Filip Chytil nearly had another unreal Rangers moment. With over a second to go, he thought he scored the tying goal when a loose puck went in off his skate past Joseph Woll.
However, an automatic video review by who else but Toronto determined that Chytil kicked the puck in. That preserved a Leafs’ 3-2 win over the Rangers on Fan Appreciation Night at MSG. They honored the Garden Of Dreams kids, even giving away college scholarships. That’s something they always get right.
This was my favorite part of the game. Jacob Trouba greeting Isaiah on the ice during the traditional jersey giveaway. Isaiah wants to be a lawyer. A listen into what Trouba said to him is exactly why he won the Rod Gilbert Mr. Ranger Award. What a classy guy.
That’s what it’s all about. I love that kind of stuff. It’s great. There were a lot of emotional scenes around the league, including the Blackhawks send-off for great captain Jonathan Toews, who played for the final time as a Blackhawk. That one made me sad. I’m glad he scored. The crowd sure gave him an unbelievable ovation before and after the game.
You also had the Sabres do something similar for classy veteran goalie Craig Anderson, who played the final game of his career. He won it thanks to Casey Mittlestadt scoring in overtime to beat Anderson’s former team, Ottawa. They then had a great send-off that included Anderson’s family on ice as the entire Senators team congratulated him. Pretty cool.
That’s what makes hockey number 1. The players, coaches, and organizations get it. Anderson overcame cancer. He had a good career. Maybe he even one day is inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall Of Fame. He won 319 games.
As far as the Rangers are concerned, they know who their first round opponent is. As had been discussed by both Hasan and I in this space, it’ll be a Battle of Hudson. On what was a wild night, the Devils rallied back from a 4-1 deficit to defeat the Caps 5-4 in overtime on Luke Hughes’ first NHL goal. It’s one for the highlight reel.
While that was happening, the Hurricanes blew a 2-0 lead against the Panthers. Both games were in the third period. But then, Carolina scored consecutive goals to pull back ahead 4-2. They got an empty netter that should’ve sealed it. However, two quick Panthers goals with the goalie pulled made it interesting. Finally, the Canes added a second empty netter to win 6-4, finally wrapping up the Metropolitan Division.
You got all that? Most of the night, it felt like Rangers versus Devils was a certainty. With them playing their third goalie, Mackenzie Blackwood, and resting players, it felt like they were tempting fate. Hasan documented all of this in an earlier post. He then went over it again due to Blackwood, who was replaced by Akira Schmid. It’s worth the read.
I really didn’t think it wouldn’t end up with Rangers/Devils. I thought the Canes would do whatever it took to win the division to avoid our team. They haven’t exactly matched up well over the past year. They will still draw the agonizing Islanders, who love playing a deliberate pace reliant on Ilya Sorokin. Their tight checking style isn’t exactly a great match-up. We’ll have more over the weekend on that series along with the juicy subplots for the seventh installment of the Hudson Rivalry.
I’ll admit that it was fun to follow. I actually watched more of the Devils game than ours due to the special circumstances. I occasionally checked back on the Rangers to see what was happening against the Maple Leafs, who seemed more concerned with Mitch Marner getting his 100th point. It didn’t happen. But William Nylander scored his career best 40th goal to tie the score at two in the deciding third period.
For two periods, there wasn’t much going on. Jaroslav Halak, who got the start, was pitching a shutout. He and counterpart Woll didn’t face a high volume of shots. The two Original Six teams each had only a dozen shots through two periods. Halak did make a couple of excellent saves on Nylander, including denying him on a breakaway during the first period.
Regarding Halak, I’m glad he got the final game. I apologize for my earlier post that inferred Igor Shesterkin was starting. Mollie Walker tweeted the same lineup. I took that to mean we’d also see Igor in the the net. She meant the skaters, meaning every regular played. Gerard Gallant decided to keep his players sharp. There wasn’t a ton of physicality, but Luke Schenn did nail Artemi Panarin with a check. Panarin responded by going back at him during that shift.
