Rangers cost themselves due to sitting back in frustrating overtime loss to Maple Leafs, Gallant hardly plays fourth line, Cuylle debuts, top guns no show


The frustration level is high. If you’re a passionate fan of this team, it should be following a tightly contested game played against one of the league’s best up in Toronto.

Simply put, the Rangers didn’t closeout the Maple Leafs. They wasted a pair of Filip Chytil goals along with a dominant effort from Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko. Instead of banking two points by playing aggressive hockey, they foolishly sat back and let the Leafs tie it up with over four minutes left in the third period.

The end result was passengers Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and a too passive K’Andre Miller allowing Mitch Marner to cruise by and score the overtime winner at 19 seconds to give the Maple Leafs a 3-2 come from behind win at Scotiabank Arena. The losing play was best described by Jan Levine who also posts blogs on our team via Hockey Buzz.

If you blinked, you missed it. Something that happened to me. They were headed to overtime. I checked All Elite Wrestling on TBS who held a special tribute final match involving the brother of Jay Briscoe who tragically passed away due to a horrible car accident. God bless the daughters who are still recovering in the hospital. Hopefully, they will be okay. A sad tragedy for the wrestling family.

Before I could flip back for OT, I saw on the NHL site that it had already ended. My disbelief was, ‘How?’ How do you lose a game via three-on-three only 19 seconds in?

There it was on replay via the NHL On TNT. I wish I hadn’t bothered. It was despicable. Matador D as Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier would describe the lack of defense by the basketball team that resides at Madison Square Garden without Mitchell Robinson. If you’ve seen them lately, you know what I mean.

Here’s a better question for coach Gerard Gallant. I know he has bent over backwards for $11.65 million dollar man Artemi Panarin. Why is he even on for the start of OT? Every fan of this team can see that he’s become a defensive liability. He’s been on for other losses that cost this team valuable extra points.

I know Chris Kreider was responsible for the tying goal noted Leafs sniper Timothy Liljegren scored with 4:11 left in regulation. Of course, a whole pile of ridiculous overreaction came his way because he got to Liljegren too late on a rebound that Jacob Trouba missed. I guess these so-called experts forgot that Kreider scored 52 goals and entered second with his 19 trailing only Zibanejad (22).

It happens. Every good player has off games. Even the best in the world Crosby and McDavid can. It’s part of playing a busy schedule over a full 82. Kreider missed time. He hasn’t been particularly sharp since returning. He just missed on the power play. Unfortunately, Kreider sent the puck back into Ilya Samsonov.

The point being that while he didn’t have any chemistry whatsoever playing the off wing due to Panarin on the new first line that didn’t do much even after Gallant flipped Kreider and Jimmy Vesey. But when it’s three-on-three with that extra point up for grabs, why not use logic by reuniting Kreider with Zibanejad?

They work so well together. The chemistry has been great for a while. I wish Mollie Walker or Vince Mercogliano, or any Rangers beat reporter had dared to ask that exact question to Gallant. We know he can be dismissive and try not to call out his vets. But the top guns didn’t get it done.

It was a curious decision by the coach to keep Panarin with Zibanejad and Miller at the start of overtime. Personally, I’d rather see Zibanejad, Kreider and Adam Fox. It’s the opening shift of the OT. Only Gallant knows the reason why he made this mind-boggling decision. Then he dared to say they played real well and they’ll take the point.

Eh. I don’t agree. They should’ve won the game in regulation. But opted to sit back over the final portion of the third. If you keep back pedaling and ice the puck while over relying on your goalie [Igor Shesterkin], even one of the game’s best isn’t always going to be able to get you to the finish line.

The Leafs did what they had to do. They worked hard to get the game tied after Shesterkin made a tough save on Calle Jarnkrok a couple of minutes earlier.

Following an icing, John Tavares was able to deflect a long William Nylander shot off Shesterkin for a rebound. Trouba just missed it. That allowed Liljegren to sneak in and bust the puck past Shesterkin at 15:49. He beat Kreider to the spot.

