Sometimes, you can win a game and it’s not totally satisfactory. Even if it’s a game like last night where the final score wasn’t really an indication of how it was played.
The Rangers will take it. They defeated the identity less Panthers 6-2 at The Garden. They won’t apologize for getting two points. It was as easy as pie. Or just having the much better goalie. While the Cats went with journeyman Alex Lyon with Spencer Knight just back from a short AHL stint as the backup, the Blueshirts relied on the brilliant Igor Shesterkin.
Make no mistake about it. It was the stellar goaltending of the rating Vezina winner that allowed his team to win without a sweat. Shesterkin was called upon to make several key stops due to defensive lapses. He faced odd man rushes and did what he does. He might not have gotten a star. But anyone that watched knows just how significant the 33 saves he made were to getting the Rangers back in the win column.
The Panthers remain a puzzling disappointment. Despite having come in playing better, they proved again that they’re not the same team from last year. Those key personnel changes aren’t working. Even with Matthew Tkachuk leading the way, they are a mystery. He didn’t do much on Monday night. Neither did the defenseless Panthers, who got victimized twice on pretty goals by Adam Fox and Mika Zibanejad.
Fox started the scoring by getting his 10th on a nice passing play through the neutral zone. Playing with new line mate Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad sent a quick pass up to Panarin, who made a touch pass in the Panthers zone that Fox turned into a breakaway goal at 3:03. In on Lyon, he went backhand tucking the puck into an open side.
Before they could settle in, the Rangers got caught with too many men to hand the Panthers a power play. Florida has been hot since the new calendar year on the man-advantage. That trend continued. With the second unit out, some nice passing started by Eetu Luostarinen in transition allowed Anton Lundell to feed Carter Verhaeghe for a backdoor goal on the power play that evened the score at 5:56.
All four Rangers penalty killers were abysmal on the tying goal. That included Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller both caught out of position on the superb Lundell dish for Verhaeghe’s 23rd. Neither Barclay Goodrow or Jimmy Vesey were in the right position when the play materialized. It was a bad sequence.
Following the tying marker, it was mostly Cats. They took advantage of sloppy play to create dangerous chances. Despite getting six of the first eight shots, they were unable to take the lead. Shesterkin made the big saves to keep Florida off the scoreboard. Gallant wasn’t too happy about the team’s overall play.
Held to only two shots for most of the period, the Rangers got their only power play thanks to a lack of discipline from Nick Cousins. On a play in the neutral zone, he belted Chris Kreider from behind leading to a cross-checking minor. It was an obvious call.
After Gerard Gallant started the second power play for a change, out came the same top unit. However, they took a more aggressive strategy by looking shot more. Finally, some nifty passing from Fox to Panarin led to the Bread Man threading a perfect pass across for a quick Zibanejad one-timer that went high short side on Lyon for his 21st with 2:39 left.
For much of the second period, the Panthers applied pressure. Despite doubling up the Rangers in shots (14-7), they were unable to get the puck past Shesterkin. He made some more tough saves including one on Aleksander Barkov on a two-on-one. He also contended with Tkachuk, who looked for tips in front on misdirection feeds.
The Panthers lacked the finish to even the score. They seem too reliant on Barkov, Tkachuk and top finisher Verhaeghe. Sam Reinhart hasn’t had a good season. During the contest, they also lost key center Sam Bennett on an incidental collision with Filip Chytil. The play saw their skates come together with Chytil accidentally knocking Bennett down. He left the game and didn’t return.
Much of the focus was on the new lines. With Panarin up to the top line working with Zibanejad and Kreider, who didn’t look too comfortable playing the off wing, Vincent Trocheck anchored a new checking line between Goodrow and Vesey. That trio would contribute a big goal late in the second to give the team some breathing room.
Following a Trocheck face-off win, Vesey got a shot on Lyon which rebounded out. Both Goodrow and Vesey were in the area. Goodrow sent a sharp angle bank shot off Lyon that Vesey put in for his eighth to make it 3-1 with 4:57 remaining. It was a greasy goal. Something Vesey referenced prior to the game.
After the goal, Ben Harpur was sent off for tripping with under three minutes left. An iffy call, the penalty kill was able to keep the dangerous Cats from converting on the five-on-four. They got some looks. But Shesterkin was there to make the stops. That allowed the Rangers to take a two-goal lead into the locker room.
In the third, it was much of the same. On one end, Shesterkin delivered the big saves. On the opposite side, his teammates went to work on putting the flawed Cats away.
Back together, the old Kid Line used some of their tenacity to combine for a hard-working goal that really was needed. Having skated better as MSG analyst Joe Micheletti noted earlier in the telecast, Alexis Lafreniere made it happen on the forecheck.
Coming out with the puck from behind the net, his stuff in try was stopped by Lyon. However, a loose puck took a Ranger carom towards both Chytil and Kaapo Kakko for shots. A Kakko shot towards the net looked to be headed in. A hustling Lafreniere made sure it did by getting a stick on the puck to put it home for his sixth at 7:56.
It was his first goal since Dec. 7. That ended a long 17-game drought. The goal can hopefully be a confidence boost for Lafreniere. It’s been a challenging third year for him. With an assist against Boston, he has three points in the last two. We’ll see if he can build on it when the Rangers face tougher competition tomorrow night at Toronto.
Before Rangers PA announcer Joe Tolleson could even get to that goal, Fox and Panarin combined to find a wide open Zibanejad for his second of the game 14 seconds later to break it open. That made it 5-1 with 11:50 left. Zibanejad’s 22 goals pace the club.
Down by four, Florida coach Paul Maurice decided to gamble by pulling Lyon for a six-on-five with nine minutes remaining. It worked when Barkov was able to tally his 13th to cut the deficit to three with 8:58 left.
Continuing to mostly go with six skaters when possible, the Panthers hoped to claw even closer. They nearly got burned. On a great opportunity, Shesterkin took a shot at the open net. With the crowd building I’m anticipation, he just missed scoring a goal. One day, it’s gonna happen.
Finally with 3:11 to go, Lafreniere and Kakko combined to set up Chytil for an empty netter that put the finishing touches on a much needed win.
The goal gave him 13. He’s one shy of his career best set in ’19-20. It’s safe to say Chytil will surpass that number and wind up posting career bests across the board. A big reason he’ll get a raise this off-season. His 26 points are already a new personal best. The 23-year old Czech continues to grow as a player.
In the final two periods, Shesterkin stopped 26 of 27. Lyon allowed five goals on 25 shots before Maurice lifted him. His defense didn’t help. A problem that has plagued the Panthers all season long. If they miss the playoffs, that along with the drastic changes will be why.
The victory improves the Rangers to 26-14-7 with 59 points. They remain third in the Metro Division. Three up on the Capitals and five on the Penguins.
The Blueshirts will get a better test up north when they travel to Toronto for a big match tomorrow night. They will then host Vegas Friday before the All-Star break. A long bye week will mean time off until February 6 when Calgary visits.
Rangers had Jake Leschyshyn anchor the fourth line between Vitaly Kravtsov and Julien Gauthier, who made his return. Sammy Blais was sent to Hartford on a two week conditioning assignment. It’s really been a struggle for him since returning from ACL surgery due to P.K. Subban.
Hartford leading goal scorer Will Cuylle was recalled. A second round pick taken 60th in the 2020 NHL Draft, he leads the Wolf Pack with 13 goals. Cuylle has 20 points and 39 penalty minutes in 39 games.