Rangers earn point to pull within one of Devils, Sabres take shootout in goalie duel, Lindgren wins Steven McDonald Award

This one had drama. In an exciting game where it was mostly about the goalies, the Rangers earned a point in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Sabres at MSG. The win kept their slim playoff hopes alive.

On an emotional night, they rewarded the gritty and gutsy Ryan Lindgren with the prestigious Steven McDonald Award before the game. A heart and soul player, who’s the glue of the defense, it was well deserved. His value to the team is what he brings during each shift.

That was on display during overtime when he made a diving block that nicked him. Of course, Lindgren returned to the bench. What a gamer.

Admittedly, I forgot about Lindgren in my game preview yesterday. I chose Jimmy Vesey for the extra effort award. A good pick. But when I really think about it, Lindgren embodies what it means to be a New York Ranger. He’s always reminded me of Dan Girardi. The only difference is that he wears number 55 instead of 5. That warrior like mentality is needed. Congrats to Lindy!

Seeing NYPD captain Conor McDonald and his lovely family on the Garden ice to present his Dad’s award in the pregame ceremony always moves me. That family is very special to this city. In hard times when much doesn’t make sense, they represent everything that’s right.

It was only fitting that Lindgren would lay out to take a dangerous shot up high in a hard fought game that had a lot of meaning. As I noted previously, Buffalo was playing for their playoff lives. You knew they’d be desperate. It showed early and in crunch time.

The Rangers were also playing for something. A win would’ve meant tying the Devils in the standings. As it stands, the Rangers trail their close Hudson rival by a point with the lone remaining game on Thursday against the Maple Leafs. If the Devils earn two points in their final two games, including facing those Sabres tonight and finishing at the Capitals, the Rangers can’t pass them.

With the Hurricanes losing 4-3 to the Senators in regulation last night on Claude Giroux’s winner, which put him over 1,000 points, they only have a one-point lead over the Devils for first place in the Metro Division. Both teams are in action on Tuesday. The Canes host the Red Wings. The Devils are home for the Sabres, who must keep winning and get help.

The Metro Division is separated by two points. Carolina has 109. The Devils have 108. The Rangers have 107. Regulation wins favor New Jersey, whose 38 are one more than both the Canes and Blueshirts. None of that matters if Carolina wins and the Devils lose in regulation later. They would clinch the division along with home ice for the first two rounds.

As for the wildcard race, it’s going down to the wire. With the Sabres able to come back and defeat the Rangers, they’re up to 87 points. With three games left, they can max out at 93. The Islanders losing at the Caps 5-2 was huge. They remain at 91 with a do or die game against the Canadiens tomorrow night. Although they got a point in a 2-1 overtime loss, the Panthers haven’t clinched. They’re at 92. The final game is Thursday at home versus the Canes. One point would get them in.

This is chaotic. Nobody knows what will happen. The Penguins host the tanking Blackhawks tonight. A win puts them in wildcard position with 92 points. It would be a shock if they didn’t win. Their last game is on Thursday against the tanking Blue Jackets. The odds are stacked in their favor, facing two teams desperate for Connor Bedard. Nice schedule.

Now that I’ve cleared all the playoff scenarios up, let’s focus on Monday night’s game. One that didn’t start well. But it definitely picked up. It turned into an exciting game due to all the stakes.

Outside of an early power play that a cutting Adam Fox drew on Ilya Lyubushkin, who wisely grabbed hold of him to prevent a scoring chance on an odd-man rush, there was little push from the Rangers in a flat first period.

Having already killed off one of those lazy Artemi Panarin penalties in the offensive zone, they didn’t create much on the five-on-four. Mika Zibanejad got the only opportunity. He was perfectly placed in the slot. But his shot was denied by Devon Levi. The two-time Mike Richter Award winner is already proving capable in net for the goalie starved Sabres. He would come up with some gems later.

It was mostly Buffalo in the opening period. They applied puck pressure. Holding a territorial edge in play, they tested Igor Shesterkin throughout the game. He was particularly sharp during a lopsided first that saw his team outplayed and out-shot 14-4.

There were strong saves on Alex Tuch, Jack Quinn, and Dylan Cozens. He really is locked in. For the night, he made 37 saves on 39 shots. Some of his best work came in the third period and overtime. His play is back to where it needs to be with the postseason approaching. A good sign for the Blueshirts. When on, he’s better than any other goalie in the division.