The Leafs didn’t rest top stars, Auston Matthews, or Marner either. However, they did give captain John Tavares the night off along with starter Ilya Samsonov, veteran Mark Giordano, and Sam Lafferty. Sheldon Keefe was smart in giving his key players one game off before their big first round clash against the Lightning. A rematch from last year. No team has more pressure than Toronto. Not even the Rangers. The last time the Leafs advanced to the second round, I was in my 20’s. Sidney Crosby was still playing junior hockey, and Alexander Ovechkin was about to get drafted. That was a different time.
It’s hard to believe how long ago that was. The Rangers were going on seven consecutive seasons without the playoffs. Mark Messier played his final game. He scored on a pass from Jozef Balej. It came against the Sabres. It was quite a memorable experience. Seeing the captain a final time at The Garden before it became the current corporate stench full of transients and tourists.
I wonder how many of our fans could get the trivia on the primary assist of that last Messier goal. Balej came over from the Canadiens in the failed Alexei Kovalev deal. A total bust. Vintage Sather. He really sucked at running the team and got lucky that the lockout forced him to adjust his strategy. The salary cap changed things along with Henrik Lundqvist and some guy named Jagr. The Rangers have only missed the playoffs five times since the Dark Ages. Something the millennial newbies never experienced. So when they complain, they sound clueless.
All of this is interesting to remember. But I’m glad we’re not still stuck with no hope. Indeed, the current era of Rangers hockey should excite many who root for a team that’s only won one Stanley Cup in 81 years. Notice I didn’t count 2022-23. That’ll depend on the current roster. They’re very capable of going far in the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’ll be tricky.
I think in a lot of ways, tonight’s game that featured two talented and deep teams is symbolic. Are the Leafs capable of making it out of the first round and potentially upsetting the record-breaking Bruins? Absolutely. First, they must end the first round curse that’s haunted them. I view them as the biggest threat to Boston. But they have to beat the battle-tested Lightning first.
The Rangers are a very good team. They can score better than last year’s roster, which only went on a run to the Conference Finals. But ultimately came up short against the Lightning. They also lucked out beating backups to reach that point. It didn’t make it any less impressive as it was their first real postseason in five years. They showed plenty of resilience.
If you liked the 2021-22 Rangers, who made key additions in Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte, and Justin Braun to balance things out, then this year’s version is more star-studded. Featuring deadline pick-ups Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Kane, Motte II, and Niko Mikkola, they’re more offensive minded this time. The defense can sometimes leave you scratching your head. They better not do that against the Devils. It won’t work.
The only goal in the first two periods scored last night came from Kaapo Kakko. He was able to cut in and receive a good feed from Vincent Trocheck. He then patiently waited for an aggressive Woll to commit to what he figured would be a one-timer. Kakko then went to the backhand to score his career best 18th. He finished the season by reaching 40 points for the first time. He’ll need to be a factor along with the 21 and Over Kid Line versus the Devils.
In my mind, the play of Chytil, Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere will be a key to the series. Their ability to get pucks in and forecheck is something the top two lines lack at times. The cohesive trio plays a more straightforward game, utilizing the game-breaking speed of Chytil along with the grit of Lafreniere to pin opponents deep. Kakko is good at protecting the puck and making plays. They really need to be that line again like last year for the team to have success.
In the third period, the Leafs erupted for three goals. Timothy Liljegren was able to break up the shutout when his innocent looking wrist shot went off a player and through Halak to tie the score. It was a fluky goal.
Lafreniere was able to draw a tripping minor on Nylander. That put the Rangers on their first power play. Up to that point, only one penalty was called. In the seesaw third, the hard work of Lafreniere drew both Toronto penalties. His overall game has improved dramatically. I think he can be an x-factor in the first round.
On the five-on-four, some good passing between Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox allowed the red hot Artemi Panarin to score his 29th on the power play. In particular, Fox made a no-look backhand pass across for a Panarin one-timer that beat Woll high, short side. Just brilliant. It reminded me of what Sergei Zubov could do.
