Gallant: “We Were Garbage”

How to sum up tonight’s listless performance. “We Were Garbage.” Those were the accurate words of displeased coach Gerard Gallant on his team’s lackluster play in a 4-0 shutout loss to the red hot Capitals after the Rangers heard it from the crowd at MSG.

Sometimes, it’s really that simple. Playing for the first time since the Christmas break, the Rangers didn’t have it. It wasn’t all bad. They had some chances during the first part of the rivalry game against Darcy Kuemper. But were unable to cash in failing on two power plays and missing the net on some other opportunities.

Special teams were lousy. They were 0 for 5 on the man-advantage. On the flip side, the Caps went 1 for 3. They also tacked on a shorthanded empty netter for good measure to conclude the scoring.

The first of four regular season meetings against a team they’ll likely be competing with for the playoffs, the Blueshirts failed the test. Instead, it was #AllCaps like their hashtag. As the game went on, they dictated the terms by outplaying and out-hustling the Rangers.

It wasn’t pretty. After a decent start, they ran into penalty trouble. Ryan Lindgren was already off for slashing Conor Sheary when Chris Kreider held Alexander Ovechkin to create a five-on-three.

On it, Ovechkin actually was the decoy. The league’s second all-time goal scorer watched as Marcus Johansson got a piece of a loose puck that Jacob Trouba accidentally put in his own net. Trying to carefully move the bouncing puck away from the crease, he made the mistake of putting it in past a helpless Igor Shesterkin.

That was the only goal of the first. The Rangers got their own power play when Nick Jensen closed his hand on the puck with 7:25 left. Despite some good zone time, they couldn’t beat Kuemper. He stopped Mika Zibanejad twice on slap shots and turned aside Kreider and Vincent Trocheck.

The second unit also came close. But Filip Chytil just missed as time expired. It was a blown opportunity. They moved the puck well. But never hit the net. It looks like that unit is getting better. They’re being given more time. It’s just about getting results.

Back at full strength, both Chytil and Kaapo Kakko were stopped by a sharp Kuemper, who made his second start after missing time after an injury on Dec. 3. It was actually Charlie Lindgren who filled in nicely, helping the Caps go on a run. They’ve turned their season around. Credit Kuemper for not being rusty. He stopped all 32 shots he saw for his 28th career shutout.

Late in a period they held a 13-8 edge in shots, the Rangers got sloppy on consecutive shifts. First, Anthony Mantha got loose for a dangerous chance. But Shesterkin made a huge save to deny him. Then, they left Alexander Alexeyev wide open in the slot. Fortunately, his wrist shot hit the crossbar. Shesterkin also had to make a save on Lars Eller before the period expired.

Trailing by one, they got a second opportunity on the five-on-four when Zibanejad was taken down by Dmitry Orlov. However, they again came up empty-handed. Despite three power play shots including a pair from Kreider and a late one from Vitaly Kravtsov, they still couldn’t solve Kuemper.

Shesterkin would make a key save to deny a Mantha backhand. He was a factor throughout. After saves on Chytil and Kakko by Kuemper, the Rangers looked to be on the verge of breaking through. However, the Caps really took over from that point. Shots were 18-10.

Afterwards, the Rangers barely mustered any offense. With the Caps winning most of the face-offs which were an issue, they were the better team getting the next five shots on Shesterkin, who did as good as he could to keep it at one goal.

In a more physical contest where checking was tight and hitting picked up, it favored the more detail oriented Capitals. They did a good job in the neutral zone and at their blue line taking away time and space.

One of the rare moments where there was a scoring chance was when K’Andre Miller transitioned from defense to offense. However, his shot went wide. As the second continued, several shots missed the target. In fact, Mike Rupp noted along with John Giannone during intermission that the Rangers missed 15 shots. They couldn’t shoot straight.

Julien Gauthier got one of the best scoring chances. Using his speed in the neutral zone, he broke in and got a tough shot on Kuemper that he stopped. After the play was blown dead, they went upstairs just to make sure the puck didn’t go in. It never did. It took longer than expected.

On another opportunity, Eller rang one off the goalpost. The second the Caps hit. But it didn’t alter anything. It continued to be a stronger defensive game from Washington.

There was one close call. But Trocheck missed high and over the top on a good set up. He then went down to the ice. Bent over in pain, he was clearly hurting.

In what amounted to an eye opening mistake, both Kakko and Artemi Panarin (invisible otherwise) made a poor line change. They didn’t realize Trocheck was hurt. This allowed the Caps to come back down with a four on two rush where they scored to go ahead 2-0 with 2:59 remaining.

On the play, Dylan Strome got the puck up ice and passed for a Sheary shot that rebounded off Shesterkin right to a pinching Erik Gustafsson who rebounded the loose change home at 17:01.