The Sabres were able to finally get the jump on the Rangers. On a hard-working shift by their third line, Tyson Jost pressured Niko Mikkola into losing the puck. Quinn then made a sneaky pass in front for a J.J. Peterka goal with 5:36 left. It was the rookie’s 12th. He was visible throughout.

While the Blueshirts struggled to find their footing, the Sabres looked for more. However, Shesterkin made key stops on Peyton Krebs and Tuch to keep the deficit at one.

With under a minute remaining, a strong shift from the line of Vincent Trocheck, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Panarin led to the Bread Man drawing a high-sticking minor on top Buffalo scorer Tage Thompson. Although they didn’t connect on the first part to conclude the period, there was still 1:07 left that carried over.

During a good first intermission interview between MSG reporter Michelle Gingras and Lindgren on what it meant to win the Steven McDonald Award, he said they had to pick up the intensity. It was understood why the Sabres came out with urgency. Lindgren’s message was prophetic.

For the first minute of the second period, it didn’t look like the Rangers would score on the remainder of the Thompson penalty. However, a defensive draw won by Zibanejad led to a beautiful goal from Panarin in transition.

On the play, Kane moved the puck for Zibanejad, who quickly gained the Buffalo zone to find Panarin. He wired a wrist shot high, short side by Levi to tie the score with six seconds left on the power play.

It was a terrific rush and pass across by Zibanejad that set up Panarin for his 27th. That gave him the first 90-point season of his career. A well-deserved achievement for one of the game’s premier centers. It also was the 90th point for Panarin, making it three of four seasons in his Rangers career that he’s reached 90. He never hit that figure before arriving in the Big Apple.

On the next shift, the Sabres tried to respond. But Mittlestadt had his shot stopped by Shesterkin. He’d also make a save on Jeff Skinner, who’s usually dangerous when he plays our team.

The Rangers began to dictate the tempo. While the second line was flying, it was again the consistent work of the 21 and over Kid Line that was noticeable. Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere were all very effective during shifts. Chytil was the most dangerous of the trio by getting six shots on Levi. He was up for the challenge, stopping him twice early in the second to keep the game tied.

More engaged, the Blueshirts continued to come. They had better puck possession during shifts. That led to more time in the Buffalo zone. Levi would make a save on Zibanejad, who made a bid for his 40th. It wasn’t the only key save Levi made on Zibanejad. He later denied him on a deflection.

On one of the better shifts by the Sabres, they created a couple of opportunities. However, Shesterkin turned away Jordan Greenway and then the dangerous Peterka.

During that same shift, the Rangers came the other way. On a play in the corner of the Sabres’ end, a hustling Trocheck dove to keep a loose puck alive. Riley Stillman lost the battle. Tarasenko found the puck and made a perfect centering feed across for a Panarin one-timer for his second of the game at 11:12.

It was a great pass by Tarasenko, who continues to work well with Panarin. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the extra effort from Trocheck. He didn’t get credit for an assist. As of today, that hasn’t been changed. I thought Stillman misplayed it. Regardless, the scoring play doesn’t happen without Trocheck.

With the Sabres suddenly on life support, Tyler Motte came very close to making it 3-1. But his sneaky backhand went off the far goalpost and stayed out. It was a lucky break for Buffalo. Had that gone in, it might’ve been lights out the way Shesterkin was playing.

He’d deny who else but Skinner on a good chance. Then, make a glove save on Owen Power to get a stoppage.

Late in the period, the Rangers pushed for the third goal. But on an extended shift where the Sabres were trapped, Levi bailed them out with big saves on Chytil, Kakko, and then Mikkola. Those stops were crucial.

Shesterkin then got across to rob Power with a nice glove save. The “Ig-or, Ig-or” chants were heard from the fans.

With time winding down, Levi made one more save on Tarasenko to keep the deficit at one. He couldn’t afford to allow another goal.

For most of the third period, it felt like the Rangers were in control. Shesterkin was stopping everything. It didn’t look like the Sabres would find the equalizer. They did, however, get superb goaltending from Levi.

No sequence was bigger than the one created by the Chytil line. Following a close call at the opposite end, when Peterka hit the crossbar, here came the Kid Line. Both Chytil and Lafreniere were thwarted by Levi. He made four clutch stops with his team struggling in their end.

As the shift continued, Lafreniere absolutely belted Kyle Okposo with a clean hit against the boards. It was the biggest hit of the game. While he is still looking to reach 20 goals in a season, the improvement in his overall game is evident. Both he and Kakko need a point for their first 40-point season. Kakko is 22, and Lafreniere is 21. Hopefully, they can get it in two days.

