Before opening face-off at MSG, the Rangers got good news. After missing 11 games, Ryan Lindgren finally returned from the upper-body injury he suffered on a T.J. Oshie hit against the Capitals.
The glue of the defense was back. Similar to old hat Dan Girardi, the prideful man from Minnesota wearing double fives on the back of his jersey received a warm welcome from excited fans. They know what Lindgren brings. As I’ve echoed before in this space, he provides the nuts and bolts. Whatever the team needs, he’ll do.
It had been almost a month since he last played. Everyone understands how valuable he is to the team with championship aspirations. Even though they’ve been winning games, it hasn’t always gone smoothly. However, Ben Harpur deserves a kudos for how he handled the extra minutes while Lindgren was out. He’s a solid extra defenseman with character and grit.
On what was an emotional night due to the sudden passing of Knicks legend Willis Reed, the Rangers held a moment of silence for the Captain. There isn’t a greater Knick in terms of impact. The flashbacks of him coming out of the locker room to thunderous cheers for Game Seven against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers is fondly remembered by all. All he had to do was make his first two jump shots to lead the Knicks to the franchise’s first NBA title.
As sad a day as it was for New York sports, Reed will always be fondly remembered. MSG made sure to have the right touch during last night’s game by showing clips of the all-time great. Number 19 hangs from the rafters in the Garden.
When we watch Lindgren during each shift, he brings the grit and hustle to the ice. It’s the pride and passion that he plays with that’s made him a fan favorite. He sure makes a difference while teamed up with Adam Fox. The anchor of the blue line clearly struggled without his running mate. With 11 games left, it’s a good chance for the key tandem to get back in sync.
In what was a fast-moving playoff style game between two rivals, Lindgren was called for a dubious holding minor late in the second period. In fact, it was former teammate Jesper Fast who grabbed a hold of Lindgren to pull him in to draw the call. Fans held their breath as Lindgren went down on the play. He struggled to get up and went back to the locker room.
At the time, the Rangers were leading 1-0 thanks to a Tyler Motte goal that came with three minutes left in a tightly contested first period. On a face-off inside the Carolina zone, Jimmy Vesey intercepted a Brady Skjei pass down low. He then got the puck over to Barclay Goodrow, who found Motte open for an easy finish in front at 17:00.
That opening period was well played by both sides. It was clean hockey without any penalties. Initially, the Canes got some good looks on Igor Shesterkin, who continued his recent improvement. He made nine saves in the first while counterpart Frederik Andersen stopped 11 of 12 shots.
The Hurricanes knew the importance of this game. Having lost the first two to the Blueshirts in the season series, a regulation loss would’ve put their hold on first place in jeopardy. They entered play with 98 points. One up on the Devils and six ahead of the Rangers with a home and home series.
Carolina isn’t as high scoring a team as the Blueshirts, who exploded for six goals in a lopsided 7-0 rout of the Predators on Sunday night. The game was over quickly. K’Andre Miller highlighted the victory by becoming the first Ranger to record four points (2-2-4) in a first period since former captain Kelly Kisio. Filip Chytil also snapped his scoring drought with his 20th goal in the blowout.
The Hurricanes lost two of their biggest threats for the remainder of the season. Max Pacioretty (torn Achilles) and Andrei Svechnikov (knee) are big blows for a team that doesn’t have many consistent scorers. They’ll have to do it by committee.
A puck possession team under coach Rod Brind’Amour, they’ll rely on captain Sebastian Aho to lead the way along with Martin Necas. They’ve gotten a good season out of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The checking center has been contributing lately and is starting to resemble the player they thought they were signing away from Montreal.
Their blue line has balance. Jaccob Slavin remains the shutdown defenseman who pairs up with veteran Brent Burns. He still can get it done offensively. The second pair is similar with Brett Pesce proving steady play while Skjei looks for offense. His 15 goals are a career high that paces the back end. Burns has a dozen while leading the defense with 41 assists and 53 points. They added Shayne Gostisbehere for power play help. An area he excels at. Chatfield has provided solid depth on the third pair.
If one were to look at the Hurricanes compared to the Rangers, you’d probably place a blue checkmark next to the offense, power play, and goaltending. There’s no question they have more firepower. Adding Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane to a core that features Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, and Vincent Trocheck makes them formidable.
Even with their recent struggles, the older Kid Line are capable of contributing. So, too are the best checking line they’ve had since Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and either Derek Dorsett or Daniel Carcillo were making key contributions on the 2013-14 team during the postseason.
Shesterkin is an obvious edge over the respectable Andersen in net. Of course, that doesn’t always mean what you think. Even all-time greats have been outplayed in the playoffs. But I know who I’m rolling with in the Metro Division. Although Islanders fans can make a strong case for Ilya Sorokin. He’s been the better netminder this season.
So, what happened during Tuesday night’s 3-2 home loss? The Rangers wilted in a disappointing third period. Having been outplayed by a wide margin during a second period that favored the Canes, who had the puck in the Rangers zone for long stretches, they couldn’t quite put Carolina away.