The tweaked third line centered by Vincent Trocheck with Barclay Goodrow and Kreider were unable to get the job done. Maybe Gallant should’ve gone back to Vesey for that key shift. He’s a better defensive forward than Kreider. The eight-goal scorer played over 19 minutes. The second most among Rangers forwards only trailing Zibanejad (20:32), who plays power play and penalty kill.

If anyone cares to explain why Vesey, who has been a consistent player in his second stint- is getting that much ice time over the reunited line of Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko- be my guest. They dominated most of their shifts, but didn’t come on until the final frantic shift of regulation. On a broken play, a loose puck bounced right to Tavares, whose shot hit the crossbar as the buzzer sounded. Had it gone in, it probably would’ve counted.

At nearly 50 games in, Gallant still hasn’t figured out who Panarin should play with at five-on-five. He hasn’t clicked with Trocheck, who Team President and GM Chris Drury gave a seven-year contract to. He is being tried again with Zibanejad on the top line. They have never played together much. Both had good games the other night in a 6-2 win over the Defense Optional Panthers, who then gave up a touchdown and extra point in a wild 7-6 OT loss at the Penguins.

If you really focused on their shifts against the Leafs, there wasn’t much traction. Especially when Kreider was forced off the left wing to the right side. Each had two shots in the game. Hardly enough to merit keeping them intact. But if Kreider must play with Trocheck, then move Vesey to that line like previously. Let Goodrow play up with Panarin and Zibanejad.

At this point, it’s pretty obvious that Gallant will never give Vitaly Kravtsov a fair shake. A game after he scored his third goal and had a game high five shots in a win, he was the whipping boy who got demoted to the fourth line for Trocheck blowing two assignments on a pair of Bruins goals. Then, after playing fewer minutes than anyone including waiver pick-up Jake Leschyshyn, he came out of the lineup for rookie Will Cuylle to make his NHL debut in Toronto.

I have no problem with seeing what Cuylle can do. He leads the Wolf Pack with 13 goals and deserves a look. A gritty, more physical forward, Cuylle was fine in his debut. However, he only played 5:49 in 10 shifts finishing with four hits and a minus-one on his first shift. Not his fault Julien Gauthier and Ben Harpur couldn’t cover for Braden Schneider and let Pontus Holmberg get behind them to score.

If that’s his way of playing a kid on the bottom line, what’s the point? Cuylle actually showed more than the top guns. He made a good lead pass for Gauthier, who over stick handled and turned his scoring chance into an easy save for Samsonov. He remembered that he’s Julien Gauthier. How else do you explain it?

Leschyshyn received 11 shifts (6:36) while winning three of five face-offs. Gauthier also took 10 shifts and had two shots and four hits in 5:55. Basically, Gallant didn’t have enough confidence to roll four lines. The opposite of what’s needed to be successful. Somewhere, Ryan Reaves is probably laughing at his former coach’s expense. I bet even Kravtsov had a chuckle watching from the press box.

I think we all understand that the fourth line isn’t moving the needle. They’re not deciding too many games. However, you still should play them enough to inject energy and give your best players a breather. The lack of consistency from Gallant hasn’t helped. You don’t know who he’ll play on a game to game basis or how many shifts they’ll get.

Turk leans heavily on the veterans. So when they no show as they did last night, it makes him look bad. The amount of crying he did following the Bruins loss was ridiculous. He complained about Panarin and Trocheck, but then in the next breath said it wasn’t Kravtsov’s fault. His actions say otherwise. Always the whipping boy.

It remains similar to how Colin Campbell treated the much more established Alexei Kovalev. You knew it was a mattsr of time before he escaped Broadway. It’s the same complex situation with Gallant and Kravtsov. I hope for his sake, he gets relocated to a team with a coach who’ll give him the freedom to play his game.

As good as Kakko played on Wednesday night with a wonderful set up for Chytil’s second that gave the Blueshirts the lead in a better played second period, he doesn’t exactly finish checks or consistently drive the net. At one point prior to a Chytil Mario face-off goal where he caught Samsonov by surprise, Keith Jones called out Kakko by name by pointing out that he avoided driving the net to screen the Toronto goalie. A point that was illustrated throughout a bland first period where Samsonov easily stopped all nine Rangers shots.