Chris Kreider nearly had a tip-in for a goal off a face-off play. But he couldn’t quite put the puck past Levi.

With the game still 2-1, it took a brutal turnover by K’Andre Miller to allow the Sabres to tie it. Unable to control a loose puck in his end, he fumbled it away. That allowed Tuch to get a shot on Shesterkin that Casey Mittlestadt rebounded home for the tying goal with 11:47 remaining.

For once, Joe Micheletti didn’t look the other way. He pointed out that Miller had struggled all game with pucks. As talented a player as he is, Miller commits egregious mistakes at inopportune times. The Jacob Trouba slander from misguided fans has been way off base. He’s carried that pairing, which has been on for the most goals against. They’ve also played a lot more minutes together.

Miller must limit those kinds of mistakes in his second postseason. He raised his game last year. He must do the same if the Rangers are going to be successful.

With the game tied, both teams went for it. That meant more big saves from each netminder. It made for a fun third period.

Following a Lafreniere tip-in that missed the mark, the Sabres made a push for the lead. Cozens, Greenway, and Okposo were denied by a sharp Shesterkin.

With under two minutes to go, it looked like the Rangers might win it. On a splendid Zibanejad rush, he made a nice drop pass for a cutting Lindgren. But his shot was denied by Levi, who just got a piece of it to keep it out. That critical save came with 1:55 remaining.

Imagine if Lindgren had scored. How storybook that would have been. On a night, he wins the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award. That close.

Following a timeout by the Sabres to rest their players, Trouba and Mikkola had long shots on Levi that he handled. With seconds to spare, Zibanejad had a tip-in deflect wide. To overtime it went.

While the Panthers were losing to the Leafs in extras on a John Tavares goal, the Sabres were fighting for their playoff lives. It showed during the five-minute OT.

After initially controlling the puck, the Rangers lost it. Thompson tested Shesterkin with a tough shot that he saved. As play continued, the whistle blew. The Rangers took a bench minor to give Buffalo a four-on-three advantage.

It was anything but. The three-man penalty killing unit of Goodrow, Trouba, and Lindgren gave them nothing. Playing a tight triangle, they took away the passing options the Sabres were looking for.

On a play that’s defined his career, Lindgren went down and took a Skinner shot upstairs. Somehow, he was okay. After he went off to the locker room, he was back on the bench. Unbelievable.

Although they got a few shots, almost all the good scoring chances came following the power play. A terrific penalty kill by the Rangers, who also used Zibanejad, Mikkola, and Braden Schneider.

It was all Sabres. Cozens was denied twice in tight by Shesterkin. Then, he made a strong save on Thompson. After Skinner missed, Shesterkin made one final stop by denying Rasmus Dahlin. He made six saves in the overtime.

The shootout didn’t disappoint. Although it isn’t the best way to decide such big games as we know too well (Flyers 2010), there was drama.

After Shesterkin stopped Quinn, Levi stayed right with Kane to deny him to keep it scoreless after Round One. Then, Shesterkin made a glove save on Thompson to start the second. But Levi forced Zibanejad wide on his forehand deke try. He lost control at the end.

In Round Three, Shesterkin denied Tuch on a tricky backhand. Out came Panarin. With most of the crowd on their feet expecting him to win it, it was Levi who instead foiled Panarin. He didn’t go for one fake, eventually forcing a weak attempt that had no chance.

In the top of the fourth, the Sabres went with Power. He came in tight and wired a forehand glove side. But in the bottom of the fourth, Tarasenko beat Levi with a patented wrist shot to force Round Five.

Mittlestadt had been 3 for 14 in his career. However, he made a great move and shot to beat Shesterkin. Coming in on Shesterkin, he went to a backhand, whipping it inside the bar. He froze Shesterkin just enough to score.

Gerard Gallant sent out Kakko. He’s been good in his attempts. Instead of going to his backhand deke, he tried to go forehand. But a patient Levi forced him wide to earn the Sabres the crucial second point.

It was pretty exciting. Most shootouts lack that. There was a lot riding on it. As fate would have it later, Nashville won in a shootout over Calgary to stay alive out West. All they need is two Winnipeg regulation losses and two wins over the Wild and Avalanche. Good luck. The Flames were eliminated. What a disappointment.

The next few days will be interesting. The calm before the storm.

I have no complaints. The start should’ve been better. Outside of that, it was pretty even. There were stretches where the Rangers controlled play. Both goalies were superb. Whatever Levi is doing with his meditation during breaks, it’s working. He looks to have a bright future.


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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