Successful weekend for Rangers didn’t come without some level of concern

How do you measure success? If you’re supposed to be a serious playoff contender like the Rangers are, you expect to play a more consistent brand of hockey. Instead, there are still more questions than answers after a successful weekend that saw them earn three of a possible four points at Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

For sure, any team will take that when they’re on the road. A place that’s been kind to the Rangers, who are still searching for the steady play down the stretch that would bode well when the postseason arrives in mid-April.

No one would argue with picking up five of eight points during a four-game road trip. Especially following a 4-2 defeat to the league best Bruins. If you include the 3-2 overtime win at Philadelphia on March 1, that’s a good 3-1-1 record in the five games they’ve played away from home this month.

After looking less than impressive in defeating the Canadiens and Sabres in extras with the latter 2-1 overtime win due mostly to the brilliance of Igor Shesterkin (32 saves), they again needed extra time against the Penguins on Sunday.

A bad offensive zone penalty from Artemi Panarin for tripping up Evgeni Malkin led to both him and Sidney Crosby combining to set up Kris Letang on the power play for the overtime winner past a frustrated Jaroslav Halak. Before he left the ice at PPG Paints Arena, the veteran backup slammed his equipment in disappointment over the loss. It wasn’t his fault.

Right now, it has more to do with how the team is playing. If not for Shesterkin denying Dylan Cozens and making several crucial stops against a Sabres team without Alex Tuch, they don’t even get a point. At least they made it difficult on the dangerous Tage Thompson. A four-on-three power play goal from Panarin shouldn’t be required to win in Buffalo. But that’s what they needed.

Playing for a second consecutive day, the Rangers were far from their best facing the rival Pens for the first of three big divisional match-ups over the next week. They can thank the fourth line for keeping them afloat in an otherwise lackluster first period that saw the Penguins in control due to some very undisciplined penalties.

Malkin and Crosby were able to set up Rickard Rakell on a five-on-three for the game’s first goal just over six minutes in. For some reason, the Blueshirts weren’t ready at the beginning. They were penalized three times, including twice over a 46-second span. Vincent Trocheck high-sticked Jason Zucker and Mika Zibanejad did the same thing to Rakell while on the penalty kill.

That can’t happen. The loss of discipline allowed the Pens to grab an early one-goal lead in what amounted to an important game. They’re battling for playoff position with the Islanders. By earning the victory yesterday, they moved two points up on the idle Isles for first in the wildcard. They’re up to 78 points. Six behind the Rangers for third in the Metro Division. Both teams have 16 games remaining, including a rare two at MSG this week over a three-day period.

While the top three lines struggled to establish themselves, it was that aforementioned fourth line that made a key contribution in an uneven first period. The trio of Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, and Tyler Motte, who returned on Saturday, play a straightforward game. On a strong shift deep in the Pens zone, Vesey came out and attempted to stuff in the puck. Following his second attempt, it rebounded out to Goodrow, who scored his 11th to draw the Rangers even.

The checking line isn’t always going to supply offense. Vesey had been ice cold lately. He went 11 games without a point before his aggressive drive to the net allowed Goodrow to get his first goal in seven games. Motte picked up his second point (both assists) since returning to the Rangers following a trade with Ottawa. The trio provided coach Gerard Gallant with an honest effort when he again tweaked his top three lines in a desperate attempt to find offense.

“We haven’t played well,” Gallant candidly said after altering the top nine, which resulted in a more inspired third period that led to Chris Kreider tying the game with his 28th goal on a controversial play where Vincent Trocheck knocked down Malkin from behind. Kreider was able to pull away and beat Tristan Jarry to move past Camille Henry for sixth all-time in Rangers’ franchise history in goals with number 257.

“We admit to that. We’re still winning hockey games, too. Tonight, we still got a point against a real good team over there, and we’re battling hard. So. We got to be better. We know that. I think everyone in that room knows it.”

