Rangers’ top guns silenced by league best Bruins, who turn MSG into a morgue, Gallant short changes bench in blah loss

It would be easy to conclude that the Bruins are a better team than the Rangers. Through 45 games or so, the records of each Original Six team confirm that.

The B’s played a back-to-back after taking care of the Islanders in their barn 4-1. The Rangers played for the first time since a less than impressive 3-1 road win over the hapless Blue Jackets. The difference is they had two days off after Monday to prepare for what amounted to a measuring stick kind of game.

Playing against a team that doesn’t lose many games that were on their second consecutive game without rest, the Rangers simply didn’t take advantage. They weren’t good enough. None of the top guns stepped up. The result was a blah 3-1 loss that left me and a whole lot of other fans frustrated.

It isn’t due to the Bruins, who improved to a remarkable 36-5-4 through 45 games. They did what they were supposed to. Took advantage of a few mistakes and buried three past Igor Shesterkin, who would probably want the third goal back that came only 28 seconds into the period to turn MSG into a morgue.

The issue is that after playing their opponents fairly even except on the scoreboard for two periods, they melted in a lackluster third that felt very vanilla. Even the first career goal as a Ranger for a very deserving Ben Harpur with 4:23 left never felt like the start of a comeback. At least it was a good moment for him.

You never got the sense they could come back. Not after coach Gerard Gallant pulled another line switch in the middle of the second period that felt like an act of desperation.

While he admitted to reporters afterwards that it wasn’t on Vitaly Kravtsov for his sudden demotion to the checking line where he took the remainder of his shifts with Jake Leschyshyn and Jonny Brodzinski, the explanation Gallant gave was unsatisfactory. It felt like another punishment of a player who showed a pulse scoring last game and getting a scoring chance when he played with Artemi Panarin tonight.

Who’s he kidding? If most observers including not even the biggest Kravtsov fans can see that there’s little chemistry between Panarin and Vincent Trocheck, who was at fault on the second Boston goal scored by a vacated Patrice Bergeron, why can’t the coach see it?

Is he oblivious to the different styles they play? Trocheck fits better with Jimmy Vesey, who was elevated on the mismatched second line while Kravtsov drowned on the fourth line. No place for a young skill player to excel. At this point, I’m ready to give up.

Kravtsov would fare better under a more trustworthy coach who isn’t afraid to put him in a better position to succeed. I hope he escapes Gotham City. It’s never going to happen under a bland coach who prefers grinders. Gallant has a lot in common with Colin Campbell. That’s not a good thing either. Campbell pulled this crap with a more established Alexei Kovalev. Then, he was dealt to the Pens and exploded.

I half-wonder how Alexis Lafreniere feels being shuffled around like a used card deck. How can he have any confidence? At least he ended his point drought by picking up a primary assist on the Harpur goal that came in garbage time. He also took one of those needless hooking minors where his stick wasn’t parallel to the ice. It was a mixed bag for Lafreniere, who only was credited with one shot on goal.

The real frustrating part is that the division is up for grabs. Who in the Metro is a heavyweight? Carolina? I’m not buying it. They lead it with 64 points after a defeating the Wild 5-2. They are a good team, but I’m not sold on them going far in the playoffs. The Devils? They’re young and talented. But lack grit which could be problematic.

Certainly not the Rangers, who remain a mystery wrapped around an enigma inside a puzzle. Definitely not the Capitals and Penguins, who both are beatable. The Islanders look like toast due to their anemic offense. Five out of six are likely making it, which means one could be the second wildcard opponent for the Bruins. I wonder how they’d feel about potentially drawing the Caps or Pens in a first round series.

Even at this point, nobody can tell me with certainty that this team isn’t capable of going on a run and winning the first two rounds if they finish in the top three. They can. That’s why Gallant must change his evil ways. Stop with the Trocheck/Panarin combo that is clearly not working.

It’s time for Filip Chytil to get the nod between Panarin and Kravtsov (until the inevitable happens). Trocheck works best with gritty two-way types who play straight ahead. That’s Vesey and perhaps Lafreniere, who will take the body and forecheck. Barclay Goodrow can always be elevated if necessary. That’s how Gallant uses him. Goody can be plugged anywhere.

