Key Battle of Hudson showdown a possible first round preview, Chytil rewarded with contract extension

When the puck drops on Thursday night at The Prudential Center in Newark, it’ll be a showdown between the close Hudson rivals. Indeed, the Battle of Hudson could be a possible first round preview tomorrow.

It’ll be the fourth and final regular season meeting between the Rangers and Devils. With each team having eight games remaining on the schedule, second place could come down to who plays better.

Although they’re limping towards the finish line with only two wins over the last eight games (2-4-2), including a dismal 5-1 loss at the Islanders on Monday night, the Devils have 100 points. Two more than the Rangers, who will enter with a 7-1-0 mark over the past eight games, including recent wins over the Panthers and Blue Jackets.

The bitter rivals are going in opposite directions. However, none of that matters when they do battle on the ice. In the previous three meetings, the Devils took five of six points. Their only defeat coming in overtime on Dec. 12 at Madison Square Garden. The Devils rallied from a two-goal deficit to win 4-3 in overtime on Jan. 7.

That was a long time ago. Much has changed for both teams, who each clinched the playoffs earlier this week. The Devils when the Rangers defeated the Panthers earlier last Sunday night. They also won 5-3 over the Senators that same night to at least celebrate their first postseason since 2017-18.

The Rangers clinched when both Florida and Buffalo lost on Monday. They then went out and scored the first three goals in a two and a half minute span during a 6-2 home triumph over the Blue Jackets on Tuesday night. It was their third straight win, which gave them 98 points. Two behind the Devils for second in the Metropolitan Division.

The goals came from Filip Chytil, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Patrick Kane, who recently picked up his 450th career goal in a comeback win over the Panthers. He’s starting to get comfortable while playing with Vincent Trocheck and Chris Kreider. Kane hasn’t been shy about speaking to the media about things the team can do better. They went from up three to only ahead by one due to a lapse that allowed Kirill Marchenko and Johnny Gaudreau to score in the second half of the first period.

Playing again without Ryan Lindgren, the Blueshirts weren’t perfect against the offensive minded Jackets. A last place team in contention for the Connor Bedard lottery, they don’t play any defense. That makes it hard for whoever is in goal. In Tuesday night’s case, journeyman Michael Hutchinson. The well traveled veteran can make the tough saves but has trouble with the stoppable shots such as Kane and later Artemi Panarin going short side.

In regards to how he felt his team played, coach Gerard Gallant indicated that he liked the last two periods. The first was way too wide open, with Columbus immediately testing Igor Shesterkin. Good thing last year’s Vezina winner is back in form. He finished with 28 saves on 30 shots to earn the game’s First Star. He deserved it. That’s how dangerous the pesky Jackets are.

What they lack in overall team structure, they can make up for in offensive skill. Gaudreau is still a superb player who should improve the team eventually. Wait until the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery. If they win it over the Sharks, Ducks, and Blackhawks, they’ll get a franchise player in Bedard. He only scored 71 goals with 72 assists for a total of 143 points for the Regina Pats in the Western Hockey League (WHL).

If they don’t get Bedard, University Of Michigan star Adam Fantilli is a possibility as a consolation prize. Columbus boasts promising young D prospects David Jiricek and Stanislav Svozil, who could help stabilize a shaky blue line that’s been without anchor Zach Werenski. Kent Johnson is a former Wolverine who’s had a good second half in his first season. Marchenko got his 20th goal versus the Blueshirts.

Even without oft-injured Patrik Laine, the Blue Jackets certainly tested the Rangers. If they’d changed sides, Shesterkin probably would’ve had Columbus on top. Having that steady goaltending matters. It can be the difference between winning and losing. When the defense takes chances, Shesterkin is the last line of defense. He’s tied with former teammate Alexander Georgiev for second in wins (34) this season.

Eventually, the Rangers played better hockey to pull away. Able to spend more time in the Columbus end thanks to strong work from the Kid Line of Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko, they got a crucial power play goal from Panarin late in the second period. It doesn’t happen without a strong move by a more confident Lafreniere to draw a penalty on Hunter McNown.

