At this point, every game matters. In what amounted to an entertaining game between two good teams, it was the Rangers who persevered enough to come back and edge the Wild 4-3 in the shootout at a lively MSG.
Considering the importance of starting the second half of the remaining eight games before the All-Star break with this the first of a three-game home stand, the win wasn’t easy for the Rangers to get. They earned it by twice rallying back from deficits to force overtime.
After failing to take advantage of a four-on-three power play gift on an iffy Wild bench minor, they needed a shootout to solve Marc-Andre Fleury. Back in net after taking a short leave of absence due to losing a close personal friend, the future Hall Of Famer was at his best. He finished with 40 saves on 43 shots to earn Third Star honors.
Fleury played like he had something to prove. I would imagine he wanted to dedicate the game to his friend. It’s never easy to deal with loss. Having just paid my final respects to a close neighbor I knew forever, it definitely hurts. Getting over the shock isn’t easy. At least they’re at peace.
Whether you think the 38-year old can still play at a high level or not, Fleury was tremendous. It was his first appearance of the new calendar year. His last game came on New Year’s Eve in a Minnesota win over St. Louis where he stopped 29 of 31 shots. It’s been a tough year for Flower. But he kept the Wild in the game by making some big saves including 18 during a dominant Rangers second period.
The previous meeting came way back on Oct. 13 when the Rangers put up a touchdown and kicked the extra point for seven past MAF in Saint Paul. At various points during the second game three months later, it looked like the Wild were determined to come out of The Garden with two points.
They got stellar goaltending from Fleury and played the physical game they’re known for. It was that hard-hitting, tenacious style that caused some problems for the Rangers, who aren’t known for that game anymore. During a stoppage, MSG recognized the contributions of Ryan Reaves, who stood up at the Wild bench and saluted the crowd who cheered the popular former Ranger.
Fittingly, Reaves would later combine with teammate Brandon Duhaime to double team Julien Gauthier with a big hit that sent the right wing down. He left the contest after taking only two shifts for 1:47 with a lower-body injury. Coach Gerard Gallant had no update on his status.
There would be another damaging hit much later in the action that could be cause for concern. That involved key finisher Chris Kreider, who took a tough hit to the upper body during the third period which sent him to the locker room. He also didn’t return. No update was provided on Kreider either. Hopefully, it isn’t serious.
What was a very competitive game which they came back to win hopefully won’t have any ramifications over the next few weeks. Now, having an All-Star break and a bye week could come in handy. Especially if they lose Kreider for some significant time. His 19 goals are tied with Mika Zibanejad for the team lead. A key leader, they can ill afford to lose him.
As for the game itself, let’s just say there was a lot of seesaw action. In the first period where both teams attacked, they combined for 24 shots (13-11 Wild). The Rangers certainly had their chances to strike early. But were unable to connect on consecutive power plays at the start.
With Matt Boldy off for kneeing Filip Chytil, it was a stingy Wild penalty kill that got the job done. After a couple of shot blocks from captain Jared Spurgeon, Fleury only had to make one save on a Chytil shot during the first two minutes shorthanded.
However, a strong move from Kaapo Kakko towards the net forced former fan favorite Mats Zuccarello to slash him just enough to nullify a scoring chance. That handed the Blueshirts a second straight man-advantage.
They came close to scoring a couple of times. Following a couple of misses from Artemi Panarin and Zibanejad, Adam Fox hit the goalpost on a long shot. He then had another shot denied by Fleury, who got some early puck luck and even tapped the post after a very close call. Goalie superstitions.
After successfully killing two penalties, the Wild began to gain momentum. Zuccarello tested Igor Shesterkin with a backhand. He was also stopped on the rebound of a Ryan Hartman shot. Zuccarello’s hard work during that shift sent Chytil off for hooking.
Similar to the Rangers, the Wild didn’t get many clean looks with Zuccarello getting one shot on Shesterkin that he handled. Fox did some yeoman work in front blocking two shots to help the penalty kill get it done. That kept it scoreless.
As the period went on, it was the Wild who were finding their game. They’d eventually take a 10-5 lead in shots. The Rangers missed the net quite a bit despite 24 attempts. They did catch up getting six of the last nine shots. However, they would fall behind due to some strong work down low by Minnesota.
On a good forechecking shift by the Joel Eriksson Ek line, he took a Marcus Foligno pass behind the net and then came out to feed Jon Merrill for an open shot that beat Shesterkin for the game’s first goal with 7:24 left. The former Devils defenseman got his second. It’s hard to believe he’s become successful. Credit to him I guess. It is a Ranger tradition to allow either first goals to no names or give up ones to guys like Merrill.
