Pieces falling into place for surging Blueshirts

This past week was a good one for the Rangers. They took seven out of eight points against a pair of division rivals.

In doing so, they pulled within five points of the second place, Devils who lost 4-2 yesterday. There’s still a chance to grab home ice in the first round. Even though I’m not emphasizing it as much due to how competitive the playoffs are, it’s a possibility. There are 13 games left in the regular season, including a potential four-point game at the Devils on March 30.

Home ice isn’t what it once was. We’ve seen teams go into enemy territory and win a deciding Game Seven. If the Battle Of Hudson happens in the first round, I don’t think it matters who gets the extra game. When it comes down to rivalries in which both teams are very evenly matched, anything can happen. So, I won’t be referencing it as much until things are settled.

While that’s still to be determined, including whether either Hudson rival can chase down the Hurricanes for first in the Metro Division, the most important aspect is that the Rangers are starting to gel. It isn’t easy when you add key pieces. Even if it’s the likes of Patrick Kane, who came after they acquired Vladimir Tarasenko to upgrade the top six.

The Blueshirts didn’t play lights out following the Kane acquisition. There was an adjustment period for both Showtime and former Blues star Tarasenko. Gerard Gallant searched for the right combination by trying both right wings on different lines. Eventually, he’s settled on Tarasenko flanking Mika Zibanejad with Artemi Panarin on the first line. Kane is fitting in with Vincent Trocheck and Chris Kreider on the second line.

Gallant also realized that throwing all of your eggs in one basket was counterproductive on the power play. Now, you have Kane with Panarin, Trocheck, Adam Fox, and Alexis Lafreniere on one unit. It’s Zibanejad, Kreider, Tarasenko, Jacob Trouba, and Filip Chytil on the second unit. Sometimes, Fox and Trouba will switch depending upon who Gallant starts the power play with. He has two top units. It’s a good problem to have. They’re having success. It won’t be easy for opponents.

Were the Rangers perfect in going 3-0-1 against the Penguins three times with the Capitals sandwiched in the middle of the miniseries? Of course not. There’s no such thing as a perfect game. Even Saturday night’s 6-0 shutout over the Pens was a bit misleading.

Coming off a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh in which Sidney Crosby nearly tied it late before Chris Kreider, who got the game-winner parked in front, added the empty netter for his 30th goal, the Blueshirts didn’t have a great start last night. In fact, it was the Pens who played more desperate. They are fighting just to make the playoffs with the Panthers hot on their heels. It showed during an intense first period.

Playing again without key defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who missed his ninth straight game, the Rangers again went with Niko Mikkola playing alongside Adam Fox, who continues to struggle at even strength. He hasn’t found it as easy without dependable partner Lindgren, who provides the nuts and bolts.

Mikkola has been an important player since coming over from St. Louis with Tarasenko. While he isn’t the best skater, he’s provided crucial minutes that have been needed. Occasionally, he’ll take a penalty. He isn’t a top pair player. He’s done alright out of necessity. Once Lindgren returns, the Rangers should have a better blue line that has more balance. It isn’t great, but it will be more capable.

Even without Lindgren, they’re winning games. There have been some shaky moments where the defense let an opponent hang around. The Caps were able to make things interesting without Alexander Ovechkin by grinding their way within one during a strong third period this past Tuesday. But Jimmy Vesey scored into an open net to end a long, scoring drought in a 5-3 win that Gallant described as Harlem Globetrotters style hockey.

It was an accurate description. I prefer how they played on Thursday. It was a hard fought game that saw a ton of hitting. The Penguins came back twice from one-goal deficits to tie the score.

You had Tyler Motte involved both physically and offensively. His accidental elbow ended Jeff Petry’s night. Seeking retribution, the Pens targeted the grinding forward. Just after he released the puck, Pierre-Oliver Joseph delivered a borderline hit that sent Motte down. It was shoulder to chest, but a little high. There was some elbow. Motte was cut on the play and left for repairs. He returned.

Much has been made of the top six. But with the third line slumping due to both Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko unable to score over a considerable stretch, the checking line has received additional ice time. Why not. The cohesive unit of Barclay Goodrow, Vesey, and Motte has chemistry. They get pucks in deep and forecheck effectively. It’s a line Gallant trusts to help protect a lead late. He had them on when Vesey got his 10th against the Caps.