Goals from Mika Zibanejad (team best 38th for point 81) and Vincent Trocheck (empty netter) in the third salted it away. So, a game that once was 3-2 became 6-2 for the final score.

With things falling into place, there’s a realistic chance they can pass the Devils in the standings. What happens later tonight could help determine who finishes in second place. That’s assuming neither team catches the Hurricanes for first. They have 103 points with nine games left. Carolina visits Detroit tonight.

For the Rangers to pass the Devils, a win in regulation would move them into second. Each enters the pivotal game tied in regulation wins with 34. The first tiebreaker. A Rangers regulation victory would vault them past the Devils despite having the same amount of points. They’d be up to 35 wins in regulation.

For the Jersey side, they’ve had some struggles. The 5-1 loss to the Islanders, who again won 2-1 over the Capitals last night in a shootout to increase their lead for the first wildcard, was alarming. For two periods, the Devils didn’t skate or play with any purpose. They let the Islanders carry the play.

With the exception of an Erik Haula shorthanded goal that tied the game, they were outskated and out-worked by the more desperate Islanders. Attacking a vulnerable defense, eventually, the Long Island hosts used a Kyle Palmieri goal to take the lead for good. It was a play where the former Devil skated around the net without any resistance and whistled a backhand past Vitek Vanecek.

There was a lot of puck watching. It was an awful shift by the Devils, who were out-shot 17-8 in the second period. They were outplayed by a wide margin.

At least they decided to give an honest effort in a more competitive third. But the defensive minded Islanders kept most of the scoring chances to the outside. That allowed Vezina candidate Ilya Sorokin to see the shots and make the stops. He made 14 of his 30 saves in the third.

It would be Palmieri again who took advantage of a careless Ondrej Palat turnover to make it 3-1. Bo Horvat and Zach Parise added empty netters.

If there’s a cause for concern, it’s the Devils’ inability to create as much offense against tight checking opponents. Jack Hughes was bottled up on Monday night. A 40-goal scorer for the first time in his career, he finished with four shots and a minus-three in over 22 minutes. He got one good opportunity when he made a strong move to the net but was denied by Sorokin.

Sorokin’s best save came on Dawson Mercer during a delayed penalty. His backhand rebound seemed ticketed for the back of the net. But Sorokin somehow stuck his left pad out at the last split second to keep the Islanders in front. They then killed off an ineffective Devils power play early in the third.

The Devils haven’t played in three days. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to the challenge later. With the Rangers right on their heels, it’s a good test. They’ve used their speed and skill well to take two of the previous three meetings. In particular, Hughes has had his way. He’s scored four goals and added an assist for five points.

Do things change versus a much improved rival that’s added Tarasenko, Kane, and Niko Mikkola? The Rangers finally have established lines. Gallant has found the right mix. Tarasenko has good chemistry with Zibanejad and Panarin, who’s playing his best hockey. Trocheck works best with Kane and Kreider, with all three Americans playing a unique combination of straightedge and play-making.

However, the key to their postseason aspirations remains the play of Chytil, Lafreniere, and Kakko. It’s that cohesive third unit that can combine their unique skill, speed, and grit to create problems for teams on the forecheck. They have found their rhythm. With Chytil scoring again and both Kakko and Lafreniere winning board battles, they’re the line to watch.

In a nice reward for a career best season that now includes 22 goals with 20 assists for 42 points, the Rangers announced a contract extension for the 23-year old Chytil yesterday. He received a four-year deal worth an average cap hit of $4.4 million. The contract will take him to his age 27 season in 2026-27.

Having a legit checking line helps. Prior to the key additions of Tarasenko and Kane to round out the top six, Gallant didn’t really have what he wanted. Now, he can roll four lines thanks to the hard-working trio of Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, and Tyler Motte. All three are strong on the wall and double as penalty killers.

Having that balance is a big key to success. The Rangers boast their most effective fourth line since 2013-14. That was the last time they appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was mostly comprised of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, and Derek Dorsett. However, Daniel Carcillo played a key role in helping them get past the Flyers in the first round. Everyone remembers the Boyle goal in Game Six versus Pittsburgh. Then his great feed to set up Moore for the series clincher against Montreal in the Eastern Conference Final.

