Georgiev outduels Shesterkin in great game, Fox’s effort gets Rangers a deserved point in ESPN exclusive that didn’t disappoint

Everyone knew what tonight’s game was all about. The focus was on the opposing goalie wearing the familiar number 40 in Avalanche colors. Former backup goalie Alexandar Georgiev was determined to beat the Rangers in his return to MSG before a capacity crowd.

In what was a great game featured exclusively on ESPN with the not so fan friendly 8 EST face-off (unless you were a Colorado fan in mountain time), Georgiev made 44 saves on 46 shots and stopped three of four shooters to outduel Igor Shesterkin (42 saves on 44 shots) 3-2 in the shootout to send the Avalanche to the win over the Rangers.

Truth be told, Shesterkin made the more difficult saves to give his team a chance. Due to the continued bad trend of turnovers and allowing wide open slot chances, he more than made up for his one bugaboo when he overplayed a loose puck that led to a Logan O’Connor shorthanded goal 59 seconds into the third period.

Without Igor, this could’ve been ugly. Think a more crooked number in favor of the more potent Avalanche, who even without captain Gabriel Landeskog, are a handful. Yes. Even in a game they had a 46-44 edge in shots, the Rangers could’ve come away without a point. Shesterkin bailed them out time and time again.

Instead, in what was an exciting third period that saw the two teams combined for 31 shots (17-14 NYR), the Rangers were able to get it tied thanks to a terrific all around shift from Adam Fox. In his end while defending one of the game’s best players, he knocked Nathan MacKinnon off the puck inside the Rangers zone to start an odd man rush.

Moving the puck up for Barclay Goodrow, who passed for Jimmy Vesey, who was back in the lineup due to Filip Chytil (head) being out, Fox made at beeline for the Colorado net. With Vitaly Kravtsov driving the net to take Devon Toews out of the play, that made it an easy pass for Vesey to hit Fox for the slam dunk past former teammate Georgiev. That tied the score at two with 5:57 left in regulation.

It was a magnificent shift for Fox, who is a special player. While he might not possess the dynamic speed of counterpart Cale Makar, who factored into the scoring by setting up Val Nichushkin for a power play goal, Fox makes up for it with his high IQ. The great instincts he has make him one of the game’s premier defensemen in a young man’s league where blue line cornerstones are barely of legal drinking age.

The beauty of the sport is when it pits the best against the best. On that particular shift, not only did Fox make a great defensive play to take the puck away from MacKinnon on the boards. He then skated up ice, made a perfect read and beat Makar to the net for the put away. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I’ve been critical of Fox defensively so far. He is a very aggressive player who will pinch up. However, he is capable of making the right reads like he did on MacKinnon to start the game-tying goal with under six minutes left. That’s the kind of high caliber player he is. A true difference maker.

Afterwards, he talked about getting back to work. The Rangers travel to UBS Arena in Elmont later tonight to renew acquaintances with the blood rival Islanders in the second of a back-to-back. That doesn’t matter. They need to come away with a win. The game will be televised on TNT at 7:30 EST. Another national TV exclusive.

At 3-2-2, the Rangers currently sit sixth in the Metro Division with eight points. That ties them with the Devils, Caps and Flyers in points. First place has the Hurricanes with nine points in one fewer game played than the Pens (lost two straight in Alberta). Five total points separate first from last place which is where the Islanders currently sit. It’s a division with more parity.

If the main storyline centered around Georgiev facing his former team and Shesterkin, a minor one was Dryden Hunt returning a week later after the Avalanche claimed him off waivers. The gritty depth forward was used on the fourth line by the Avs. He had one good early shift where he won a puck battle and later forced Shesterkin into a tough save on a low shot. In 10 shifts (6:43), he had two shots, four hits and took a minor penalty.

During a stoppage less than four minutes in, MSG recognized Georgiev for his five seasons on the video board. He gave a wave to acknowledge the crowd who cheered him. Of course, there still are some bitter fans who were crying over his big game that earned him the game’s First Star. That’s what we’re dealing with.

Gerard Gallant made one change to the lineup. As hinted on by the reliable Mollie Walker of the New York Post, he went with Libor Hajek on the third pair in place of Zac Jones. It was the second time he sat out for Hajek, who they want to keep fresh. That’s probably better than how Hajek was handled last season.

Considering that Hajek put in another solid unspectacular effort while paired up with Braden Schneider, they were fine in the 14 to 15 shifts they got. It was almost exclusively at even strength. Schneider took a 36-second shift shorthanded. Neither was used too much.

Instead, Gallant leaned heavily on the top four. K’Andre Miller, Jacob Trouba and Fox all played over 25 minutes while Ryan Lindgren had 20:09. It wasn’t surprising. They faced an elite team, who even without Landeskog are a lot to deal with due to how they play.

The game didn’t disappoint. Played at a high tempo, there were plenty of scoring chances and transition created by each side. That meant lots of work for the goalies. Once teammates, the pair of 26-year olds Georgiev and Shesterkin stayed busy. Both were sharp throughout making key saves.