Of the four original lines he went with, the third line of Chytil between Lafreniere and Goodrow were effective at even strength. They had a couple of strong shifts down low. Goodrow’s energy can rub off.

The fourth line which was centered by recent waiver pick-up Jake Leschyshyn (second game as a NYR) alongside Vesey and Jonny Brodzinski was effective. They nearly combined for an early goal. But an aggressive Jeremy Swayman came out to stop Brodzinski in front. He was very sharp making 31 saves on 32 shots to earn his 11th victory.

This also marked the first game back for Chris Kreider. He missed the previous three games due to a lower-body injury stemming from a hit he took. It wasn’t a memorable night for the 52-goal scorer. He was on for two goals against including the backbreaking Clifton goal that was due to his turnover at the end of a power play. He also was denied on another power play by the pad of Swayman. Kreider was rusty.

What were the excuses for Panarin and Mika Zibanejad? Panarin had five shots on nine attempts. Nothing went in. He also over-passed on a perfect Kravtsov feed where he had room to shoot the puck. Instead, the pass down low for Trocheck never connected. It went right into the teeth of the Bruins defense.

Zibanejad had three shots and another three that never made the net. He didn’t have any memorable shifts. It didn’t click. Kaapo Kakko was all but invisible with no shots and a whole lot of nothing against a well schooled defensive team. He never missed a shift. He gets more leeway than the other young forwards.

Kravtsov got rewarded for his one dangerous chance on a one-timer that Swayman stopped by moving down. He finished with 10:18 in 10 shifts all at even strength. Gallant never considered using him down two goals with Shesterkin pulled. Why would he? Maybe Kravtsov should make a jailbreak. It worked in Midnight Express.

It’s extremely difficult to beat a quality opponent like the Bruins when you shorten your bench. That’s what Gallant decided. He outfoxed himself. Jim Montgomery did no such thing, rolling all four lines with only A.J. Greer getting slightly under 10 minutes. Down a key defenseman after Brandon Carlo left during the second period due to a blocked shot, the Jack Adams favorite simply worked in his third pair that features Matt Grzelcyk and Clifton. That’s what a confident coach does when he believes in his depth.

There wasn’t much difference between the old rivals in the opening period. However, just to remind them of who they are, the Bruins took advantage of a Shesterkin poor pass that gave Kravtsov no chance to clear the zone. Before you knew it, a loose puck came right to David Krejci, who fired a perfect shot pass right on the stick of Pavel Zacha for a nice redirection goal at 1:19.

On the scoring play, Zacha was given too much room to tip in the Krejci shot past Shesterkin. The closest player was Trocheck. He didn’t pick him up.

Trocheck is a good player. He didn’t have a particularly good game. He was responsible for two Bruins goals. Outside of going 10 for 16 on face-offs, he was a net negative. Since recording a goal and assist in a win over the Panthers on New Year’s Day, Trocheck has one assist over the last eight games. Gallant decided to reunite him with Panarin.

A couple of shifts following the Zacha tally, Leschyshyn and Brodzinski almost combined to tie it up. After Brodzinski just missed on a tip-in, Leschyshyn was stopped on a rebound by a sharp Swayman. It was a good shift by the energy line.

Due to their tenacious forecheck, Brad Marchand got two early chances to score. However, Shesterkin was up to the task in keeping The Rat off the scoreboard.

Following some hitting from both sides, there were close calls on each end. First, the B’s third line just missed with both Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic going wide. On the opposite end, Goodrow made a bid in close. However, he was denied by Swayman.

The first was very back and forth. It was very entertaining to watch. The teams combined for 24 shots (13-11 B’s). There were opportunities on both ends. The Rangers could’ve scored on a couple, but Swayman was really on. He made key stops on Leschyshyn, Panarin and Kreider.

If there was a crucial point, it came with Kreider off for holding Hampus Lindholm. On a good lead pass, McAvoy broke in on Shesterkin. Adam Fox raced back and tried to break it up. But his stick caught skate leading to tripping to give the Bruins a five-on-three for 1:41.

