Despite good start, Rangers need to tighten up defensively

By show of hands. How many of you would’ve signed up for winning three out of four to start the season? That would probably be the majority.

Who had the Rangers scoring at will to take six out of a possible eight points? Maybe half. I guess it depends what your view of the roster was coming in. Unlike the overemphasized Patrick Kane crowd, I was glass half full on the kids improving to boost an offense that subtracted some key parts.

Perhaps I was onto something. Even minus the injured Vitaly Kravtsov, who is getting closer to returning, we’ve already seen what the third line trio of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko can do. They’re living up to expectations by providing the scoring balance that was a question entering ’22-23. That they’ve all been separated and are showing signs of improvement is proof that patience is required with young players.

Thus far, Gerard Gallant has discovered that he can successfully move Kakko up to the top line and shift Lafreniere to the right side on the second line with positive results. He can also trust Chytil more to continue his growth in a supporting role centering the third line.

With Vincent Trocheck finding early chemistry with Artemi Panarin and a more confident Lafreniere, the second line is providing offense. A second four-point (1-3-4) game for Panarin with Trocheck and Lafreniere also scoring to highlight a wild 6-4 win over the defense optional Ducks on home ice is proof that the new trio should remain intact. They’re clicking.

On a night where former Blueshirt Ryan Strome received a warm hand from appreciative fans during a video tribute in his return as a Duck, it was that new second line that showed off their firepower. Although he didn’t record a point for the struggling Ducks, who got lit up 7-1 by the Islanders on Saturday, Strome will play a similar leadership role while teaming with top finisher Troy Terry and promising rookie Mason McTavish.

Strome will be fine. The same can be echoed for former rental piece Frank Vatrano, who showed off his wicked wrist shot by whistling one past Igor Shestyorkin glove side to get the Ducks on the scoreboard. Frankie V certainly contributed to the Rangers’ run last Spring. Now, he will try to help a rebuilding team that so far has hung starter John Gibson out to dry.

He was again sent to the showers after two periods by a New York team. Gibson still made some great saves highlighted by a point blank glove highway robbery on Trocheck that could’ve been Henrik Lundqvist in his heyday or Shestyorkin now. It’s hard to win in this league without good team defense. Ask Gallant what he thinks about his team so far defensively.

Putting up high totals of seven goals anfd six in sloppy wins over the overrated Wild (has anyone seen their defense) and defenseless Ducks is nice. It looks good on the right side of the win column. However, giving up totals of three, four and four over the past three games isn’t impressive. That included a 4-1 loss at Winnipeg where the effort was okay. But the execution wasn’t with the Jets getting the game-winner late from journeyman Sam Gagner and power play extra from Mark Scheifele. Kyle Connor added an empty netter.

It was less than ideal. K’Andre Miller lost a battle behind the net and then both Trocheck and Panarin puck watched as Gagner was allowed to stuff in the game decider past a helpless Jaro Halak, who performed well in his Rangers debut.  He made 30 saves on 33 shots to give them a chance. The problem was Connor Hellebuyck was better stopping 40 of 41 including 21 in a splendid second period where it was all Rangers.

They weren’t too good in a 7-3 win over the Wild either. It was a game they led 5-1 in the third period after Trocheck netted his first as a Ranger. But Matt Boldy struck twice sandwiched around a great goal from Kakko, who undressed the Wild or a solo effort for a 6-2 lead 30 seconds after Boldy’s first. He’d return the favor by completely blowing by Braden Schneider, who hasn’t been sharp in his end. Is it the new number? He switched to number 4 from 45.

Of the two so far, Zac Jones has looked better on the young third pair comprising two players who are 21 and 22. Not the biggest in stature, the smooth skating Jones makes up for it by utilizing his speed and smarts to escape trouble. Schneider is the much bigger physical presence. He’s been thinking more offense so far. So has Miller, who at times looks like a forward instead of a defenseman. The offense should improve. He still needs to use his size and strength more defensively. Especially considering the key role he plays with new captain Jacob Trouba.

Speaking of Trouba, he’s been strong so far. Playing his usual physical style, the on ice leader has done it by finishing checks, blocking shots and coming back to break up plays with his hustle. The most indispensable player they have on the blue line with apologies to Adam Fox and gritty warrior Ryan Lindgren, he plays in every situation under Gallant. Whether it’s matching up at five-on-five, playing second power play, or killing penalties, he can be counted on to get the job done. So far, so good for the new captain.

In another wide open contest, Trouba stood out for the way he plays the game. It was early in the second period that he left his feet to block a dangerous Terry shot that went off his helmet out of play. After a concerned Terry apologized to him, Trouba was summoned to the locker room by spotters for concussion protocol. He missed a few shifts.

Almost immediately, Trevor Zegras got behind an out of position Braden Schneider and took a Terry feed to beat Shestyorkin at 1:34. That tied the score. On that shift, Schneider was on with Miller. Initially, it was a Mika Zibanejad in the offensive zone that allowed the Ducks to transition up ice with token resistance by the five players in Blueshirt jerseys.

Forced to go with a five man rotation, Rangers assistant coach Gord Murphy worked in Schneider and Jones. It was the latter who received more ice time logging 18:01 while Schneider received 14:31 all at even strength. Jones got 31 second on the little used second power play unit. In the third game he’s played with Libor Hajek subbing for him on Friday, Jones is showing why he can become a regular. He knows when to go.