It was kind of nice to see Motte return and score a goal that put the Blueshirts back in front 2-1. A great response to Rickard Rakell tying the game following a misplay from Ben Harpur behind the net. Who else but Crosby set him up. Motte’s goal was poetic. He took advantage of a Joseph giveaway to beat Tristan Jarry late in the second period.

The Pens came out hard in the third period. Knowing the importance of that game, they really pushed with a strong attack. It would eventually lead to Jake Guentzel putting away a Crosby feed to get even. He stole the puck behind the net from K’Andre Miller, whose reverse was poorly timed. Guentzel was wide open for his 30th.

With the game hanging in the balance, it was a strong shift from the Trocheck line that led to Kreider rebounding home his 29th. Both Trocheck and Fox set it up. Simply put, it was the kind of play we’ve seen over and over where Kreider makes his living. Adam Graves was similar. The difference is Kreider is more skilled. The appreciation for what he provides is increasing. As he marches towards the top five on the all-time franchise goal scoring list, he deserves all the accolades.

After Crosby was nearly able to steer in a rebound with Jarry pulled, Mika Zibanejad and Trocheck combined to set up Kreider for the big empty netter to seal the victory. That made it two consecutive seasons where Kreider scored 30 goals or more. As we know, he hit a career high 52 in 2021-22. While he won’t come close to matching that number, he continues to prove how vital he is. Even in a year where he only has six power play goals, he’s still finding ways to score at even strength (21) and shorthanded with his four pacing the team.

The biggest positive has been the improved play from Igor Shesterkin. It hasn’t been easy to follow up on one of the best seasons in modern history that earned him a Vezina. In truth, the defense hasn’t been as good. That hasn’t helped.

However, everyone knows the importance of Shesterkin to the Rangers’ chances. After Jaroslav Halak played another good game last Sunday in what amounted to a frustrating 3-2 overtime loss in Pittsburgh, Shesterkin returned to the net for the last three games.

After making 28 saves in a win over the Capitals, he was even better on Thursday by finishing with 30 saves on 32 shots. His play is finally picking up at the right time. As I mentioned earlier in this post, the score of Saturday night’s game on ABC was misleading. That’s because Shesterkin had to come up with a lot of big saves on high-quality chances.

In the first period, it was Shesterkin who made the difference. In between Zibanejad getting his team-leading 36th from Jacob Trouba and Miller, he stoned the Pens at every turn. That included a sprawling save on a point blank chance. He also denied Evgeni Malkin with plenty of traffic in front.

That’s how the game would go for the Pens, who came unraveled following an undisciplined penalty by Malkin for boarding Braden Schneider. A sequence that saw Harpur come to his partner’s aid, which led to four minutes for Malkin and two for Harpur, still saw the Rangers on a late power play. On a Fox pass across, Artemi Panarin beat Jarry short side with just over 10 seconds left to put the Rangers up by two. They made Malkin pay for his foolish penalty.

The Rangers exploded in the second period for four goals. Three came over a 4:45 span. On a great play in transition started by Miller, Zibanejad slid the puck across for a wicked Tarasenko one-timer that blew past Jarry to make it 3-0. It was exactly the kind of heavy shot Tarasenko possesses. Jarry couldn’t stop it.

On another rush where the Pens defense looked lost, Trocheck got the puck up for Kane. With two players converging on him, he sent a perfect backhand pass directly on the tape of Kreider’s stick for an easy finish that gave him number 31. The lead was up to four.

With the Pens reeling, Mike Sullivan lifted Jarry for Casey DeSmith. It didn’t matter. Trouba rudely greeted DeSmith by surprising him with a seeing eye shot from a sharp angle that banked off his mask for what amounted to a bad goal. He’s now up to eight goals. The cohesive duo of Tarasenko and Zibanejad picked up the assists on the play.

The Penguins didn’t quit. They were able to create some scoring chances. But Shesterkin wasn’t having it. He continued to make superb stops. Looking more like the goalie who dominated last season, there’s no question that this is the best Shesterkin has played. He’s tracking the puck better and in the right position. He’s also been more aggressive, making some excellent poke checks to deny players.

Before the period was over, a unique combination saw Chytil out with Kane and Panarin for a shift. That was helpful for Chytil, who picked up a secondary assist on another superb Kane feed that Panarin finished for his second of the game. He’s now up to 22 goals. The same amount he had last year in 75 games. Panarin is heating up at the right time.