Earlier in the game, Kreider had what looked like a gimme on the power play. An Adam Fox pass across to Mika Zibanejad, and the top center quickly moved it down low for a wide open Kreider at the doorstep. But he shot the puck right back into Jarry. That miss prevented the Rangers from tying the game.

At the time, they again were trailing. On a blind reverse by Fox behind his net that never had a chance for Vladimir Tarasenko, Brian Dumoulin made a good pinch. He then moved the puck up top for a long Zucker one-timer that took a favorable bounce off Zibanejad’s skate past Halak for a 2-1 Pens lead only 1:21 into the second period.

It was a poor decision by Fox. He should’ve just moved it forward where there were teammates. The Pens had players in the area, too. But if you’re going to make such a reverse, you have to know that the player is there. Tarasenko had no chance to get over on that play. Dumoulin made a smart pinch, and Zucker stayed hot by getting his seventh goal in six games.

Even though they were only down by a goal, it felt like more. That was due to the lack of chemistry from the top three lines. Gallant, who tried Patrick Kane with the slumping Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere, would soon put the top nine into a blender. Desperate to find a spark, he moved Panarin up with Zibanejad and Tarasenko. Kreider was dropped to the second line with Trocheck and the invisible Kaapo Kakko. Chytil played with Lafreniere and Kane.

It was only the fourth line that remained intact. Coincidentally, that trio of Vesey, Goodrow, and Motte continued to have effective shifts at even strength. They were strong on the forecheck and created some more chances that Jarry had to stop. A credit to the style they play. That North/South mentality is what is played when things tighten up. That’s been severely lacking since Chris Drury added Tarasenko and then Kane. They’re supremely skilled types who were acquired to add scoring.

While the Penguins continued to get good opportunities on a spotty defense, Halak made the timely saves to keep the Rangers within striking distance. He was superb making 32 saves on 35 shots. That goaltending got the Blueshirts a point to keep them six up on the Pens for third place in the division.

The Pens finally took a couple of penalties. On their first power play, after Kane passed up a wide open shot in the right circle for a low percentage pass that led to a Pittsburgh clear, out came the Rangers second unit. It’s still perplexing to see both Zibanejad, who leads the team with 19 power play goals, and Kreider on PP2. They were out with Tarasenko, Chytil, and Fox, who played for the entire two minutes.

It was that first unit second unit that generated all the chances. After a Jarry stop on Tarasenko, he turned aside a tough low Fox point shot. Then came two misdirection feeds for Kreider where he went wide. He wasn’t done.

Sensing that his team needed a lift, Trouba laid a clean hit into Alex Nylander in the neutral zone. He had just let go of the puck as the Rangers captain closed in and finished the check, leading to chaos.

As usual, there was a response. Immediately, Malkin went after Trouba along with Zucker, who got in his face. Malkin cross-checked Trouba to get the only penalty. That gave the Rangers a second straight power play.

On the five-on-four, they came very close to tying it. Following another key save by Jarry to deny Tarasenko, who came to life in the second period, he responded to a Marcus Pettersson cross-check from behind on Chytil with a good clean hit on Pettersson into the boards. This was the most physically engaged he’s been. He also led the Rangers with six shots on goal. I liked how he played.

Following that sequence, then came the close call where Fox moved the puck for Zibanejad. Instead of shooting, he went down low for Kreider, who looked to have an easy goal. Instead, he sent his backhand right back into Jarry, who covered up for a stoppage.

Afterward, as he searched for a rebound, Kreider was decked from behind by Pettersson. He delivered a cross-check. It looked like he’d get the only penalty. But Kreider retaliated late to draw a roughing minor. Both went off, keeping the Blueshirts on the five-on-four.

The remainder of the power play was frustrating. All set up in the left circle, Panarin fired way wide. Following a miss from Lafreniere, who remained on the top unit, Jarry was able to get a stoppage.