Even with the remainder of a second power play followed by another man-advantage in which Fast tripped up Shesterkin from behind outside his crease, the Rangers’ special teams got nothing accomplished.
Instead, it was the highly rated Hurricanes’ penalty kill that gave them fits by standing up at the blue line. They got sticks on pucks and made key clears, forcing the Rangers to reset. Even the much improved balanced power play units couldn’t make a dent. They never got much setup time. Andersen didn’t have to work too hard.
Consider that it was the Canes who out-shot the Blueshirts 15-5 in the second. It wasn’t so much a case of it being high quality. Most of the shots were ones you’d expect Shesterkin to stop. The Rangers still did a good enough job defending the net front. But there definitely was too much time spent in their end.
For a while, it looked like they’d protect the one-goal lead. Shesterkin remained locked in. His best save came when he made an aggressive glove denial on Noesen. But the Canes kept coming.
Eventually, a mishap from Chris Kreider cost Shesterkin the shutout. On a transition play where Jack Drury and Derek Stepan combined to move the puck up for Chatfield, he got a step on Kreider and whipped a high rising shot from the right circle past Shesterkin to tie the score at 9:49.
What happened next nobody could’ve predicted. Before you could settle in, Fox moved the puck across for a Lindgren shot that banked off a Carolina player right to Kaapo Kakko. He made no mistake burying the gift past Andersen to restore a one-goal lead just 31 seconds later. It ended an 11-game drought. Lucky goal number 13 put the Rangers back in front.
However, there was even more chaos. Before the public address announcer, Joe Tolleson could announce the Kakko goal, back came the Hurricanes. It was some hard work from their second line that tied the game only 18 seconds later.
Off some sustained pressure from Jordan Staal and Fast behind the Rangers’ net, Miller made the mistake of going to the corner where Zibanejad had his man. That allowed Fast to center across for an easy Noesen finish for his 11th at 10:38. Jacob Trouba had to go occupy Fast on the other side. So, neither defenseman was in front on the play. But it was Miller’s responsibility to stay home. That caused the goal.
For all the accolades he receives for his skating and improvement offensively with a career best 38 points, Miller remains an enigma defensively. Too often, he gets caught up ice or is caught out of position, leading to goals against. His defense has been tough to watch over the past month. Trouba has to do too much.
It’s not cohesive. That explains why Gerard Gallant opted to move Niko Mikkola up to the second pair while shifting Miller down with Braden Schneider for the remainder of the game.
Even on a night, Lindgren was able to return for the third period to the relief of many. The issues that plague the defense were there to be seen. Miller has played his way off a long-term contract. More fans are noticing his miscues. He is skilled. However, his defense has to get better. If not, it’s hard to see what’s a loaded roster getting through the Eastern Conference.
If I’m the coach, I would keep Mikkola with Trouba for the rematch at Carolina tomorrow night. Let Miller work with Schneider where there’s less pressure. Of course, Brind’Amour can dictate the match-ups due to having the last change. Knowing Gallant, he’ll probably go right back to Miller and Trouba.
At this point in his young career, Miller should have a better idea of when to stay home and when to go. This isn’t only on the player. It’s also about the system. Is enough coaching being done? Why does he continue to make the same mistakes without any discipline? If it were anyone else, they would’ve sat.
In the final part of the game, the Canes were more desperate. There was urgency to their game. On a night they blanketed the Rangers’ top six, it wad Carolina, who found the game-winner.
With under three minutes remaining, Kotkaniemi moved the puck up for Burns. As the Rangers were scrambling for position, including Kreider, Burns burned them with a good pass across for a Teravainen goal that came with 2:33 left in regulation.
On the play, it wasn’t about the positioning of Fox or Lindgren. But rather where Kreider was standing on the deciding goal. He got caught puck watching. Stuck in no man’s land, he wasn’t in the right position as Teravainen redirected Burns’ feed. On two scoring plays, Kreider got caught in the wrong position. He’s usually better than that. He knew it, too.
The Rangers were unable to find the equalizer. This was the Canes’ period. They came back from a 1-0 deficit to outscore the Rangers 3-1. That allowed them to earn a big win to hit the century mark in points. Combined with the Devils getting a point in a buzzer beater by Wild forward Matt Boldy in overtime, Carolina now leads the division by two points with 13 games left.
Instead of potentially winning in regulation and cutting the deficit to four for first place, the Rangers are now eight behind the Hurricanes. They trail the Devils by six for second. Each team has 11 left, including a pivotal game on March 30 at The Prudential Center.
Sometimes, that’s how it goes. It’s one loss. There’s no reason to panic. They are going to wind up in the top three of the Metro Division. The Islanders routed the Maple Leafs to move up to 82 points. They’re first in the wildcard. Combined with Florida losing to the Flyers, they are three up on the Panthers and four on the skidding Penguins.
As for the Blueshirts, they’ll get back to work. You can’t win them all. One more intriguing match with the Canes in Raleigh. Then, 10 more games on the schedule. There’s still some work to be done.