The best part of the current checking line is that they can all contribute. Gallant hasn’t been hesitant to have them out to protect a one-goal lead. They’re a grinding line who plays the right way.

The Devils are still trying to figure out the best place for Timo Meier. Acquires from San Jose, the 26-year-old, has struggled offensively. Part of the problem is he’s playing out of position. Due to both Jesper Bratt and Mercer, who are right wings on the top two lines, coach Lindy Ruff has been playing the proven goalscorer on the left side.

It hasn’t clicked yet. He only has four goals with two helpers for six points in his first 13 games as a Devil. Hardly the production they expect. In fact, Meier is minus-four over the last three games. He’s shooting the puck. They’re not going in.

Ruff has tried Meier with Hughes mostly. But he has also tweaked his lines to see what he’s capable of with two-way center Nico Hischier. It might be a better way to go. Both are from Switzerland. Ruff still has time to decide where Meier will fit best.

The play of Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt, along with the improvement of former first round pick Mercer, have provided the Devils with plenty of scoring punch. They’ve also gotten a good year out of veteran Tomas Tatar, who Ruff prefers to use as a complement. He can stick the checking Haula anywhere in the top nine. A strong face-off guy, he wins 54.7 percent.

Face-offs aren’t an issue. Hischier is 53.6 percent, and Mike McLeod is 61.0 percent. Due to Hughes’ struggles in the dot, they often have Haula take draws. Ruff has even used McLeod to win key face-offs to start overtime before changing.

The biggest question is if Vanecek can be the guy in goal. He had a good first half but has struggled recently. He’s never played this many games (47) in the league. Something Hasan alluded to in previous posts. With Mackenzie Blackwood back, they optioned Akira Schmid back to the AHL. He’s been good in his rookie year.

If you’re looking for an edge between the close Hudson rivals, it’s that the Rangers boast the reliable Shesterkin in the net. He’s the clear number one, having carried the team to the Conference Finals last season. Vanecek is unproven. So is Blackwood. It’ll be interesting to see what develops for the playoffs in New Jersey.

Each team boasts a stud defenseman. Adam Fox’s exploits are well documented. The former Norris winner is counted on to play in every situation and log big minutes while running the power play. His 11 goals, 56 assists, and 67 points pace all Rangers’ defensemen. He’s best working with Lindgren, who they’re resting to make sure he’s ready for the playoffs.

Dougie Hamilton has had a big bounce back year. Fully healthy, he’s paced the Devils on the back end with 19 goals, 49 helpers, and 68 points. All career bests. His eight power play goals are tied with both Hughes and Bratt for the team lead. Hamilton’s seven game-winners rank second on the team behind Hischier (9).

Unlike Fox, who acts more like a playmaker than goalscorer, Hamilton shoots to score. He possesses a top heavy shot that’s deadly accurate. He’s hit double digits in goals eight of his eleven seasons.

While the Devils lean on the tandem of Ryan Graves and John Marino for the key match-ups, the Rangers mostly go with K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba. Miller has been inconsistent in his end, frequently getting caught out of position. Not a natural defenseman, his tendency to look for offense can make that pair adventurous. Trouba is the classic physical D who can make an impact with his heavy hitting and blocked shots. He’s really led by example in his first year as captain.

The Devils are hoping Jonas Siegenthaler can rebound. He was pretty reliable in the first half, but his play slipped. He’s a key piece to that back end. Ruff has shown more confidence in using Kevin Bahl lately. His play has improved. He could play over Brendan Smith on the third pair with Damon Severson.

When fully healthy, the Rangers can shift Mikkola to the third pair with Braden Schneider, who isn’t shy about finishing checks. He’s a young defenseman who’s still trying to find consistency. He has good instincts. Ben Harpur has filled in admirably on the third pair when Mikkola has moved up to play with Fox. He plays with an edge.

In many ways, this feels like a prelude to a first round series. On Opening Day for baseball, tonight’s match-up should be exciting. Expect it to deliver.


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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