Kakko drives the play as a puck possession player. At times during shifts, he can look dominant at controlling play. He’ll make some good moves, but rarely finishes around the net. Nine goals in 48 games isn’t enough production. The 14 assists are solid. But they took Kakko second believing he’d become a 30-goal scorer or better. He’s 21 going on 22 in Year Four. There’s still time. He’s made some improvement. If he can’t hit 20 goals and 40 points, it would be a disappointment.

Since being put back with Chytil and Kakko, Lafreniere has looked much more confident with the puck. He’s back to skating with purpose and forechecking. His secondary assist allowed Kakko to cut in on an extended shift and set up Chytil on a two-on-one down low for a 2-1 lead. That gives him a season best three-game point streak (1-3-4).

It’s almost as if you don’t mess with the chemistry that line has had. Gallant was desperate to find a solution to his top six that he broke up the most consistent cycle line the team has. You can see the difference when the cohesive trio are together. They all know how to play off one another. Chytil, Lafreniere and Kakko should be intact for the remainder of the season.

With a home game left against the first place Golden Knights tomorrow night before the long break, it’s up to Gallant and Drury to come up with better solutions for the other two scoring lines. At this point, I’d have Vesey with Trocheck and Kreider like before. Goodrow can work with Zibanejad and Panarin, who needs a gritty forward to free up space. That’s where Goodrow comes in.

In a perfect world, Turk would try Kravtsov up with Panarin, who he seems to have some chemistry with. But Zibanejad and Panarin have never quite meshed. I prefer Zibanejad with Kreider because they work extremely well together. If Panarin can’t play the right side, he’s useless. They shouldn’t be forced to split up Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko because the Bread Man can’t make it work with Drury’s center Trocheck. If only there was a way out.

What they should do is chase after a right wing to complete the top nine. I wouldn’t go after Patrick Kane or Timo Meier due to their price tags. Meier must be qualified at $10 million as a restricted free agent if he isn’t extended. Good luck with that. The Sharks should want more for him. They could be busy at the March 5 trade deadline with Erik Karlsson also available.

If they decide to make a splash, I actually prefer Vladimir Tarasenko. He’s proven and shouldn’t cost nearly as much as the other two. The 31-year old right wing just returned to the Blues the other night. Making sure he’s healthy is the key. The cap hit ($7.5 million) would be cut in half. In 35 games, he’s 10-19-29 with a minus-14 rating. That could be a product of an inconsistent roster that is hard to explain.

Tarasenko is a proven finisher who can play top power play and bolster a stale unit that Gallant refuses to change. It’s getting to the point where I’d actually rather see the second unit featuring the three former first round picks up front with Miller patrolling it. Trocheck could play the other point in place of Trouba, who should focus primarily on key match-ups at five-on-five and penalty kill.

A lot will depend on where the Rangers are in the standings and likewise if it’s the Blues or another potential target. They could always try to upgrade the third pair by replacing the physical Harpur with a more reliable left defenseman such as potential Columbus unrestricted free agent Vladislav Gavrikov ($2.8 million).

If Gallant trusted Zac Jones who I still favor due to his skating and skill, none of this would be necessary. It’s the coach’s lack of faith in a few kids that could hurt the team’s chances. Everything is all about now and he has no time for anything else. Very close-minded when it comes to any questions that challenge his thought process.

I find what he said both understandable and not beneficial for the team going forward. If a fat cat isn’t pulling their weight, bench them for a few shifts. Even Panarin. He did it to Kreider because he can take it. It shouldn’t always be a kid that gets punished. That’s a double standard. Coach like Torts in Philadelphia. They’ve shown improvement since he made examples out of Kevin Hayes and Tony DeAngelo.

There’s one more game. We’ll see if they can go into the break with a better result that doesn’t leave the fan base losing their minds.

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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