The Avs had the edge in the first period. They fired 20 shots on Shesterkin, who stood tall while under pressure. He did well stopping 19 including a highlight reel diving stop to deny Mikko Rantanen on a breakaway which came later in the game.

It was a huge save at that point. The Rangers trailed by a goal. Trouba turned over the puck on a face-off and hooked Rantanen, who got a glorious chance. But a diving Shesterkin robbed Rantanen on the backhand by sliding across.

Previously, the Avalanche made Kaapo Kakko pay for the game’s first penalty when he went off for hooking Rantanen. With the Rangers four-man penalty killing unit stuck out for over a minute, they were unable to make a defensive play to clear the puck. That tired them out.

With the quartet of Miller, Trouba, Goodrow and Ryan Carpenter trapped in their end, eventually the potent Avs made a good retrieval that led to the first goal. MacKinnon moved the puck up for Makar at the point. After skating around to find a shooting angle, he finally sent the puck towards the net where an unguarded Nichushkin redirected the pass for his fifth power play goal at 11:40. It was his seventh goal in the Avs’ first seven games.

The Avalanche continued to create opportunities in the Rangers end. But Shesterkin stood tall. The great save to deny Rantanen was the best one of the game. It came halfway through the second period.

There were other key stops during the opening 20 minutes. On what was a phantom call on Lafreniere for high-sticking Makar when replays clearly showed it was the errant stick of Colorado teammate Toews, fans were beside themselves as was Gallant. The play in question can’t be reviewed unless it’s a double minor. One of the most ridiculous rules in hockey. That must be changed. Imagine if the Avs had scored.

Instead, Shesterkin was asked to make a few saves including a pair on Bowen Byram and Evan Rodrigues. He also stopped Rantanen from distance to keep the Rangers within striking distance.

Late in the first, Hunt took an interference minor on Carpenter. The Rangers would have a full two-minute power play to begin the second period.

They did nothing with it. The first unit was abysmal. They got nothing set up. You also had Zibanejad, Panarin and Fox overstay their shift. This remains an issue under Gallant, who never shows any confidence in his second unit. It isn’t like they don’t have personnel. Lafreniere, Kakko and Kravtsov are on it. Chytil is when healthy. So is Jones when he plays. Goodrow replaced Chytil and Trouba was the lone defenseman.

A bumper play down low for Kravtsov just missed connection. A better pass and he gets a quality chance against Georgiev, who by that point was locked in. As his 11 saves demonstrated in the first, he wasn’t leaking rebounds. He was making the saves and controlling them.

The Rangers picked it up. Elevating their physical play with captain Trouba leveling Artturi Lehkonen with a clean hit that drew “Trou”, chants from the crowd, they began to finish checks. Sammy Blais had a good hit deep in Colorado territory. He played mostly with Carpenter and Ryan Reaves at even strength. However, he’d factor in on the tying goal late in the second.

While Shesterkin wasn’t called upon to make as many saves, he stopped all seven shots he saw. On the opposite end, Georgiev made his best save by denying Lafreniere on the doorstep off a good Trouba pass in front. He held his ground to stop a tricky Lafreniere backhand.

It was on a face-off win from Trocheck that Trouba had a hiccup. He let the puck get by him. That sent Rantanen in alone on Shesterkin, who slid across to rob the dangerous Avalanche scorer of a sure goal. They followed it up with a strong kill. The Avs had no shots. Strong work from Fox, Zibanejad and Goodrow resulted in easy clears.

On a good cycle down low started by Panarin, Trocheck took the puck hard to the net to draw a delayed call. He nearly scored. But Georgiev was able to get a pad on the shot that just kept it out.

On the power play, the Rangers thought they had one. Following a clean Trocheck win, Chris Kreider had a tip-in that looked like a sure goal. However, Georgiev reacted quickly to get a piece of it and then dove on top of the loose puck to keep it out. It was on the goal line. Kreider couldn’t believe it. You could see the frustration. He’s been snake bit so far.

Georgiev, who knows the Rangers power play as well as anyone, continued to stymie his ex-teammates. He easily got over to deny a Zibanejad one-timer. Then stopped Panarin from distance by making a glove stop. A play where he was trying for a Kreider redirect. For good measure, he made another save on Panarin.

The Rangers went 0-for-4 on the power play. Georgiev made 12 saves in total. He was a brick wall. The special teams went in favor of the Avalanche.

With frustration starting to boil over, a good rush allowed the Rangers to draw even with 1:54 left in the period. Blais moved the puck up for Trouba, who made a perfect pass for a Goodrow finish on the doorstep that had Georgiev still moving side to side. He was able to slip it just over Georgiev for the equalizer at 18:06.

Finally with the crowd into it and riding momentum, Panarin got a step on Josh Manson, who had no choice but to grab him for a holding minor with 36 seconds left in the second. The power play would carryover to the third.

With 1:24 remaining on the five-on-four, the Rangers got three shots on Georgiev in the opening minute of the third. But he stopped Panarin and then Kreider twice.