The second line had a couple of good offensive shifts in the Wild end. On one, Vitaly Kravtsov was shutdown by the blocker of Fleury on a good opportunity. Seconds later, Vincent Trocheck had a backhand go off the goalpost. There was a brief moment where it looked like it might cross the goal line. But Fleury kept it out and thanked the post as play continued.
A couple of minutes later, it was the Wild who took advantage of three Rangers forwards getting caught up ice. Reaves started a counter by moving the puck up for Sam Steel. He then made a good pass to Kirill Kaprizov, who came into the Rangers zone with speed. Using a good fake shot, he surprised Shesterkin by letting go of a wrist shot that went high short side inside the top of the net to make it 2-0 with 2:17 remaining.
Kaprizov is an incredible player. By using that shot fake as deception, it didn’t look like he’d shoot. He even caught me by surprise when he changed the angle and froze Shesterkin just enough to get him off the near post to snipe his 24th. A brilliant play by a superstar.
You could see the frustration from Shesterkin after he gave up that goal. He definitely knew he should’ve had it. But it also was an impressive shot by his countryman.
The physicality picked up near the end of the period. As usual, that bruising second Minnesota line was involved. The size and skill combined with the grit makes Eriksson Ek, Foligno and Greenway a handful. They’re a line you don’t want to see in a long series. They finish every check. Panarin absorbed one from Eriksson Ek with under a minute to go.
Although they trailed by two at intermission, I didn’t seem worried. That’s because the Rangers got several looks. They just didn’t go in. My intuition was that if they played similar in the second without letting the Wild win the board battle, they’d come back and score. It was nice to be proven right.
Not surprisingly, they came out faster in the second. The top line would create some early opportunities on the opening shift. After Kreider had a backhand denied by Fleury, he stopped Zibanejad to keep his team ahead by a pair.
After a couple of more saves from MAF, that dangerous Wild second line came very close to making it 3-0. After Greenway was stopped by Shesterkin, Foligno just missed over the top. That was a turning point. The Rangers couldn’t go down three.
On what can best be summed up as one for the highlight reel, K’Andre Miller continued his penchant for scoring on breakaways. On a very smart Jimmy Vesey subtle pass up for him, Miller exploded by Minnesota defenders and then flat out deked and roofed a perfect shot past Fleury to cut the deficit in half at 2:37.
This was another beautiful goal by Miller, who’s gaining a reputation for scoring them. When he gets a head of steam, he shows off that game-breaking speed. You can see why he’s a former forward. He has great instincts. Once he got that Vesey pass and broke in, I knew he was scoring. He’s better than some of our forwards on those.
Trailing by one, the Rangers were down to 11 forwards due to the double hit Reaves and Duhaime put on Gauthier. That forced Gallant to mix and match when he used the remainder of his checking line. You knew Barclay Goodrow would get some shifts up. Jonny Brodzinski was worked in. Back in for Sammy Blais, he was okay. You know what you’ll get from Soda Brodzinski. An honest effort.
Unlike the first period, the Blueshirts really started to dictate the terms. Able to push the pace and pressure the Wild, they really upped their attack. Outside of one good shift from Matt Boldy, who Shesterkin stuffed on a wrap-around and then fired wide through traffic, it was mostly the guys wearing the Blueshirt.
One such opportunity saw Kravtsov all but have Trocheck all set up for a tap in. But he couldn’t quite control the puck at the doorstep. It was a perfect backdoor pass. Trocheck had some tough puck luck, or it’s a tie game. I really like what I’m seeing from that line. They’re finding chemistry. They’re due to break out soon.
Fleury kept making key stops during a much tougher second. He made saves on Goodrow and stayed strong on a Trocheck opportunity in close. But the save of the game came on Kakko back in the first. On just a dominant shift by the top line, Zibanejad had Kakko for a goal. But his one-timer was gloved away by a quick Fleury, who read the play. A glove save and a beauty.
As the second continued, Fox kept getting chances. The way he was reading and reacting to the play, it was only a matter of time. Fleury continued to make saves to keep the Rangers at bay.
Then came a good call by the refs. They get killed a lot. But Alexis Lafreniere clearly embellished after taking light contact from a visibly frustrated Duhaime. He was getting the original for a trip. But Lafreniere received two for diving (embellishment) because that’s what it was. Greg Louganis would’ve been proud.