Shesterkin made a strong denial on Josh Archibald. He also stopped Drew O’Connor. It didn’t matter who it was in a Penguins jersey. He was on his game.

Although the Rangers were out-shot 33-24, Shesterkin stopped all 33 shots to earn the shutout. It was only his second of the season. The last came way back on Nov. 1 when he made 19 saves to blank the Flyers. It’s safe to say this was by far a better shutout than that one much earlier in the season. He earned it.

It’s now been eight games since Kane was brought in to play on Broadway. You can tell that he’s finally getting more comfortable. It took Tarasenko some time to adjust. He looks like a perfect match with Zibanejad. Their chemistry is undeniable. Tarasenko is up to 13 points (5-8-13) in 18 games.

Kane has three goals and four assists for seven points in eight games. He looks more comfortable playing with Trocheck and Kreider, who he knows is the finisher on the line. Listening to his postgame interview last night, you can tell that he understands the game. He is very good at breaking down scoring plays. He’s not the greatest American player for nothing.

Like any contending team that added key players, it’s taken time. Now that both Tarasenko and Kane have gotten acclimated with Gallant figuring out where they fit best, there’s a lot to be positive about. The Rangers have two dangerous lines that can strike at any moment. Pick your poison.

If the Kid Line, which is still being used around the league, can get it going, look out. Lafreniere has been playing with confidence for a while. He’s carved out a net front role on the power play featuring Kane, Panarin, Trocheck, and either Fox or Trouba. He continues to be very active during shifts. If he was playing with better talent, there’s no doubt he’d have more goals and assists.

It’s time for Chytil and Kakko to get into gear. When I’m sarcastically asked if they’ll score another goal, that’s not good. Chytil has been snake bit. He just needs some puck luck. Kakko is still noticeable on the cycle where his puck possession game remains a strength. But his lack of confidence in shooting the puck remains an issue. There’s still time to figure it out.

With the Rangers hosting the Predators later tonight, they look to keep it going. They’re three-for-three so far on the current five-game home stand that wraps up with a pivotal game on Tuesday against the Hurricanes. They’ll then visit Raleigh this Thursday to conclude a big home and home series against a team they’ve owned. That will go a long way to determining if the Blueshirts can move up in the standings.

Carolina leads the division with 98 points. They have 14 games remaining. The Devils are second with 95. They’ll be in action later facing the Lightning for a third time in less than a week at Tampa. They’ve dropped the first two, including one in a shootout that featured an exciting three-on-three overtime.

The Rangers sit third with 90. In addition to making up ground on the Devils if they want home ice, they’ll need to catch their rival in regulation wins. That’s the first tiebreaker. The Devils have 32 compared to 30 for the Rangers. Until the last three games (all wins), they’d needed extras four times, including in wins over the Flyers, Canadiens, and Sabres. That could play a role in where they finish.

Honestly, I don’t care where they wind up. It’s more about how they’re playing. Eventually, Lindgren will return to help stabilize a shaky blue line that still backs in too much and gives up dangerous chances. That’s the one area that must improve this spring.

It’s more important to stay healthy. So, if Lindgren must miss a 10th game in a row, so be it. You want all of your key players ready to go when the playoffs start.

The NHL version of March Madness continues. There are games every other day. It’s a race to the finish for those bubble teams like the Pens who are trying to get in. With the Panthers hot on their heels, it doesn’t look promising. I don’t think Pittsburgh is a playoff team. Nothing they showed in the recent games leads me to believe it. It very well could be no postseason for Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang. That hasn’t happened since Crosby was a rookie.

I have the Islanders in. They continue to win without Mat Barzal thanks to the strong goaltending of Vezina candidate Ilya Sorokin. Even with Bo Horvat in a scoring slump, others have stepped up with Brock Nelson continuing to prove he’s one of the game’s most underrated players. They have 31 regulation wins compared to only 25 for the Pens. The Islanders have 80 points with just 11 games left. So, they’ll need to continue to win down the stretch.

The Panthers are up to 77, trailing the slumping Pens by a point. Each team has 13 left. But it’s the Cats who have 30 regulation wins to lead the tiebreaker. Both are back in action tomorrow.

It’s definitely nice not to have to worry about qualifying for the postseason. We know the Rangers can finish anywhere from first to third. We’ll see if they can keep it going tonight.


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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