Following a Colorado clear into the corner, an overly aggressive Shesterkin went too far out of his net. With Andrew Cogliano applying pressure, he turned the puck over. Cogliano fed O’Connor in the slot for a shot that beat a still recovering Shesterkin for a shorthanded goal at 59 seconds to give the Avs their second lead.

Still on the man-advantage, the Rangers second unit got some looks. But Georgiev made a few more saves including a pair on Kakko and one on Lafreniere point blank. It was that kind of night for the power play. Georgiev deserves a lot of credit for it. He knew what was coming.

In what can best be described as an old fashioned shootout, the teams turned it into a track meet. The Rangers threw the kitchen sink at Georgiev. The Avalanche continued to get opportunities due to sloppy play from the Rangers. They gave up too many slot chances. That must get corrected. And fast with the annoying Islanders on tap tonight.

Shesterkin made a couple of key stops on Lehkonen with the second big following a Fox turnover. He would come up big later on.

The Blueshirts turned up the heat. But Georgiev held up by making saves on Panarin and Goodrow. Following a MacKinnon miss in tight, a flying Panarin raced up ice and sent a high backhand wide of the net. Trocheck was then denied on a deflection.

The amount of pace in the third period was something to behold. It was exciting fire wagon hockey. Following an easy Georgiev glove save on a long Zibanejad try, it was Igor’s turn. He thwarted Toews twice and then stopped Rodrigues. The big saves continued on MacKinnon, who looked for the dagger.

With the crowd anticipating something happening, Fox made it happen with the play of the game. A clean hit took MacKinnon off the puck. He then made a good outlet for Goodrow who gained the Colorado zone and fed a cutting Vesey. He then had a wide open lane to go backdoor to Fox for the sweet finish to tie the game with 5:57 remaining.

Both sides continued to go for it. On one end, Georgiev stopped a Trocheck wrap-around. Then denied a Panarin bid. Shesterkin made one more save on Nichushkin. Trocheck then sent a high backhand wide. Neither side got anything remotely close in the final minute of regulation.

Overtime was good. Of course it was. Playing three-on-three, they exchanged early chances. Shesterkin stopped Rantanen on one end while Georgiev made a tricky save on a Trouba tip-in.

Both Panarin and Zibanejad were stopped by Georgiev. Panarin drew a hook on MacKinnon who skated into the box. The four-on-three was the opportunity to win it. But the Avs held over the last 1:29.

Zibanejad had one of his rockets go high over the net. He was looking to beat Georgiev high glove. He challenged him. Zibanejad couldn’t hit the target. Erik Johnson made a key play defensively with a hit on Kreider to take away the puck and get a clear.

Cogliano actually wound up with a shorthanded try that Shesterkin handled. That did it for the 65 minutes of hockey. It was disappointing that it wasn’t decided. But that’s how well both goalies played. They each faced over 40 shots with the teams combining for 90 total. The Rangers holding a slight 46-44 edge.

In the shootout, MacKinnon missed high and wide in the top of the first. Then Kakko was stopped by Georgiev. Out came Makar in Round Two. He tried to go backhand deke, but Shesterkin had none of it making the save. Zibanejad tried to pick high glove, but Georgiev held his ground.

In the third round, Rantanen went wrist shot to beat Shesterkin to put the pressure on. But Panarin coolly faked and then out-waited Georgiev to tuck the puck in forcing extras. Astonishingly, Rodrigues came out and pulled off a reverse Pavel Bure move going forehand deke and tucking the puck past Shesterkin as they collided from the momentum. A beauty goal.

It finally came down to Lafreniere. One of the best Rangers all night, he tried to go forehand deke on Georgiev. But he aggressively challenged and made the pad stop to clinch the victory for the Avalanche.

He was pumped. Why not. He later said that the game meant a lot. He really enjoyed playing at MSG and loves the environment. He also was appreciative of the opportunity he’s gotten.

It’s hard to complain about last night’s game. It came against the champs. They’re a great team. It was high tempo and action packed. The only concern is the continued defensive lapses we’re seeing. They have to do a better job back checking. Limit mistakes. Get back to tight checking. That’ll be a key to the Islanders game.

I also would like to see more net front presence. That’s usually Kreider’s job. He had some chances on the power play. But right now, he’s squeezing the stick tight. It isn’t going in. There wasn’t enough traffic on Georgiev, who proved a point. There needs to be more grease. Think Rocky.

I’d look to tweak the first line. They’re not in sync. Zibanejad has been quiet lately. He and Kreider aren’t getting enough done at five-on-five. Kakko has two goals, but maybe he should be moved to the third line. Who would I elevate? Lafreniere. He makes things happen. But if so, then try Kravtsov with Panarin and Trocheck. I doubt Gallant is ready to make that change.

For now, the lineup up front will feature the same dozen players. That’s what happens when you have injuries and are hindered by the cap. Look for Jones to return tonight replacing Hajek. I imagine Shesterkin will get this game and face Ilya Sorokin. Why not. He was strong yesterday. Time to get him going.

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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