The teams would play four-on-four for the next two minutes. It worked out better for the home side. On what was a terrific defensive play by Panarin (freeze frame this statement), he stopped the Wild and that allowed Fox to come in two-on-one with Trocheck. He picked his spot going under Fleury’s blocker to tie the game with 4:10 left.
The goal was unassisted. It was just a brilliant shot by Fox, who was outstanding. They can talk about Erik Karlsson and all of his points. They can talk up both Josh Morrissey and Rasmus Dahlin with both being fantastic. Or even Cale Makar. I’ll take Fox over all of them. It’s my opinion that he’s the best defenseman in the sport. To each their own.
With under 30 seconds left, Shesterkin almost messed up. He let up a juicy rebound on a long Duhaime shot which old friend Reaves nearly deposited on the backhand. Then, Duhaime had a better look at a rebound. But Shesterkin shut the door to keep it tied after two.
The third period was what you’d expect. Not as wide open with tighter checking. That favored the Wild, who seem to like playing that style of game.
Shesterkin had to stop Eriksson Ek on a wrap-around early. Fleury stayed with another tricky Fox shot.
Shortly after two Wild shot blocks including one from Jonas Brodin, he sent Steel the other way. He moved the puck up for Mats Zuccarello, who had enough sense to test Shesterkin with a wrist shot from the right circle. As he went to glove it, the puck came loose and took a Wild carom into the Rangers net at 4:33.
It was without question a bad goal. All Zuccarello did was keep it simple. He had no one to pass to. So, he did the smart thing and got rewarded with his 17th to give the Wild a one-goal lead with 15:27 remaining. Someone mentioned how he’s no longer pass happy. I replied that it’s because he plays on the Wild. Easy enough.
Playing from behind again, the Rangers struggled to get through the neutral zone. Being checked diligently, they went a while without a shot. A Kaprizov tricky backhand was harmlessly gloved by Shesterkin for a stoppage.
Minnesota almost doubled their lead. But following a bad Kakko turnover, Zuccarello missed wide on a great chance. It was one of those teachable moments where Kakko skated into space and then cut to the middle and lost the puck. Luckily, it didn’t cost him.
The big and mean Wild were finishing checks. Duhaime on Panarin and Reaves on Kravtsov, who also avoided the Foligno train during another shift by keeping his head up.
Kreider left for the locker room halfway through the period after taking a hit to the shoulder. That left Gallant two men short. Down to 10 forwards, he really had to scramble. One chess move that paid off was having Barclay Goodrow take a shift with Chytil and Vesey.
On an extended shift where the new third line dominated the Wild second line into exhaustion, they kept firing shots at Fleury. Goodrow came close on one after Chytil was stopped. Keeping the play in the Minnesota zone, eventually the puck came to an open Fox. What he did next was sheer genius.
With nobody in the vicinity, Fox aggressively took the puck towards the net and nearly tucked it around Fleury and in. Instead, the puck took a funny bounce in the crease with a maze of players. I knew it would wind up in the net. It was just a matter of how.
It really looked like the puck went off a diving Foligno and in for what looked like Fox’s second goal. But it must’ve also touched Chytil, who was right there in search of the rebound. They credited Chytil with his 12th from Fox and Miller. That tied the score with 6:25 left in regulation.
That was an unbelievable shift by the trio of Chytil, Goodrow and Vesey. It came following a Wild icing. They were on for 1:39. But in between, there was a face-off that allowed them to stay on. Persistence paid off with the huge tying goal from Chytil, who is beginning to have a knack for scoring clutch goals. He is continuing to improve. I hope they can keep him.
There weren’t many open looks for the remainder of the period. You had plenty of checking. Everyone was involved. The game was destined for overtime. The fans who went got it.
Without Kreider, Gallant moved Lafreniere up to the Zibanejad line with Kakko. Although it’s clearly still a struggle for him, he’s working hard. Late in regulation, some good puck pressure forced a turnover that created an opportunity for Kakko. That’s what he must get back to.
In the three-on-three, Shesterkin stopped Boldy. Then, Trocheck was denied by Fleury. Trocheck had a game high eight shots and 13 attempts. He played extremely well. Hopefully, he can get a goal next game.
On a strange play, the whistle blew from the opposite side where Zuccarello was. Too many men was the call. Wild coach Dean Evason was incensed. It looked like it was one too many. But the puck wasn’t there and Zuccarello was close to the bench. I can see why they disagreed with the penalty.