In what turned out to be a failed risk by the Rangers bench, Gallant decided to challenge for goaltender interference. On the play in question, Sheary was in the crease and made a little contact with Shesterkin. From my vantage point, it wasn’t enough. It looked like it didn’t affect Shesterkin’s ability to play the Gustafsson shot.

However, the way the rule is described, I thought it might get overturned. The league has gone out of their way to over protect goalies. We’ve seen it in recent time. When they upheld the goal, I was surprised. Not because I felt it shouldn’t have counted. But due to the description.

I thought they got it right. In my opinion, they need to alter the wording so the officials don’t sound like idiots when explaining why the goal counts. This led to confusion from incensed fans who can’t tell the difference when a goalie is impeded and not. This is an NHL problem.

They should make it clearer on what really is goalie interference and what isn’t. Sheary hardly made any contact which is why I felt they got it correct. Despite the whining from a fan base who booed Ovechkin like it was 2012. He’s an all-time great. The year is 2022 going into 2023. Ridiculous. New fans don’t get anything.

Due to the failed coach’s challenge, it led to a Caps power play. Although they killed off the delay of game penalty, the Rangers couldn’t quite escape the period down two. Instead, they left too much gap for Eller to gain the zone and pull up and fire a shot that went high blocker on Shesterkin to increase the deficit to three at 19:23. A crusher.

On the scoring play, Mantha got the puck up for Eller, who cruised by a lazy Kakko stick check to fire home his seventh with too much room given by Miller and Trouba. Honestly, that goal was on Kakko. He should’ve taken Eller up high. He let him pull up for the open shot.

As much as I’ve liked how he’s played lately, Kakko didn’t do a good enough job. Was Panarin even in the picture? He was moved onto a line with Trocheck and Kakko by Gallant, who shuffled the deck. Somehow, neither forward got punished.

Panarin did nothing last night. Oh. He attempted 10 shots and four reached the net. But he wasn’t much of a factor. The lack of attention to detail included two giveaways and left him on for two goals against. As a team, the Rangers had 14 giveaways including three from Zibanejad, who didn’t do enough either.

There were too many passengers. Even Lindgren (penalty) and Adam Fox were minus-two. They’re not superhuman. They’re a terrific top pair who really carry the back end. Although Miller has been much better lately. Trouba is still frustrating. Ben Harpur and Braden Schneider are a decent third pair.

I didn’t like how unnoticeable Alexis Lafreniere was. At this point, it’s increasingly frustrating how he only has five goals. The sad aspect is he has two more points than Kakko, who’s been better.

Lafreniere was a consensus top pick Canada hyped to the moon. Five goals in 36 games in Year Three is ridiculous. It’s sad. He gives the effort. But you’d think by accident he’d have eight or nine by now. He doesn’t think shot enough, falling into the pass mode we see too often from more established stars. It can’t continue.

The final period stunk. The Caps won every battle. They were the aggressor and defended like they were coached by Barry Trotz in 2018 during their Cup year. Not Peter Laviolette. I gotta give him credit. I didn’t think he could get the Caps to play this defensive style. They’re tenacious. That’s why they’re winning games.

The Rangers did manage 12 shots in the third period. But I never got a sense they’d score on Kuemper. He was a brick wall. Not enough traffic in front. If he saw it, he stopped it.

The other bothersome thing was the lazy turnovers the Caps forced just from all out effort in the neutral zone and on the forecheck. It was pathetic. Shesterkin still had to make six saves. It wasn’t good enough.

They did get a couple of late power plays. Even though Gauthier was mugged during an active shift he was on with Zibanejad and Kreider. They gave the Rangers two more opportunities. Even a six-on-four with Shesterkin off early didn’t get it done.

Instead, Sheary blocked a Panarin shot and despite being in pain, he fired the puck down the ice for an empty net shorthanded goal with 3:02 remaining that summed up the game. One team was more determined and played like it. The other had too much egg nog. Christmas hangover?

Now, they must go to Tampa Bay on Thursday and then play Florida on New Year’s Day. A bit weird that there’s no game on New Year’s Eve. NHL scheduling. Geniuses.

No three stars tonight. It’s not worth it. If I did it, it would be All Caps. No pun intended.

There’s World Junior hockey on NHL Network. USA faces Slovakia tomorrow. One of two games. Canada hosts Germany. I’ll try to have something up on Day Two. The best game was actually Switzerland coming back to defeat Latvia 2-1 in a shootout. Czech Republic is 2-0 after blitzing Austria 9-0. Sweden won 1-0 over Germany and Finland turned back Slovakia 5-2.

That’s going to do it. Happy Kwanzaa!

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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