But in typical Rangers fashion, they let the Leafs come right back. Over a minute later, Ryan O’Reilly set up Nylander for number 40 to tie the score at two. Nylander slipped away from both Mikkola and Braden Schneider to snipe home his 40th. He’s a very slick player. I think if the Leafs go far, he’ll be a big reason why.
The Maple Leafs went ahead when Noel Acciari was able to get to a loose puck in front and score his 14th with 7:39 left in regulation. On the play, Acciari had a shot stopped by Halak. However, the rebound was in front. While K’Andre Miller took one player, Trouba was too late to stop Acciari from putting in the loose change.
It’s that pair that will have a lot of pressure once Game One rolls around. They’ll have to go up against Jack Hughes’ line. That could be him, Jesper Bratt, and Timo Meier. Dawson Mercer sometimes plays with Hughes. It’s pick your poison with Nico Hischier centering the second line. They basically have two top scoring lines.
That’s eerily similar to what our team has. It’s gonna be Zibanejad starting between Chris Kreider and Patrick Kane, who still hasn’t made a difference. He better flip the switch on starting Monday or Tuesday in Newark. They need him to produce in this series. I’m not concerned about Tarasenko or Panarin. They have excellent chemistry. It doesn’t matter which center they play with. They’ve been superb with Trocheck. Panarin really finished strong. He’s shooting the puck more and getting results. Keep it going.
Whoever Gallant matches Miller and Trouba against, he’ll have Ryan Lindgren with Fox going up against the other top line. Figure Ruff to try to exploit the match-ups on home ice. He’ll definitely see if he can get his big horses out against our third pair and checking line.
I’ve been on record as saying how much I like the way Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey, and Motte play. They’re capable of contributing due to their strong work ethic. They can chip pucks in and win board battles while being responsible defensively. But you don’t want them seeing extended time pinned in with Mikkola and Schneider. The Devils are capable of using their speed and skill in transition but can also utilize it to pin opponents in.
This basically feels like a preview. In some aspects, it is. I’ll handle the nuts and bolts this weekend. That’s how big this rivalry is. I tweeted that I never thought we’d ever see Rangers vs. Devils again due to the divisional format. It didn’t feel realistic. But with the Caps and Pens finally missing the playoffs, which means no Ovechkin or Crosby for the first time since 2005-06, it’s finally possible. Here we are.
In terms of the conclusion to game 82, Lafreniere drew a tripping minor on Schenn with 2:48 left. Gallant went for it, going six-on-four. They really tried to set up Zibanejad, who needed one goal for his second 40-goal season. He only got off one decent one-timer that Woll easily stopped. He also had a shot blocked. Both Panarin and Fox forced passes. It didn’t work.
The Leafs made some key clears to kill off the penalty. Marner took a shot at the empty net. He was hoping it would go to get 100 points. He had the same luck as Zibanejad. But the Leafs skated away with the win following Chytil’s disallowed goal. They finished with 111 points. That’s tied for the fourth most in the league. They get the Lightning, who didn’t try very hard down the stretch. Then probably the 135-point Bruins. That’s not much of a reward.
The Rangers finish with a 47-22-13 record. They had 107 points. The fifth most in the Eastern Conference. If it was the old 1-8 format, they’d draw the Leafs. It makes you wonder. Instead, they must go through the Devils. I’m not sure if it’ll be the Hurricanes in the second round. Their goaltending is very shaky. The Islanders have a clear edge. That won’t be easy.
Will it wind up a Battle of Hudson as Hasan pondered? Meaning the old Battle of New York. It could very well happen. Much depends on Mat Barzal, who’s expected to return for the first round.
What we do know is every series in the East. Here we are:
(1) Bruins vs. (4) Panthers
(2) Maple Leafs vs. (3) Lightning
(1) Hurricanes vs. (4) Islanders
(2) Devils vs. (3) Rangers
Make your predictions. I’ll have mine this weekend.