After Gallant took his timeout to rest his big four that featured Fox, Zibanejad, Trocheck and Panarin, they never could create the quality chance needed to beat Fleury. It wound up being Trocheck testing him from everywhere including a tricky shot from an angle the veteran carefully saved. He stopped Trocheck five times.
Following a timeout from Evason to give his penalty killers a breather, Fox missed a chance for the win front point blank range. Then, Panarin had two attempts go wide. He has a good shot, but it doesn’t always hit the target.
As the four-on-three power play expired, I wondered if maybe Gallant should’ve stuck Chytil and Kakko out or even Kravtsov. The top unit minus Kreider didn’t fool anyone including Fleury who stayed home on Trocheck. Sometimes, Turk sticks with his guys too much. Try something different. What do you have to lose?
After a last second save was made from Shesterkin on who else but Zuccarello, who I think heard some boos and not just the familiar, “Zuuuuuc,” the hockey portion was over. It was shootout time.
Up first was Kakko. Coming in with speed, he wanted to go to his patented backhand deke. However, he lost control of the puck on the forehand. With Fleury anticipating it, the puck went right through him for a goal in the top of the first. Kakko didn’t even smile. That was funny. He called it, “Lucky.”
In the bottom of the first, it was Zuccarello versus Shesterkin. He came in and instead of going deke, pulled up and beat Shesterkin underneath the pads to tie it.
In Round Two, Fleury stayed right with Zibanejad on his forehand deke to deny him with a nice pad save. Out came Kaprizov. A dangerous shooter, he tried to simply shoot over Shesterkin’s glove. But he came in too deep and Igor easily gloved it for the big save.
Everyone knew it would be Panarin for Round Three. You could hear the excitement in that building. He came in converting 62.5 percent. That’s ridiculous. Maybe Fleury knew he had to be aggressive. With Panarin coming in from the right side, Fleury guessed wrong and went for the poke check. That allowed a patient Panarin to whistle a backhand over Fleury into an open net for the lead.
Down to their last shooter, Evason opted for Frederick Gaudreau. He actually was 3-for-6. However, he tried to beat Shesterkin on a deke to the backhand. But Igor got across to deny him for the crucial second point.
It was nice to see the team pick him up. So many times, Shesterkin stands on his head. The offense came through to bail him out. A welcome change. Sometimes, there are going to be games like that even for a great goalie like Igor. He still made 29 saves on 32 shots and stopped two of three Wild shooters to get the win.
That was a key victory. With the race in the Metropolitan Division remaining tight due to the Devils winning 5-3 over the Hurricanes and the Pens getting a nice comeback 5-4 victory over the Canucks, it wax important to come away with the ‘W.’ The Islanders dropped a shootout 2-1 at he to the Stars. Jason Robertson got the winner.
Currently, here’s how it looks:
1. Hurricanes 41 GP 57 Pts
2. Devils 41 GP 55 Pts
3. Rangers 42 GP 53 Pts
4. Capitals 43 GP 52 Pts
5. Penguins 40 GP 48 Pts
6. Islanders 42 GP 47 Pts
It’s six teams seriously competing for possibly five spots. Especially with the Atlantic still looking in all likelihood to be 1-3 with the Bruins, Leafs and Lightning. The Sabres have dropped two straight.
The Panthers won over the Avalanche, who could be in trouble. They only have 12 regulation wins and 43 points. Though I can’t see them missing, can you imagine if the defending champs did? They’ve been plagued by injuries.
Detroit also won in a high scoring game 7-5 over Winnipeg to end a losing skid and get to 41 points. Both the Sabres and Panthers each have 42. But Buffalo has only played 39 games. So have the Red Wings. Florida possesses the most talent. The defense and goaltending remain iffy.
Next up for the Rangers are the Stars. We know how good they are. A first place team in the Central up three on the Jets, they boast some of the game’s best players featuring Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger in net. Along with Joe Pavelski, Roope Hintz, Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Mason Marchment and Miro Heiskanen, they’re a handful. Hintz didn’t play last night.
Nils Lundkvist will see his former team for the first time at MSG. He has four goals, eight assists and 12 points in 39 games so far.
THREE STARS 🌟 🤩 ✨️
3rd 🌟 Marc-Andre Fleury, Wild 40 saves on 43 shots incl. 18/20 in 2nd
2nd 🌟 🤩 K’Andre Miller, Rangers goal (4) plus 🍎, 3 SOG, 3 hits, +2 in 25:03, 2-4-6 during 4-game point streak
1st 🌟 🤩 ⭐️ Adam Fox, Rangers goal (8) plus 🍎, 6 SOG in 11 attempts, +1 in 28:11