not paying attention. It isn’t cohesive. They began channeling their love of former Blueshirts Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden. Can you imagine if Artem Anisimov still played there?

The action picked up thanks to the checking line. On a strong shift from Ryan Reaves, who finished a good check on Del Zotto that led to a Dryden Hunt shot that Forsberg denied, Hunt drew a stick hold on Norris.

On their only power play, the Rangers did a whole lot of nothing. They got no shots through to Forsberg. Credit the Sens for doing a good job on the penalty kill. They took away the top unit. When the second unit came on, Lafreniere was open and instead of shooting, passed to nowhere. Not what you want to see.

Despite not doing much, it was the home team who began coming at the Ottawa defense in waves. They used their game-breaking speed and skill to generate chances. However, Forsberg made the stops to keep his side ahead.

For a while, the Senators’ shot total remained on one. Meaning their one shot went in. The Rangers led in shots 7-1. They hadn’t solved Forsberg, who was sharp early.

With less than 10 minutes left in the first, Tkachuk finally ended the Ottawa drought with a good, low shot on Shesterkin. He was able to shut it down for a stoppage.

Off a draw in the Senators’ end, Strome and Copp combined to free up a puck that came right back to Panarin. He let go of a snap shot that deflected off of Colin White past Forsberg to tie the game. The goal was unassisted. Credit the work of Strome and Copp though.

As the period went on, the second line was buzzing. In particular, Panarin who was in full fire mode. He got a tough shot from the slot on Forsberg, but he made a superb blocker save to keep it tied. In the first, the Bread Man had two shots and five attempts. It felt like more.

In the early portion of the second, the dangerous Joseph was able to get a step on Copp. He took a great shot labeled for the upper portion. But it rang off the far goalpost. On the play, Jacob Trouba pinched up. Copp couldn’t cover for him, leaving only K’Andre Miller back on the two-on-one.

With the game still even, Lafreniere made a good play on the forecheck. He carried the puck deep to draw two Senators before feeding it back for a pinching Schneider. With time to shoot, he made a smart pass for a tricky Goodrow redirection that Forsberg gobbled up.

After that sequence, it was Ottawa’s turn. On a rush, they came close to going back ahead. Shesterkin had trouble with a high shot to his blocker, leaking a rebound that just missed. It looked like it hit the outside of the post. Then Fox took down Kastelic.

That was the only power play for the Sens. It was abominable. The improved Rangers’ penalty kill had at least three great looks shorthanded. First, it was Kreider and Zibanejad. With a clear shot, Mika tried to get it over for Kreider. But a sliding Del Zotto made a good play.

Then in came Strome. He had a clean breakaway. He made a good move and tried to beat Forsberg over the left pad. But the Ottawa netminder stacked the pads to deny Strome.

Once they were back to full strength, things opened up. It was mostly Blueshirts. They really turned it into a track meet. That meant eventually, the Sens would get a chance. They did on a three-on-two that an aggressive Shesterkin robbed Norris on point blank.

Back came the Rangers in the opposite direction. Taking a Miller feed, Panarin skated up ice into the Ottawa zone. He moved down the left side before finding the good Copp for his 17th at 6:56. An absolute snipe top shelf that put them ahead.

Over two minutes later, this time Kreider got on the scoreboard. Taking a pass from Ryan Lindgren on a play started by sidekick Zibanejad, he decided to let go of a shot that whizzed by a frustrated Forsberg for number 48 at 9:05.

As Rosen noted, the goal tied Pierre Larouche for the fifth best in franchise history. He scored 48 in ’83-84. Interestingly, JD (Jag) noted that due to him sitting out a few games at the end of that weapon, it prevented him from hitting 50. He could’ve become the first player in NHL history to get 50 with three different teams. Larouche did it with the Penguins and Canadiens.

Firmly in control, the Blueshirts upped the margin to three on another brilliant pass by Panarin to Strome for his 17th at 17:27. Lindgren got the puck to Panarin who then skated past Senators who were standing still.

There seemed to be some debris on the ice that made it difficult to figure out how he got in and set up Strome. No matter. After holding a 13-6 edge in shots, the Rangers led 4-1 after two periods. The total shots were 25-9. Lopsided.

The third was basically a coronation. Unless you were an Islander fan, there wasn’t the slightest chance of an Ottawa comeback. They totaled four more shots (13) than their two period total (9). But Shesterkin was his usual self.

With time winding down, Vatrano sent Kreider in on Forsberg for his second of the game. Another great finish from the former first round pick who’s been unbelievable this season. He sure deserves it.

As the final 2:29 elapsed, the announced sellout crowd paid homage to their heroes. A Clyde Frazier expression. When it was over, Kreider gave fist bumps to every teammate. All business.

It’s all been there under Gallant, who has the right pulse of his team. He never gets too high or too low. He knows when to critique their play and when to ease up. His temperament has been perfect.

I have no clue why Vegas got rid of him. Nothing against Pete DeBoer, who’s a good coach as well. But Turk has done a masterful job. He deserves serious consideration for the Jack Adams.

It’s hard to believe this team has a 47-20-6 record with 100 points. But they’ve earned it.

The never say die attitude of these Blueshirts is one fans can get behind. All the comeback wins. The huge saves from Shesterkin. The big goals. The enormous hits led by Trouba and Reaves. The blocked shots. The tremendous character.

No matter how this ends up, it’s been a delight. We waited patiently for a team that could get back to the playoffs and have a puncher’s chance. These guys do. As long as they stick to the system and play their game, it could be a special year.

Three Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 Copp/Strome NYR goal each, 5 SOG in 7 attempts, +5, 6-and-6 on face-offs

2nd 🌟 Chris Kreider NYR 2 goals (48 & 49), 49 goals tied for 4th best all-time in franchise history, 5 SOG in 9 attempts, +2 in 15:18

1st 🌟 Artemi Panarin NYR goal (21) plus 2 🍎 (66, 67), 3 SOG in 8 attempts, +3 in 16:03

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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