Lafreniere’s pair including highlight reel goal help Rangers tie for first place, Kakko exits with ugly leg injury, Amirante and playoff memories at MSG

A promise was kept. Following a game off, Alexis Lafreniere returned to the lineup for Saturday’s afternoon tilt against the Red Wings. He didn’t disappoint.

Unaffected by coach Gerard Gallant sitting him out on Wednesday, the 20-year old left wing delivered on Saturday with two goals. That included one for the highlight reel in a 4-0 win for the Rangers over the Red Wings at The Garden.

The latest victory allowed them to move into a first place tie with the Hurricanes. That was due to the Canes later losing 7-4 last night to the Avalanche. Both the Rangers and Hurricanes have six games remaining. That includes one big meeting at MSG on April 26.

Whatever happens, the Rangers are going to host Games One and Two of the first round next month. It’s just a question of will they potentially have home ice for one round or two. Not that it means too much. It all depends on the match-ups and how they do.

While it was a memorable day for Lafreniere after scoring his 16th and 17th goals with the latter one to behold, it was one to forget for Kaapo Kakko. A few days removed from a two-goal game that looked like a step in the right direction, he crumbled to the ice and fell awkwardly.

Kakko suffered an ugly leg injury. It didn’t look good. He left the game after taking five shifts (5:06). Considering that he missed almost three months due to a hand injury, this is a double whammy. Hopefully it isn’t as bad as feared. Especially for the 21-year old former second pick who seems to be jinxed.

Right now, let’s not worry about that. The Rangers will know more by the end of the holiday weekend. If Kakko can’t return this week, they know Lafreniere can play on the third line with Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow. He finally showed more confidence by scoring twice.

When asked about his return, he talked about staying focused and just playing his game. It all worked out for the mature former top pick. With six games left, Lafreniere has an outside shot at 20 goals. That would be a nice way to conclude his second season. Especially with the postseason ahead.

In a game I didn’t see, the Rangers handled their business against the Red Wings. This was the second consecutive 4-0 win over a non-playoff team. After Alex Georgiev blanked the Flyers, Igor Shesterkin did the same to Detroit. He only had to stop 20 shots for his fifth shutout (7th career).

It’s exactly how it should go. They dominated a lesser opponent to win on Kids Day. I forgot that was even still a thing. No wonder it was such an early start.

They even did the wave. Something that’s now frowned upon by nincompoops who are never happy. I say let fans do what they want. Especially if a grown bald man can dance on a big screen.

The important thing is they won and gave the younger fans something to cheer for. Those are the ones who’ll remember it. Maybe they’ll be along for the ride when things start up in May. You always want kids to become part of the next generation of Ranger fans. It’s the right time.

As for myself, I am not a fan of early starts. That dates back to my days at ESPN when we had those ABC games. I hated the NBC ones and wasn’t even working. Hockey is better for spectators later in the day. 12:30 PM on a Saturday of a Passover/Easter weekend is nuts. Parking must’ve been horrible. To those who went, kudos.

I haven’t been to one game. I don’t know if that’ll change. I’ve gotten used to watching at home. I know Justin and Dad will probably go to a playoff game. We’ll see. The last game we went to was versus Ottawa. The late John Amirante was in the building for that. He is sorely missed.

A thought echoed by friend Madison Miller who has her own podcast. She loves the Rangers and understands how much of a strong connection Amirante had to the fans. That’s why he was brought back for that special national anthem five long years ago. There was no one quite like him. Why doesn’t he have a banner like the God awful Phish? A Sean McCaffrey reference.

The Rangers could’ve scored more than four goals from the highlights I saw. There were some other close calls with Chris Kreider denied twice by Thomas Greiss of number 51. They also hit a couple of posts.

Mika Zibanejad finally got his 14th power play goal. It came off a perfect Adam Fox pass on a five-on-three. Kreider picked up an assist.

It was the 28th for Zibanejad in a season he’s been more of a setup man. He’s never been a better player. At 28, he’s the team’s best overall forward who has become a well rounded player you can trust at five-on-five, power play and penalty kill. He has 77 points in 76 games and a plus-31 rating. The 49 assists and 77 points are career highs.

Frank Vatrano continues to excel. The bargain from the Panthers scored early in the second period to make it a 2-0 game. On it, Fox got the puck to Zibanejad who moved it up for Vatrano, who snapped a beauty top shelf for his seventh as a Blueshirt.

All Vatrano has done is become the perfect complement on the first line to Zibanejad and Kreider completing a good scoring line. His speed and uncanny ability to get off that shot makes him a threat. He can also get the puck over for open teammates. The goal gives him 100 for his career.

Shesterkin was busier in the second. He made 11 saves to keep the Rangers ahead by two. That left it up to Lafreniere in the final period.

After starting on the checking line in place of Ryan Reaves with Kevin Rooney and Dryden Hunt, he was back with Chytil and Goodrow. That would be a good thing for the Rangers.

He’d gone eight straight games without a point. Prior to that, he had a career best six-game point streak that came mostly with Zibanejad and Kreider. Now, he needed to prove something on the third line where he’ll most likely be.

Sure enough, it was Lafreniere who put in his 16th from Goodrow and Chytil at 4:37 to increase the lead to 3-0. That had to feel good. What happened next is one they’ll be talking about for a while.

Despite his production while playing in a secondary role with second power play time, Lafreniere has the skill, skating and compete to become a star. We see it in his maturity at handling a complex situation. He has produced at even strength. An area they’ll continue to need come playoffs.

On a good play started by Goodrow who moved the puck to Patrik Nemeth (in for Justin Braun), Lafreniere took a feed and then completely faked out Dylan Larkin by going between his legs before whipping a backhand past Greiss for his second of the game with 5:43 left.

It was a jaw dropping play by a special player who hasn’t lost any confidence. The Garden crowd gave him a loud ovation for the highlight reel goal. Teammates were wowed by it. That included a couple of more accomplished stars in the postgame.

As for Lafreniere, he was all business afterwards. There’s a very calm demeanor to him. He’s very even keel. He knows what’s expected. Maybe that’s why Gallant knew the healthy scratch wouldn’t bother his young pupil. He’s still learning and handles himself well.

While picks like Tim Stutzle and Red Wings’ rookie Lucas Raymond are ahead of him due to what their roles are, I don’t think it’ll be long before Lafreniere catches them. I see a young player who will excel once he is given the same opportunity.

Maybe that’s why I’m not so down about where Laffy is in his development. He understands how he must compete both defensively and offensively. Gallant wants him to become a good overall player. That’s a good thing. He can evolve getting more favorable match-ups with Chytil and Goodrow on the third line.

I believe that line can become a weapon. It’ll be a key to how the postseason goes. It’s not only about your established stars. The playoffs are a different animal. We know from past years that heroes can emerge.

Even without Tyler Motte or possibly Kakko, I like the fourth line. They have an identity. Getting Rooney back when Motte sent down was timely. He fills a similar role killing penalties while playing center on the checking line. Whether it’s Hunt with Reaves or the better skating Jonny Brodzinski, I have full confidence they’ll be alright.

Also alright is Braden Schneider. A confident first-year defenseman who gets better and better all the time. He knows when to go. He isn’t shy about stepping in and shooting like the one he nearly scored on. He is referred to as, “Baby Trouba,” by teammates who love his physicality. It’s hard to believe he’s 20.

As they enter these last two weeks of the regular season, it sure has been fun. I’m so excited about the playoffs. The idea of meaningful hockey again with big crowds at The Garden is one that never gets old.

It’s almost time. I’m ready!

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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