Rangers two for two in New Year: Back up victory over messy Cats with good third period comeback over Hurricanes, Canada versus Czechia for WJC gold, goalie interference reversal mars USA in ugly loss to Canada

So far in ’23, a lot has happened. So far, so good for the Rangers. After taking care of the messy Cats in a mind-numbing game on New Year’s Day during football Sunday, they had their best win of the season in coming back to defeat the first place Hurricanes 5-3 on Tuesday night at a more lively MSG.

Even though they didn’t draw a sellout, the crowd was much more into the first meeting between the new rivals. Considering that the Hurricanes entered having not lost a game in regulation in their previous 17, this was a good test. Especially coming off the memorable seven-game second round series victory last Spring.

You could feel a buzz at The Garden through the TV screen. A good sign that the fans who spent lots of money to go see the big divisional match-up were emotionally invested. They knew how good Carolina is. There’s a reason they’ve consistently won games. They’re a hard-working team with a relentless style. Plus they entered leading the Metro with 56 points.

The Rangers needed this game. They’re jockeying for playoff position in a very closely fought division. By rallying back from a one-goal deficit to hand the Canes their first such defeat when leading after two periods, the Blueshirts demonstrated that they have some moxie. Indeed, character and resilience were on display in a superb third period by the Broadway hosts.

In getting the game’s last three goals highlighted by K’Andre Miller’s redirection of a Mika Zibanejad point shot on a good play set up from Kaapo Kakko, this was the kind of win that can point them in the right direction.

Following a disjointed first period that saw the Hurricanes score two of three goals on strong plays on the wall and in front with both Miller and partner Jacob Trouba victimized, the Blueshirts played a more inspired second.

Although they could only score once on a Zibanejad shot pass that went right through rookie Pyotr Kochetkov for a key power play tally that evened it briefly before Jalen Chatfield had the fortune of his shot going right off Filip Chytil’s stick past Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers competed much better.

They held an 11-7 edge in shots and were able to create more offense than the lackadaisical start in which Kochetkov could’ve had a beach chair and read a newspaper on Brighton Beach. He did make at least one good save on a Chris Kreider deflection of an Adam Fox shot. But it was pretty quiet.

At least in the middle stanza, Kochetkov was forced into some tough stops. Like elder Russian counterpart Shesterkin, who delivered the big saves during the key moments en route to 20 stops, he had to work harder. That was a welcome change we’d see more of in a dominant third period the Manhattan hockey club controlled.

Despite some tacky calls by the officials including one we’d never seen work an NHL game before, it was hard fought. A listen to Jimmy Vesey during intermission when interviewed by MSG reporter Michelle Gingras told the story. He was pleased with the second noting the improvement. The surprising checking forward would get a just reward a day later re-signing with the Rangers for two years, $1.6 million ($800,000).

If there was a notable difference between the teams, it came via the power play. Similar to last Spring, the Blueshirts had the advantage on special teams. Not only did they easily kill all three Candy Canes’ power plays. But they cashed in going 3-for-5 on the man-advantage.

That even included only the second power play goal by the second unit. A play in which captain Jacob Trouba fired a shot way wide that banked in off two Canes for just his third goal of the season. But then came a bad step up by Miller that allowed Andrei Svechnikov to easily set up Martin Necas for a 2-1 lead 16 seconds later with 3:18 remaining in the first.

Zibanejad would get the second PPG unassisted when he skated in and tried to make a pass for a cutting Vincent Trocheck in front. But with Kochetkov anticipating the pass, the puck instead missed Trocheck and went underneath the surprised goalie to temporarily tie the score with 3:15 left in the second.

That was short-lived due to Chatfield taking a feed from Teuvo Teravainen and letting go of a right point shot that Chytil accidentally put in his own net. He stuck his stick out and it worked as a perfect deflection by a shocked Shesterkin 29 seconds later to again give the Hurricanes the lead.

Due to the line of Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere and Vesey being ineffective, Gerard Gallant switched it up for the final period. Unhappy with the defensive work of Chytil, he bumped up reliable veteran Barclay Goodrow between Lafreniere and Vesey. As for Chytil, he was in the doghouse getting one even strength shift on the little used checking line with Sammy Blais and Julien Gauthier.

