First place no longer on the line Tuesday, health the key for Rangers in final week, NHL hypocrisy on injuries

It was a missed opportunity for the Rangers this weekend. Without forwards Andrew Copp and Filip Chytil, they lost to the Bruins 3-1 on Saturday.

Combined with the Hurricanes sweeping the Devils and Islanders, the Rangers now trail them by four points with three games left in the final week of the regular season. First place won’t be up for grabs when they do battle this Tuesday in Manhattan.

In order for them to still have a chance at first in the Metro, the Rangers need to win and get help. That would mean the Devils beating Carolina on Thursday. At the moment, the Canes have 112 points and are two up in regulation wins (45-43), which is the first tiebreaker. They also have the ROW (regulation overtime wins) sealed off.

Essentially, the Rangers would have to finish with more points than the Canes to grab the top spot in the division. It’s still possible. With three games remaining including the critical one on Tuesday, they can still catch the Hurricanes. A regulation win and then another versus Montreal the following night at MSG would draw them even with both teams having one left.

Then, it would come down to the final game. While the Canes host the Devils on Thursday, the Blueshirts battle potential first round opponent Washington this Friday.

The edge would probably go to Carolina in terms of the match-ups. But you never know. Although it looks like the Devils are in full tank mode following a 3-0 shutout at home to the Red Wings, the game still has to be played.

At this point, all of this might not matter. What does is that the Rangers have guaranteed home ice for the first round. If it’s the Penguins or Capitals, having a deciding Game Seven at The Garden is a good thing. So is having the first two games. But as we know, anything can happen in the playoffs. Especially considering how competitive the Eastern Conference is.

Regarding yesterday’s loss to the Bruins, I wasn’t too surprised. After learning that both Copp and Chytil suffered injuries during the third period of the blowout win over the Islanders (figures), that meant a weaker lineup. For reasons only known to him, Gerard Gallant dressed Julien Gauthier over Jonny Brodzinski. Greg McKegg also played. At least he can play penalty kill and take face-offs.

While our side was down a couple of key regulars, the Bruins got back top sniper David Pastrnak and key defenseman Hampus Lindholm. That gave them a boost. Pastrnak scored in his return. Taylor Hall also did when he got behind Ryan Lindgren for a breakaway goal beating Igor Shesterkin top shelf.

It wasn’t the best defensive effort from Adam Fox, who got caught cheating up. That left Lindgren chasing Hall for what proved to be the game-winner. On the Pastrnak goal, he beat both K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba.

The third Boston goal saw Craig Smith use his speed to get a shot on Shesterkin that turned into a rebound for Trent Frederic. On that one, it was the third pair of Patrik Nemeth and Braden Schneider who were beat.

That came after Mika Zibanejad got his 15th power play goal from Chris Kreider and Alexis Lafreniere. Lafreniere also drew a delayed call with a great move inside. That allowed Kreider to set up Zibanejad for his 29th that made things interesting.

However, the second consecutive power play was abysmal. They got nothing going. The Bruins did a better job on the penalty kill. They didn’t allow any setup time. The entries were bad. So was the puck management.

Usually, Gallant will use his timeout to rest his top unit for a key power play. He opted not to. They just didn’t get it done. They did pull Shesterkin down a pair late. But even following a Zibanejad face-off win that led to puck possession time, they really couldn’t get anything done. Credit Boston.

I liked the effort from our players late. You had Artemi Panarin make a save on an empty net attempt. There was some hustle shown. Brad Marchand still got a wide open look. But he hit the goalpost. Maybe having gone nine straight without a goal played mind games. Ironic when it comes to The Rat, who looked disgusted when he returned to the bench.

It isn’t like the Rangers didn’t create scoring chances. They did. Linus Ullmark made some superb saves. He had Zibanejad’s number on a few during the first two periods.

Ullmark also got over to rob Frank Vatrano on a good pass from Zibanejad. Vatrano always puts himself in good position to do damage. A tremendous pickup by Chris Drury to complete the Zibanejad line. Frankie V has that shoot first mentality which makes Zibanejad and Kreider even better players.

Without the good Copp, Turk opted to play Dryden Hunt on the Panarin line with Ryan Strome. As we’ve seen during the season, that isn’t a good option. Nothing against Hunt, who plays an honest grinding style which fits perfectly on the fourth line. But it’s a big drop off.

Eventually, Gallant moved up Lafreniere onto the Bread Man line. It was a nice reward by the coach after Lafreniere was instrumental on the Zibanejad tally. Speaking of which, one more goal and he gets 30. It would be the third time in his career.

Considering what a well rounded player he’s become, Zibanejad deserves it. He’s had more explosive years. The ’19-20 season comes to mind when he caught fire scoring 41 along with 75 points over 57 contests before Covid.

However, he’s never been a better player than now. Gallant recently heaped praise on Mika by calling him, the team’s best 200-foot player. A huge compliment for the center, who now looks like a bargain with his next contract an AAV of $8.5 million beginning next season.

Who would you rather have now? Zibanejad or Jack Eichel. It isn’t even a debate. Funny how sometimes, the best moves you make are the ones you don’t. Thank God.

As far as what happens with Strome and Copp, I’m not concerned about it. It’s all about now for the Blueshirts. As in what they have the potential to accomplish the rest of this season.

It all starts in May. If Copp needs another game off, you rest him. Think big picture. Ditto for Chytil, who can’t seem to avoid the injury bug. I feel like it’s how he’s built. If he wants to survive over the long-term in the NHL, he’ll need to get stronger. The setbacks have hurt his development.

As for Kaapo Kakko, your guess is as good as mine. Gallant hinted that he could get back in for a game before the conclusion of the regular season. We’ll see. I’m not holding my breath. When it comes to transparency, this organization may as well be related to Benedict Arnold. They can’t be taken at their word.

Unfortunately, that’s most teams now. Everything is “lower-body”, “upper-body” or “undisclosed.” It’s all top secret. How is this still a thing when they push a zillion gambling promotions during games? It’s hypocritical. I’m no fan of prop betting or wagering. But it is what it is. There needs to be more clarity on injuries. When will the NHL change their policy?

Not only does it hurt the addicted gamblers. But affects fantasy hockey. You never know how long a player is out. They’re listed as week to week or day-to-day. That really helps. The whole dishonesty is a disservice to fans. It’s so hard to get a timetable.

All of this is confusing. When it comes to the Rangers, the final three games are all about health. They don’t want to be in a tough situation like the Hurricanes.

Playing without starter Freddie Andersen already, they lost Antti Raanta to a lower-body injury during today’s game. He went to get across on a Kyle Palmieri wrap try, but landed awkwardly. It looked like a tweak to possibly the groin. Howie’s assertion in our Twitter thread.

The Canes wound up using new rookie Pyotr Kochetkov for the second straight day. He came in relief and stopped seven of eight shots. An unproven goalie prospect who was taken in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft, it’s a tough spot for Kochetkov to he in. He’ll likely be facing the Rangers on Tuesday.

As much as I’d love to see Kreider chase down Jaromir Jagr and get the three goals to tie his record for a season, or even pass him, it’s all about the postseason.

That goes for all of the Blueshirts. How many starts will Shesterkin make this week? It probably depends on Tuesday. Expect him to be in versus the Canes. The Habs could be a potential opponent for Alex Georgiev. But that assumes a lot.

What about resting Adam Fox? I doubt they’d do it. But they can manage his minutes if necessary. It all depends on how things shake out.

Individual statistics are secondary to team goals. The ’21-22 New York Rangers have a big one. Let’s enjoy the last three games for what they are. It’s part of something much bigger.

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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