With Boston looking to get that second goal, the Rangers penalty killers stepped up. A Zibanejad takeaway and clear killed precious time. Both Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren were their warrior selves blocking shots. Astonishingly, the Bruins only wound up with two shots on Shesterkin with him stopping Marchand to get a stoppage. His best save came before it expired when he came out to rob Coyle.

With under a minute to go in the period, Chytil got a step on Craig Smith to draw an interference minor. They managed one shot on the first part. Following defensive stalwart Derek Forbort blocking a Trocheck shot, Kreider had a tip-in denied by Swayman before the first expired.

Although they were trailing, it was a good period. It felt like they could get the game tied and go from there. That’s not what happened. The Bruins killed the remaining 1:12 of the five-on-four at the start of the second. Swayman made one save on Trocheck followed by another after the Bruins were back at full strength.

Prior to those saves, Carlo got in front of a Zibanejad one-timer and took some punishment. Pretty soon, Boston was playing with five defensemen. Carlo exited the game and didn’t return. Hopefully, it’s not too serious. A defensive defenseman with size, he’s a key part of the Bruins defense.

They also were without Jake DeBrusk, who is out awhile with lower-body injuries sustained in the Winter Classic. It doesn’t matter. They just plug someone in and keep rolling. How come Boston can do that and if the Rangers have one player out, it screws everything up? Makes you wonder about who’s in charge of the bench. Toss some more numbers in a hat.

One would’ve thought the Rangers had momentum. Instead, it was the Bruins who took it away like Mall Rats. If you don’t get the reference, then you should rent the underrated Kevin Smith movie.

On what was a heads-up play by Smith, who got the puck ahead for Marchand (speaking of rats), they caught the Rangers napping. They had four players back. All it took was a misread by one to allow Marchand to feed Patrice Bergeron in the high slot for a wrist shot that went stick side on a frustrated Shesterkin, who apparently got a skate shower as it was scored.

Steve Valiquette showed the replay during intermission adding that he’d never seen that happen before. Neither have I. Had Trocheck not followed Harpur towards the net, and remembered to cover Bergeron in the slot, the goal never happens. He didn’t. Just like that, Bruins 2, Rangers 0.

Right after, McAvoy almost made it 3-0. But Shesterkin bailed out his teammates. On the other end, Kravtsov made a bid for goals in two straight. But he had his slap shot from the slot denied by the unflappable Swayman. Nothing was getting by him. Later in the period, following Gallant’s desperate move, Panarin was one on one with the Bruins goalie. He was stoned.

That’s how it went. The Blueshirts had their looks as Alain Vigneault loved to say. But nothing went in. When he wasn’t getting stopped, the Bread Man was firing missiles wide. Maybe they can attack the $11.65 million dollar man the same way they do Ivan Provorov. If that’s what he felt comfortable doing, that was his choice. Or do all the cynical Canadian analysts prefer anarchy like Russia where some of these players must fear for their families back home? Ask Panarin.

I have gay friends who are married. I support them. I think it should be more personal. Stop forcing it everywhere. Cancel culture isn’t healthy. We should be respectful of others. The same applies for different opinions. If someone disagrees with me, fine. That’s your prerogative. If anyone has interest in a nice colorful rainbow Rangers Pride towel, please contact me. No charge. It was an extra from the last game I attended. Email me at kovy274hart@yahoo.com.

Personally, I don’t care. I understand why they have such nights. Everyone should be accepting of others. I watched the Provorov interview and thought he was polite and respectful. I preferred sports without all of this. It’s contrived.

Back to the game. I’m not going to say it was miserable. The Rangers had the better of the play for a good portion of the middle stanza. They never could capitalize due to the second-year netminder. Swayman made all the stops. That included 11 during the second. He turned aside Vesey who got his own rebound off a wide carom. He robbed Panarin, who felt just enough back pressure to shoot quicker than he would’ve preferred.

Shesterkin did his part too. He made a key stop on Coyle, who looks much better now that his line produces. The rapid improvement of former first round pick Trent Frederic (10 goals) and veteran Nick Foligno rediscovering himself has made that quite a third line. It hardly looks like one. A credit to Montgomery, who sure has done a great job replacing Bruce Cassidy. He’s in Vegas and has another team in first place.