Turk opted to shorten his bench and mostly go with three lines. That included Artemi Panarin on the second unit with Trocheck and Vitaly Kravtsov. With the rookie starting to play better (assisted on Trouba goal), that line was effective. However, it was a Panarin solo effort that allowed him to score for the fifth time over the last eight games.

On some strong play from both Fox and Ryan Lindgren down low, Panarin took a pass behind the net and skated all the way around to the top and let go of a seeing eye wrist shot from long distance that fooled Kochetkov to draw even for the third time. His 11th goal came only 36 seconds into the period, going right through the wickets.

Able to ride the momentum despite Kochetkov recovering to make some good saves, it was an aggressive Miller pinch that pushed the puck behind the net for Kakko. He would come out and send a back pass for a covering Zibanejad up top. His long one-timer would go off the stick of Miller for the clutch go-ahead goal with 9:33 remaining.

It was Miller’s third of the season. His first goal in seven since Dec. 17 in a road win at the Flyers. Part of a season best seven-game winning streak that helped turn the season around. In fact, since 12/5, they’ve lost only twice in regulation. The other defeat coming at the Lightning in a goalie duel between Shesterkin and Andrei Vasilevskiy on Dec. 29.

When Miller fed Chytil for a power play empty net goal after a dubious broken stick call on Jordan Martinook that was incredible or incredulous if you looked at his reaction along with coach Rod Brind’Amour, the Rangers improved to 10-2-1 in the last 13.

They exited back to the locker room to a standing ovation from the crowd who stayed. Despite some mishaps that left him and Trouba minus-three at one point, a happier Miller was named the game’s First Star with a goal and assist. A nice reward for sticking with it. Zibanejad got the second star with a goal and assist including his team-leading 19th. Kakko grabbed the third star with a helper and strong play in over 16 minutes.

It was a satisfying victory for the Rangers, who moved ahead of the Capitals into third place with 48 points. They’re up to 21-12-6 in 39 games. With 20 coming at home, they’ll hit the road for two games including a trip up to Montreal later tonight. That’ll be followed up by a visit to Newark for the third and final regular season meeting versus the Hudson rival Devils on Saturday at 1 PM.

It’s hard to believe they’ll really be done with both of their closest rivals. They already completed the three-game series with the Islanders by taking the final one before the holiday break 5-3 at MSG. The Isles won two of three. Now, they’ll play the Devils for the third and last time during the 82-game schedule. The teams have split the first two both at 33rd and 7th.

It’s incredible that these close bitter rivals aren’t playing more times. I’ve voiced this all before. The schedule remains an eyesore. It’s like the way “goaltender interference” is interpreted. There’s some foreshadowing for you on a polarizing topic I’m sick of.

At the moment, the Metro Division has the Canes at the top with 56 points in 38 games. They lead the second place Devils by five after they soundly defeated the fading Red Wings 5-1 last night. Nico Hischier celebrated his 24th birthday with a goal and assist. Vitek Vanecek made 32 saves with his shutout broken up by Lucas Raymond with two minutes left.

By virtue of one fewer game played, the Rangers sit in third with 48 points over 39 games. The Capitals also have 48, but in 40 games. They fell to the hot Sabres in overtime the other night. Alexander Ovechkin got two more goals to continue his chase of Gretzky. But Tage Thompson completed a hat trick to get the win for Buffalo, who suddenly are up to 40 points.

With the Caps in the first wildcard, the Islanders remain in the second by virtue of their 6-2 laugher over the defense optional Canucks. If you caught any of it, you know how bad Vancouver is. No wonder Thatcher Demko got hurt. They’re the worst defensive team in hockey. Yes. I’d even rank the Ducks higher. At least they’re younger. The Islanders are in fifth holding the second wildcard with 46 points in 39 games.

The Penguins are a streaky team. At times, they look like a contender due to the brilliance of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin along with Tristan Jarry. Then, there are moments where they look like a pretender with bad losses. Not that the one to the Bruins during the Winter Classic was bad. But they blew a 1-0 lead losing to the league’s best team 2-1 on two pair from Jake DeBrusk. He put in the winner from Taylor Hall with over two minutes remaining at Fenway Park.

The Pens currently are sixth in the division with 44 points in 37 games. They hold games in hand on every team ahead of them inside the Metro. We’ll see about the injury to Jarry. Kris Letang is still mourning the loss of his father. Condolences go out to the Letang family.