As the period wound down, there was more hitting. Once Trouba delivered his hit on Nylander, the game changed. The intensity ratcheted up. Both old Patrick Division rivals didn’t pass up a chance to finish a check. It was a physical battle. In fact, the Rangers and Penguins combined for 89 hits (45-44 Pens). Braden Schneider led the Rangers with eight while Kris Letang paced the Pens with six.

It wasn’t a bad reintroduction to a classic rivalry that saw these teams go seven in a hotly contested first round won by the Rangers last year. It’s exciting that they’ll see each other this Thursday and Saturday at The Garden. Before those crucial games, each plays on Tuesday. The Rangers host the Capitals while the Penguins take on the Canadiens.

In the third period, Gallant decided to mix and match. Already having moved Kreider to the second line with Trocheck, he eventually slid Kakko back down to the third line with Chytil and Lafreniere. Kane played mostly with Trocheck and Kreider. That left Panarin up with Zibanejad and Tarasenko.

It was their best period. Playing more aggressively, they out-shot the Penguins 12-8. Both Panarin and Tarasenko tested Jarry early. Kreider laid a good hit on Pettersson. His best hit came earlier in the game. He was very active throughout.

Halak had to make stops on Zucker (8 shots) twice, including from in tight when he got open. He was the Pens’ best player.

On another effective shift by the checking line, Motte got a shot on Jarry. Due to how well they played, Gallant rewarded them with more shifts. That’s how it should be when the stars aren’t pulling their weight.

A good offensive shift by the new second line led to some good chances. Kane and Trocheck were stopped by Jarry. Kane also missed over the top on a backhand. It’s a good bet that Turk will keep that line intact for tomorrow night. He usually will see if the line tweaks can have a carryover effect.

With the physicality continuing throughout the period, the Rangers got a break that led to the tying goal. On a play in the neutral zone, Trocheck nailed Malkin from behind. As play continued, he moved the puck across for Kreider, who came in and beat Jarry to tie the game with 10:51 remaining.

Not only was it a big goal. But it allowed Kreider to move past Camille Henry into sole possession of sixth place on the Rangers’ all-time franchise goal scoring list. He’s up to 257 goals all as a Broadway Blueshirt. Next up is Vic Hadfield (262). With 16 games left in the regular season, Kreider needs five goals to tie Hadfield and six to pass him for fifth.

As the game remained tied late in regulation, Nylander was able to get a great opportunity. With less than a minute to go, he got a good shot on Halak that he made a clutch stop on to get the Rangers a point.

It came against the Zibanejad line with Trouba and K’Andre Miller. Since returning from his suspension, Miller has really struggled. He’s constantly been caught up ice on bad pinches and frequently out of position. That’s led to some goals against, including Jeff Skinner scoring the only Buffalo goal on Saturday. He was over on Trouba’s side instead of where he should’ve been.

This has been going on for a while. As skilled as he is with a career high 31 points, Miller takes an awful lot of risks. At some point, either Gallant or Gord Murphy has to get in his ear about making better decisions with and without the puck. How many times is he going to get beat by an attacking player due to taking the wrong angle? They need him to be much better.

As has been the case lately, another game went to overtime. Thank God there wasn’t a shootout. This time, it was Panarin, who made the mistake of tripping up Malkin in the offensive zone. All because Malkin took him off the puck. While the replay showed it wasn’t as bad as it looked, it was still a lazy penalty. His specialty.

Following a timeout by Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, out came Crosby, Malkin, Letang, and Jeff Carter, who took the face-off before Jake Guentzel replaced him.

Once they got set up against the Rangers’ trio of Goodrow, Trouba, and Niko Mikkola, who was very effective, while paired up with Fox, it was obvious where the puck would go. Letang moved the puck over to Crosby, who passed it over to Malkin. He then made a soft feed to Letang up top for a good one-timer that beat Halak glove side with Guentzel in front at 1:38.

That ended the game. As good as the penalty kill is, having to kill off a four-on-three is a bit more difficult. It’s one less player for each team. I think that favors the attacking team. They don’t have to overthink it by making the extra pass. Your three penalty killers really have to be good. In this case, they couldn’t prevent the Letang shot, which was perfect.