One of the biggest differences was the Bruins willingness to get down and dirty. They blocked a ton of shots. In total, they had 25 as a team. Fourteen of eighteen skaters blocked at least one. Forbort led everyone with six. He’s a shot blocking machine who finishes checks. He also had six hits. That’s why I gave him the game’s Second Star. His effort epitomizes what makes the B’s so tough.

The Rangers out-attempted the Bruins 70-50. However, they only out-shot them 32-27. They had 38 attempts never reach the net. On the flip side, the Bruins had 23 that never hit the target. They were more efficient and opportunistic. To be blunt, they took advantage of three Rangers breakdowns. That was the difference in the game.

Even when Clifton misfired on an attempted clear for a delay of game minor late in the second period, his team blanketed an ineffective Rangers top unit. They were hungrier to the puck. That was evident on another Forbort block and a Lindholm defensive play behind his own net. He shielded the puck and then cleared it down at the start of the third.

What did Gallant do? Zilch. Never adjusted his power play. Continued the same trend. Is it Groundhog Day yet? If it were, Groundhog Chuck would see his own shadow when it comes to our coach and his Blind Faith in the first unit. That’s a music reference if you appreciate classic rock and not the awful computer generated crap they blast at MSG.

As the power play expired, Kreider over skated a loose puck inside the blue line. His turnover allowed Krejci and Marchand to combine to send Clifton in on Shesterkin. Marchand passed across for Clifton, who quickly went high short side to the glove for a 3-0 lead at 28 seconds of the third.

The game was essentially over. The fans that attended knew it. They didn’t make much noise. They had no reason to. But the crowds today don’t compare. Enough said.

When the supporting lines are more visible than the top two, that’s a problem. The best Rangers no showed the third. It was mostly dull and boring. A very vanilla period with little excitement. With seven minutes remaining, it felt like our players were skating around aimlessly. They weren’t in any rush. It was infuriating.

Gallant kept his new lines and played them as if there was no care in the world. Even as Panarin and Trocheck go together like oil and water, he kept sending them out with Vesey. Nothing positive happened.

If it sounds like I’m bored, that’s because I was during that ho-hum period. It was disappointing. They had a good team playing their sixth period over 24 hours and never made them sweat. It was embarassing.

I get it. The Bruins are really good. They’re at a historic pace. And what will be their reward for it? Maybe the Pens or Caps. Then either the Leafs or Lightning. That doesn’t feel like a reward. It feels like a punishment. How many points will they reach? They’re up to 76 in 45 games. That means there’s still 37 left. Wow.

The league is backwards. This divisional format while great in theory doesn’t reward the best teams. All three that’ll make it out of the Atlantic are better than any Metro team. It should be seeded 1-8. Same for the very competitive Central that will soon see the Avalanche make their climb up the standings. What if that’s who the Stars or Jets draw in the first round? Logical? Insane.

Notice I didn’t bother with the Harpur goal. It was nice to see. Lafreniere got the puck over to him and his long shot beat a screened Swayman with 4:23 remaining. Had they showed that kind of urgency earlier, maybe it’s a different game. They didn’t make life difficult for Swayman until the bitter end. He still made a great save on a double deflection of an Adam Fox shot. He also got a piece of a Trouba shot that was deflected.

Swayman had a great game. He was better than Shesterkin, who still was good in turning aside 24 of 27. He didn’t get enough run support. At least somebody scored a five-on-five goal.

Next up are the Panthers on Monday, January 23. They remain underwhelming. They’re hanging around. But it’s Sergei Bobrovsky getting the starts with Spencer Knight out.

Paul Maurice roasted the refs following a frustrating 5-4 overtime loss up in Toronto. He was justified. They called Radko Gudas for charging on a clean hit. He said, “It wasn’t Panther friendly.” The stupid league fined him $25,000. Toronto is treated differently than almost every team. I feel his frustration. They need every point.

That’s gonna do it. Enjoy the weekend!


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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