At the moment, all of the Metro top six have more points than the Sabres (40), Red Wings (39), Senators (39) and the league’s biggest disappointment the Panthers (39). In regards to the Cats, they have little chemistry and don’t play much defense or get consistent goaltending. It has to be recent USA hero Spencer Knight in net over Sergei Bobrovsky.

If things don’t turnaround in Florida, the blame should be placed directly on GM Bill Zito. He broke up a terrific roster that won the President’s Trophy in ’21-22. The Matthew Tkachuk blockbuster trade hasn’t netted desired results. But he’s been excellent recently recording a hat trick in old fashioned shootout win over the Coyotes.

Aleksander Barkov hasn’t been entirely healthy. His goal output is low. The defense is a mess. By subtracting MacKenzie Weegar, who fit perfectly in the uptempo system they like to play, it weakened the defense. Aaron Ekblad hasn’t been the same since returning from an injury. Only Brandon Montour has performed well. Marc Staal is a third pair D who plays penalty kill. Reunited with older brother Eric Staal, who’s getting too many minutes, it’s a tall ask from veteran coach Paul Maurice.

It’s hard to fathom that they let go of Jack Adams candidate Andrew Brunette and replaced him with Maurice. He’s a good experienced coach who preaches tighter checking. The way the Cats are constructed doesn’t fit his style. Production is down mostly for most forwards including Sam Reinhart and Sam Bennett. Anton Lundell hasn’t been consistent in Year Two.

There’s not much edge without Mason Marchment, who’s doing for the first place Stars what he did for the Panthers. A salary cap victim, he got his contract in Dallas, who must be taken seriously. Florida has also been without veteran team leader Patric Hornqvist. Although he’s nearing the end, when he plays, you notice him battling in front and during scrums.

A final conclusion on the mediocre Panthers. They don’t play with much emotion. If you caught any of the Rangers’ 5-3 win over them, that was evident. Sure. They kept it interesting by pulling within a goal twice. But you never got the sense the Rangers were ever in trouble. Especially with Bobrovsky in net. He gave up one from old friend Panarin right between the legs to make it 5-3 and take the wind out of his team’s sails. They skated around aimlessly.

The dissection of the messy Cats is one that many predicted. However, I don’t think anyone believed they’d be this bad. Seventh out of eight teams in a mediocre Atlantic where the top three have separated themselves from the pack, isn’t what anyone could’ve expected. Their power play also is mindless without Jonathan Huberdeau, who’s had a tough time adjusting to Darryl Sutter in Calgary along with Weegar.

In terms of the World Junior Championships over in Halifax and New Brunswick, USA took Group B by defeating Finland. Czechia won Group A by not losing in regulation which included an overtime defeat to Sweden. They also surprised tournament favorite Canada early on.

Both groups were more competitive due to the improved play of Czechia and Slovakia. Switzerland also was competitive in Group B making it unpredictable. It made for more entertaining games during preliminary action. When you can have both Canada and USA upset by Czechia and Slovakia respectively, that makes it a better WJC.

Even as I caught most of USA, I wasn’t overly impressed by what I saw. Outside of Logan Cooley, Jimmy Snuggerud, Red Savage and ’23 Draft Eligible goalie prospect Trey Augustine, they weren’t as imposing.

You saw it in the loss to Slovakia, who got superb goaltending from Adam Gajan (undrafted). He nearly backstopped Slovakia to a mammoth upset of Canada in the quarterfinals.

Only Connor Bedard saves them with a highlight reel goal that’s still getting replayed. He’s amazing. Deking three players including the goalie for a remarkable overtime winner should be impossible. Not for Bedard, who broke Eric Lindros’ Canadian record for most points and passed Jordan Eberle in most goals. He could only applaud the feat.

If you were looking for a story, it’s being written by Czechia. While USA stumbled against the more imposing Canada; whose physicality turned around a two-goal deficit into a 6-2 win in the semifinals, Czechia showed so much determination in finding the tying goal from defenseman David Jiricek with 38 seconds left to force OT.