As they left the ice, Halak showed his frustration. I don’t blame him. As Gallant said following the game, the team isn’t playing well. They’re at least getting points and probably didn’t deserve to win either game at Montreal and Buffalo. But they benefited from the shootout and a Rasmus Dahlin penalty that led to Panarin’s OT winner.

For most of the season, Gallant has struggled to find the right combos. Adding both Tarasenko and Kane hasn’t helped. While they’ll help the offense, it’s thrown things out of wack. It’s almost as if there’s too much skill and not enough sandpaper.

Drury basically reversed course with these two moves. It better work, or there’s going to be a lot of egg on their faces. With third place looking like the best they can do, the Rangers won’t have home ice. The Devils and Hurricanes are 10 points up. Technically, Carolina remains in first despite yesterday’s 3-0 loss to the Devils due to having one extra game left.

Ryan Lindgren was once again held out over the weekend. He’s now missed seven games with that arm injury. They can pretend it isn’t one by terming it upper-body. But we know the truth. It was exposed on the T.J. Oshie hit. If he doesn’t return tomorrow or later this week, Lindgren can become eligible for LTIR. Once he’s missed 10 games, that frees up space for the Rangers to recall players from Hartford. We’ll see where things go.

There’s no doubt that Lindgren makes a big difference defensively. Playing minus his partner in crime, Fox has had a dip in his play. He’s making more mistakes than we’re used to seeing.

Mikkola has become a key player. He had arguably his best game since coming over with Tarasenko from St. Louis. He’s not the fastest skater but often makes up for it by being in the right position. He is also good at blocking shots. Drury was wise to get him in that deal.

Without Lindgren, Ben Harpur continues to play with Schneider on the third pair. A serviceable defenseman who’s best suited as an extra, he’s a no frills player who will take the body. They’ve managed him well. As long as Lindgren is back at 100 percent when the games count, that’s all that matters.

At the moment, there’s concern due to how the team is playing. Even being down Lindgren, they should have better structure. This has been an issue most of the year. It was masked by that seven-game winning streak they had last month where they were simply outscoring opponents. The astonishing part is that it came prior to Kane joining.

Too often, both goalies are being left to contest with high danger chances on rushes and odd man breaks. There’s been too much easy access. The East/West style being played results in turnovers that fuel the transition. When both Panarin and Kane defer, instead of shooting the puck, it creates problems. That’s why they’ve been separated except on the power play.

Even there, we’ve seen opponents score two shorthanded goals due to mistakes. That must be shored up. Limiting the giveaways and playing more aggressively would certainly help the cause.

I’m in the camp that wants to see Gallant give Kreider, Zibanejad, and Kane a look. I think that could work. I prefer Panarin with Trocheck and Tarasenko. However, Tarasenko has been finding some chemistry with Zibanejad. They’ll remain together.

Kakko remains a disappointment. Although he’s shown improvement with better puck possession and posted career highs in goals (12), assists (20), and points (32), he’s still inconsistent. Three goals in the calendar year aren’t enough production.

It’s Year Four. Kakko still doesn’t shoot the puck enough and is too hesitant. At this point, he should be more instinctive. He waits too long to shoot when he’s set up. Nobody would argue his puck possession style that leads to sustained pressure. But something is missing. If he doesn’t improve sooner than later, he’ll get passed by Brennan Othmann. He could become the odd man out.

The Rangers now play five games in a row at MSG. It begins tomorrow night with the Caps visiting. Then, there’s the two-game miniseries versus the Pens on Thursday and Saturday. That’s followed up by the Predators on Sunday, Mar. 19. It concludes with the first of a home and home series against the Hurricanes on 3/21 and 3/23.

This will be an interesting stretch. It’s a chance for the Rangers to get right. Something that needs to happen as they enter the home stretch.


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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