First period no-show unacceptable for slow starting Rangers in overtime loss to Sabres’ rookie Devon Levi in NHL debut

Look. Nobody is going to say playing a back-to-back is easy. At this point of a long season, thanks to the NHL schedule makers, it isn’t.

However, that’s part of the job requirement for the Rangers. They’re locked into at least third place in a competitive Metro Division. Even following Thursday’s tough one-goal defeat to the Devils, who enter Saturday’s action, a point behind the first place Hurricanes, there should’ve been more left for the second straight game against the Sabres, who were excited to have top prospect Devon Levi make his NHL debut.

Another sluggish start allowed Levi to settle in. He was a standout at Northeastern University where the 21-year old posted a .942 save percentage over two seasons in the Hockey East. He went from a seventh round pick of the Panthers to one of the game’s most promising young goalies.

The Sabres acquired him from Florida on July 24, 2021, along with a first round pick that became promising forward prospect Jiri Kulich in exchange for Sam Reinhart. When the trade was made by Buffalo, many fans were less than enthused. Now, look at it. It’s changed. It’s funny how your perspective can shift.

How did the Blueshirts greet Levi? By no-showing the entire first period. It was pitiful. They only had two total shots on Levi over the game’s first 20 minutes. That’s pathetic.

Listening to Gerard Gallant following what turned into a 3-2 overtime loss to a desperate Sabres team who kept their feint playoff hopes alive, he was very upset with his team. The effort was lacking. He didn’t mince words over what’s become an alarming trend. The slow starts to games that put them in an early hole.

“Honestly, we talk about it all the time. We had a good start the other night. A couple of nights ago, and then the last five or six has been a joke,” he said after being asked about whether it has something to do with clinching the playoffs.

“We were fortunate to get a couple of goals, but we didn’t play well. We had one line show up tonight and play hard every shift. That was it. We were fortunate to get a point. … I’m pissed off tonight because we got one point. We want to win hockey games. That’s what we’re here for.”

He then was very direct about how he hadn’t liked their approach since reaching the playoffs. Gallant expects a lot more out of this group. It’s a good core that knows better. They didn’t have these kind of problems last year. That was more of a team that didn’t rely on talent alone. But rather, they prided themselves on outworking opponents.

That hasn’t been the case since adding a less than impressive Patrick Kane. He was invisible again. The 34-year old has been one of the game’s brightest stars. So far as a Blueshirt, he’s been inconsistent. Five goals and four assists in 15 games isn’t what they had in mind when they stole him from the Blackhawks.

The good news is there’s still plenty of time for Kane to flip the script. He wasn’t brought in for the regular season. Rather the postseason when the lights shine brightest. He’s excelled under the spotlight, delivering three Stanley Cups to the Blackhawks. Showtime should be hungry to take part in his first postseason in three years. He’s got a lot riding on the line.

The Rangers really do as well. You don’t go out and get Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, and the valuable Niko Mikkola for nothing. Chris Drury was wise to bring back Tyler Motte. With an assist last night on the tying goal scored by Adam Fox, who set a new career high with his 12th goal, Motte has been superb.

He’s contributing offense along with being a checking forward who kills penalties. He’s got seven points (3-4-7) in 18 games. Solid secondary production while playing on the very effective checking line that includes Barclay Goodrow and Steven McDonald Award candidate Jimmy Vesey. That line never takes a shift off.

Maybe the biggest disappointment was how little effort the Rangers gave in the first period against Buffalo. The Sabres are fighting for their playoff lives. A long shot to sneak into the second wildcard that’s occupied by the Jekyll and Hyde Penguins, they showed more urgency.

Even without top scorer Tage Thompson, they skated circles around the Rangers in a lopsided opening period. It could’ve been a lot worse if backup Jaroslav Halak didn’t make some key saves. The faster Sabres buzzed around his net and were allowed to gain the zone without any resistance. A disturbing trend that continues to plague the team. If not for spotting the Devils two goals, maybe they get a different result.

Halak made 10 saves on 11 shots in the period. That included some tough ones on Jack Quinn, J.J. Peterka and Jeff Skinner. He wasn’t to blame on Peterka’s 11th. An ugly sequence where Mikkola, Vincent Trocheck, and Kane got lost in coverage. With K’Andre Miller taking Quinn, whose shot rebounded out to an unguarded Dylan Cozens, he easily found Peterka wide open for a tap-in.

On the scoring play, Trocheck didn’t pick up Cozens. Neither Mikkola nor Kane bothered to take Peterka. That chaotic play was indicative of how the Rangers treated the first period against the Sabres. Like a stroll in the park.

Mika Zibanejad also didn’t do much either. The unquestioned top Rangers forward was off his game. He took a penalty on Peterka to put the Sabres on the power play. However, the improved Rangers penalty kill got the job done. They were able to limit the damage. Despite being out-shot 11-2, they only trailed by a goal.

The second started slowly. But eventually, they picked it up. It took Gallant tweaking his top six for them to wake up. After killing off an early Artemi Panarin minor, Fox made a good read in the Buffalo zone. He shot for Trocheck in front. The shot pass nearly worked. But an aggressive Levi came out to deny the tip-in for his best save at that point. With family and friends cheering him on, the crowd reacted with excitement.

Gallant already had taken Panarin off the first line. He was with Trocheck and Kane. Chris Kreider was moved back up with Zibanejad and Tarasenko, who again was noticeable. He missed wide on a good opportunity. He also had a solid hit on Casey Mittlestadt. He plays a good overall game. That’s why he fits on the top line with Zibanejad.