It took everything for them to find a perfect shot to break up the shutout for spectacular Sweden netminder Carl Lindbom. He was that close to a third shutout. Instead, one more icing doomed his team. That allowed the desperate Czechs to get the perfect setup when David Spacek found Jiricek for a heavy one-timer that beat Lindbom underneath to send it to overtime.

In the three-on-three, the Swedes dominated. They had every opportunity to still prevail like they did in Group play. However, the brilliant goaltending from Tomas Suchanek wouldn’t allow it. Another undrafted netminder who turns 20 in the Spring, was the story. He stoned Sweden at every turn including denying Isak Rosen twice one on one.

It wasn’t until over a minute left that Czechia got their first shot on goal. After coming out of their zone in transition started by Spacek, he moved the puck up for Matyas Sapovaliv. As he moved through the neutral zone, he found Jiri Kulich isolated on one defender.

Kulich then made a great move to beat him and he fired a wrist shot that went far side past Lindbom to win it at 69:10. His clutch goal in the final minute of the 10-minute overtime made Czechia a 2-1 winner. They celebrated while the stunned Swedes were reduced to shock and tears.

That’s the essence of the tournament. There’s always a tale of two sides. Especially when it’s so closely fought. Sweden defended extremely well during the second and third period. They limited the Czechs’ chances to the outside with few rebounds. A great glove save from Lindbom on a Jiricek laser looked like it would be the save of the game.

However, an unnecessary icing led to the turning point. Spacek got a great pass over for a Jiricek blast that Lindbom couldn’t stop. The blue line of Czechia that features Jiricek, Spacek, Stanislav Svozil, Jiri Tichacek as a potent top four make them the best defense in the WJC. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re a factor in the gold medal game versus Canada.

As far as USA who couldn’t handle Canada’s grit and physicality after predictably overwhelming Germany, it was a classic case of not being tested in the previous round. While host Canada had their hands full with the impressive Slovaks who rallied back from a two-goal deficit to force OT before losing to the Connor Bedard Show, USA won easily over Germany 11-1. It’s tough to go from that opponent to top heavy Canada in the next round.

While I liked the cycling and hard work they did for most of their goals during the tournament, I wasn’t fond of a small blue line that got exposed. There were too many instances where despite their team speed, the back end anchored by Devils prospect Luke Hughes were soft.

It really showed last night with the more aggressive Canadians targeting Hughes with some thumping hits. Every single one clean that sent a message. Hughes never really had the tournament most thought. While he did score three times and assist on another goal, he struggled with the combination of Canada’s speed and ferocious play. Credit them for sticking to a game plan Hughes shrugged off prior to the big game.

There wasn’t enough size or physical presence to the American blue line. I get that the game has changed. There’s so much emphasis on speed, skating with defensemen acting as rovers. However, that is a risky style. Players can get caught. We saw it during the loss to Slovakia. Hughes struggled to get back and had some issues.

Another thing I noticed was the lack of attention to detail in front of Augustine, who supplanted Kaidan Mbereko in net. The defense was leaky allowing the front exposed. They were beaten on goals against. Never was it more visible than during Canada’s semifinal win. They scored almost all of their goals from directly in front.

That included face-off plays in which Bedard finished off his ninth due to getting position in front. A quick response to a Kenny Connors rebound goal that had made it 2-0 less than two minutes before.

Although they escaped the first still ahead, you could tell that once Canada upped the intensity, USA was on the ropes. They were like a punch drunk fighter. When a similar offensive zone drew resulted in Logan Stankoven beating four USA players to a loose puck in front only 47 seconds into the second, it again showed the team’s biggest weakness.

They still got on a power play with the game even. But Canadian netminder Thomas Milic thwarted Jimmy Snuggerud twice and then denied Chaz Lucius on a breakaway to keep the game tied.

As Canada continued to press the attack with relentless pressure, top American draft prospect Adam Fantilli was all set up for a goal. But his shot rang off the crossbar and stayed out leaving the building buzzing by the close call. Fantilli would get another crack at it.

On another face-off this time in the Canadian end, they won the draw and quickly moved the puck without any USA resistance. An Olen Zellweger pass to an open Fantilli saw him move the puck across the ice for Zach Dean.

As Dean got a step on the USA defense, nobody took a cutting Fantilli who easily buried the Dean centering pass by a helpless Augustine for a 3-2 lead. He looked like John LeClair on that play who often got those power forward goals from Lindros.