The only bad game Jones had so far was the second at Minnesota. Neither him or Schneider were particularly strong that night. It’s gonna happen. Gallant wanted to get Hajek in so he stayed fresh on the first back-to-back. He was solid making a few subtle defensive plays. That’s a plus for the extra defenseman who is essentially the last link to the Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller trade with the Lightning. Ironically, Vladislav Namestnikov is back in Tampa rediscovering the form he had under Jon Cooper in a secondary role.

There’s nothing left to say about the trade. It’s all been echoed before by yours truly in this space. Some deals work out while others fail. That one is in the bad category. What if Nils Lundkvist had panned out last year. Instead, he’s getting playing time with the unbeaten Stars. The numbers didn’t work in his favor. Brett Howden needed a scenery change and has been effective in Vegas. That’s all.

Back to the defense. After Zibanejad took a good feed from Fox and had his shot deflected in front off the skate of John Klingberg for the go-ahead tally halfway through the contest, Trouba returned. It was noted by both Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti just as that goal was scored. Let’s call it a good omen.

Once their workhorse was back, the Rangers picked it up. They began vigorously forechecking a smaller Anaheim defense. After a rare power play where they didn’t connect largely because Gibson prevented a sure Trocheck power play goal by reaching back to steal his high shot with the glove, the former third line stayed out for a shift at five-on-five.

Following a good keep from Trouba, Chytil took the puck down low and centered for a sweet Lafreniere finish in front that increased the lead to two with 2:21 left. It was a great scoring play created by the forecheck of the three kids. Eerily similar to what they did last Spring.

Panarin provided what should’ve been the knockout blow when he took a Fox lead pass and sniped a laser past Gibson top shelf at 19:25. On the play, Lindgren started it and Fox did what he does by finding an open Panarin, who had easy access to the Ducks zone. Both Klingberg and Dmitry Kulikov backed in allowing Panarin too much space. He had enough time to fake and then fire his second by Gibson.

In a game that was too much run and gun, the Rangers got sloppy in the third period. It was played similarly to the Wild game where they put up a touchdown and extra point, but took the foot off the gas pedal. You can get away with that against inferior competition. But not against better opponents.

The Ducks made it interesting. On a good shift by Terry, he and Kevin Shattenkirk combined to set up a wide open Max Comtois to cut the deficit to two with under 15 minutes left in regulation. He was left isolated by Panarin, who fell asleep on the coverage. Lindgren was in the vicinity, but Comtois was Panarin’s man. He isn’t exactly a stalwart defensively. The offense makes up for it.

You’d still like to see better plus/minuses next to both Panarin and Trocheck on the score sheet. Part of that was due to the production on the power play. Five of their six combined points came via the man-advantage. An area Panarin excels at due to his remarkable vision and playmaking. However, the second line will need to tighten up defensively at even strength. An area Gallant wants to see improvement.

Even on what was a wonderfully constructed passing play between Fox and Panarin for a Zibanejad one-timer that easily beat Ducks’ backup Anthony Stolarz for the team’s third power play goal of the night, they still couldn’t put away the Ducks. Ranger killer Derek Grant tallied at even strength to make it 6-4 with 3:46 remaining.

In a game where they nearly doubled up the Ducks in shots (43-22) while out-attempting them by a wide margin due to strong puck possession, it’s inexcusable to allow four goals on 22 shots. Even if Anaheim has good offensive players, that’s not a good enough effort from a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.

Finding better consistency at even strength will be the key to the season. With the next game not until Thursday against the winless David Quinn Sharks, who even gave up five unanswered to the lottery bound Blackhawks, the extra days off allow Gallant to work on the defensive issues. They’re correctable mistakes that can be fixed during practice. Back to basics.

It took a while in Year One under Turk for the team to adjust to the system. Most of the core is the same. For the new players like Trocheck, who is a good three zone player, it’s still going to take some time. While Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, who could easily have five or six goals instead of two, are familiar with what Gallant wants, you still have a few players who are learning as they go.

On a night where Sammy Blais finally returned to the lineup on a regular season game for the first time in almost a year, you don’t have to worry about the bottom six. Barclay Goodrow and Chytil play straight ahead hockey. Without Ryan Carpenter, Goodrow centered the checking line flanked by Dryden Hunt and Ryan Reaves. Both who will get pucks deep and bang in the corners.

After a good preseason that earned him a contract, Jimmy Vesey has been very quiet. He wasn’t noticeable on Monday night. That’s why a good camp doesn’t mean anything. If it did, Julien Gauthier would have become a 15 to 20 goalscorer. Instead, he’s in Hartford scoring in the AHL. Vesey could become the odd man out when Kravtsov returns.

It’ll be an interesting decision for the organization. Especially with Carpenter fitting in well on the fourth line. Plus Hunt has brought the energy and even got the only goal at Winnipeg. A nice finish off a Trocheck pass where he stopped the puck and patiently shot upstairs to beat Hellebuyck.

For now, they’ll take the 3-1-0 record and look to improve. Especially with both the Hurricanes and Penguins off to good starts. So are those John Tortorella Flyers. It’s very early. Let’s see where things are by Game 20.


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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