Even as they began to find their game, there still were some cracks in the armor. While the Kid Line got going, you had noted goalscorer Jordan Greenway carry Ben Harpur on his way to the net where he surprised everyone, including Halak, by beating him high, short side on a one-handed backhand. It was only his fourth goal, and second, since the Sabres acquired him from Minnesota.

On the play, Rasmus Dahlin made a good outlet for Mittlestadt, who was able to elevate a pass up for Greenway, who had a step on Harpur. On that particular shift, he was on with Jacob Trouba. Unsatisfied with what he saw, Gallant even changed all three defense pairings for a good chunk of the second. Harpur got burned. Halak definitely would want that goal back. However, it’s not even close without him.

You had Miller take shifts with Fox. That meant Mikkola was dropped to the third pair with Braden Schneider, who was very active throughout. A second-year defenseman, he stood up at the blue line to make a good hit. He attempted four shots. None hit the net. His play was steady in 19 shifts (17:00). Overall, it was one of his better nights. He’s still learning.

Following the Greenway tally that made it 2-0, Halak made a couple of stops, including one in tight on Dylan Cozens. That gave the Rangers a chance to come back.

A great takeaway by Miller almost led to a goal. He made an outstanding defensive play by stealing the puck from Kyle Okposo at the point. That allowed him to get a breakaway on Levi. A good offensive player in transition, Miller made a good fake and had Levi out of position, but couldn’t bury his forehand. Instead, he missed the net, shaking his head as he returned to the Rangers bench.

Finally, with some momentum, the Rangers broke through on Levi. Thanks to some superb teamwork from the third line, they were able to strike to cut the deficit to one with 7:43 left. Off a rush, Alexis Lafreniere took a wrist shot that rebounded out to Chytil, whose backhand attempt took a funny hop in the air. Kaapo Kakko beat his man Tyson Jost to the net to bat the puck in for his 15th.

Gallant can usually count on the young trio to give an honest effort. They weren’t good on Thursday night in Newark. The Devils did a good job limiting their offensive chances by forcing them to defend. It’s the play of Chytil, Lafreniere, and Kakko on the back boards that can create strong forecheck pressure. That’ll no doubt be a key to the postseason.

It still boils down to the top stars. Zibanejad had a lousy night finishing without a shot on goal. It was reflected in his ice time where he received less than Chytil, who was more visible. Zibanejad had 16:33 while Chytil received 17:06, including a 23-second shift shorthanded.

The trio of Kane, Panarin, and Trocheck all finished minus-two. A reflection of what wasn’t a good night. At least Panarin had a couple of high danger chances. He was denied twice by Levi, who came out to challenge. That included once in overtime prior to Skinner scoring the winner.

The biggest save Levi made came when he got across to rob Kakko of his second late in the second. He was all set up in the right circle, but Levi made the glove save. Kakko didn’t elevate the puck.

He isn’t a good finisher. Most of his goals come off hard work. He isn’t always instinctive. He had another scoring chance on a strong shift but opted to make an extra pass over for Chytil, who was checked just enough to shoot the puck back into Levi.

After totaling only 11 shots in two periods, the Rangers threw the kitchen sink at Levi in the third. He was up to the challenge. They fired 20 shots on goal but only were able to beat him once.

A notoriously fragile team when it comes to protecting leads in the third period, the Sabres fumbled a lot of pucks to make life difficult on their newest pupil. Levi finally got baptized in the third period.

On one early sequence by the Rangers’ fourth line, he made four saves to deny bids by Motte, Goodrow, and Vesey. The fun was just beginning.

Finally taking the opponent seriously, the Rangers had the puck a lot more in the Sabres’ end zone. That meant more shots towards Levi along with more traffic. As good as he was, the strategy finally paid dividends when Fox was able to sneak in and stuff home the tying goal with 10:15 remaining.

After a series of tough stops on Motte and Goodrow, Levi didn’t know where the puck was. Thinking it was underneath him, he lost Fox, who was able to come around the net and get his 12th at 9:45. As he put the loose puck in, four Sabres stood around the Buffalo net and watched. It was a welcome to the Sabres moment for the kid.

Fox is very good at reading the play. That Harvard education pays off. He made sure to circle the net and put a stick on the puck to notch a personal best 12th goal in a season. Even without partner Ryan Lindgren, he continues to produce. Whenever Lindgren is back, Fox becomes a better player. They go together like peanut butter and jelly.

With the game knotted at two, Panarin drew a hooking penalty on Ilya Lyubushkin. That was the only power play of the game. Another indication of how poorly the Rangers played. They were unable to really threaten Levi, who made the stops from the outside.

In crunch time, he came up large on Panarin. On a play where Tarasenko tapped a loose puck over to Panarin, he let go of a good shot that Levi denied with 1:28 left in regulation. It allowed the Sabres to reach overtime.

In it, he would deny Chytil on a tip-in and then again thwart Panarin by making a glove save during the first shift. That Gallant went with Chytil told you all you needed to know about how Zibanejad played. He would get victimized along with Tarasenko on the game-winner.

Out for an extended shift with Miller, neither Zibanejad nor Tarasenko could stop Skinner from driving to the net and firing a laser past Halak for the overtime winner at 1:50. They were out of gas.

It was just as well. Like Goodrow told reporters after the game, you can’t play 20 minutes and expect to win. That doesn’t fly. It won’t be long before the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. There are six games remaining on the schedule.

Next up are the Capitals, who are on the brink of playoff extinction. Something that hasn’t happened since 2013-14. The Rangers will need to set their alarm clocks for 1 PM on Sunday. That means an early wake-up call. They better heed the message.


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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