The turning point for USA came when Jackson Blake appeared to score on a Hughes rebound past Milic. The goal would’ve tied the score and given the Americans much needed momentum.

Instead, Canada challenged for goaltender interference. This controversial video review really changed the game. Although Blake made some contact on his turnaround rebound, it didn’t affect Milic whatsoever. This was a clear case of another soft call going against USA. IIHF rules are much stricter. This was a bad call that left Blake and father Jason Blake in s state of shock. They never recovered from the overturned goal.

Nobody ever likes to complain about officiating. However, there was no justification for disallowing that goal. It still didn’t excuse USA for more lackadaisical defensive play. They were their own worst enemy. The lack of checking is what really allowed a relentless Canada to finally get a measure of revenge for three straight losses including for the gold medal.

On the fourth straight goal, you had Bedard and Stankoven combine to throw the puck in front. A rolling puck came right to Joshua Roy, who was able to beat Augustine with a backhand while there were two teammates down and another two puck watching. That was a crusher. It made it 4-2.

It was Roy who was the best player scoring twice and assisting on two others. He’s always been underrated. He’s a complementary player who does a lot well. That includes being defensively responsible. He nearly had a shorthanded goal too.

Although my 6-3 prediction looked pretty poetic, I decided to watch the beginning of the third. I shouldn’t have. It was another goaltender interference challenge that negated an early USA goal.

Rutger McGroarty thought he had jarred a rebound loose from underneath the pad of Milic. The initial shot was a low one that the Canadian netminder had under his right pad. However, it was hard to tell if it was frozen. What complicated the play was a loose stick in the crease which created a distraction.

McGroarty poked at the puck and appeared to put it in. That would’ve cut the deficit to 4-3. The issue was the ruling on the video review. They never fully explained what negated the goal. Did he push Milic’s at pad to put the puck in? Instead, all we got was a bland explanation from the officials which really was the end of it.

I don’t usually checkout of these games. Especially USA/Canada. The best rivalry in hockey. I’d had enough. The overturn of Blake’s goal was still hard to grasp. You could make a better case for disallowing the McGroarty one. I’d seen enough.

If they had to have Canada in the final so bad due to all of the fan support up north, fine. They didn’t need any help. They still would’ve won. They were the better team. I knew what it would end up at. So, I shut it off and went out.

It takes a lot for me to give up on a game. I was incensed by the officiating and not thrilled with the soft play from USA. They lost too much from the last team that went undefeated in Group play only to lose to Czechia in the quarterfinals last summer. That was a better team.

Hughes stunk defensively most of the WJC. He didn’t have an impressive tournament. He’s exceptional at creating offense. But his defense and weaknesses with physical play were exposed. I didn’t think he deserved one of USA’s best three players. Maybe he’s not yet ready for the NHL. He needs to get stronger.

I would’ve gone Logan Cooley, Jimmy Snuggerud and Trey Augustine, who was blameless last night. He kept it competitive and was the biggest surprise. Red Savage honorable mention. He really works hard.

Cooley got better during the tournament. However, I didn’t particularly care for his hand gesture when he got the game’s first goal to the fans. That was idiotic. Have some class. It was only the first goal. I did notice later him out of position on one of the Canadian goals. He’ll be a very good player for the Coyotes. Cut the obnoxious attitude.

Canada is supremely skilled. Bedard is otherworldly. But you have Stankoven and Roy who’ve fit perfectly on the scoring line. Shane Wright has the size and skill to be a power forward. He’ll benefit from this experience and be a better player for the Kraken. Brennan Othmann is always around the net, has good speed and vision. He hasn’t scored much, But has the look of a promising future for the Rangers.

Zellweger and Brandt Clarke are the top defensemen. Zellweger looks very polished while Clarke possesses a great shot, but isn’t there yet. The D can be exploited by a more aggressive team that attacks the net. Czechia should. USA didn’t stick to the game plan.

It’s USA vs Sweden for bronze this afternoon. Canada and Czechia for gold. The first appearance in the final for the Czechs since 2001. I’ve been rooting for them. That would’ve still been the case had USA advanced. They’re the best story. I’d love to see them win. It’s a rematch from Group A that Czechia took. Hopefully, we get an exciting game minus anymore dopey controversial rulings.


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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