Missing stars costing Rangers in deadlocked series with pesky Devils

If I told you before the series that neither Mika Zibanejad nor Artemi Panarin would have a goal in the first four games of the first round, you probably would assume the Rangers were down. They aren’t yet but could be put on the playoff brink when the Battle of Hudson shifts back to Newark on Thursday.

That’s because the Devils flipped the script by sweeping the two games at MSG. They took Game Four convincingly by playing a complete game to shut down the Rangers in a quiet Garden – posting a well-deserved 3-1 road win to tie the series at two games apiece.

If Game Three was played on even terms before Jesper Bratt set up Dougie Hamilton in overtime, that wasn’t the case tonight. Outside of an early flurry from the 21 and Over Kid Line around Akira Schmid’s crease, the Rangers failed to show any urgency. They never put the hammer down.

“We didn’t show up tonight. We didn’t compete hard enough,” a pointed Gerard Gallant said following his team’s lackluster showing in a big game. He also hammered home other points about throwing pucks away in the middle and not chipping it against a more stingy Devils defense.

The turning point actually came on that extended shift from Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, and Filip Chytil. They had the Devils pinned in for a while but didn’t score. After Kakko tested Schmid, Lafreniere missed on a tip-in.

Then, Jonas Siegenthaler made a defensive play that swung the momentum. In what amounted to a desperate play, he backhanded the loose puck out of the zone. Remarkably, it took a Devils’ bounce right to Jack Hughes, who got behind Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox.

There was no catching Hughes as he moved in and patiently waited before making his deke and tucking in a forehand just by Igor Shesterkin to give the Devils a 1-0 lead at 2:50.

Talk about a sudden change. They went from Lafreniere nearly tipping in the Fox point shot to Siegenthaler, making the crucial clear right onto Hughes’ stick for his third of the series less than three minutes in. That silenced the majority sellout crowd.

It was exactly the kind of start the Rangers couldn’t afford. It took the crowd out of it early. Although there was still plenty of time left, it was the Devils who set the tone. Playing more aggressively throughout, they took it to their close Manhattan rival. Whether it was using their speed to create scoring chances or finishing checks, they played much better than the previous three games.

Hughes would get another dangerous opportunity due to his game-breaking speed. He found more space to get off a tough shot from the slot area that Shesterkin stopped. He was quite good in this one, leading all skaters with five shots. This looked more like the player who set a Devils franchise record with 99 points.

While Hughes found time and space to make plays, Mika Zibanejad was nowhere to be seen. He was a ghost. Whether it’s due to the match-up, he couldn’t do anything offensively. In fact, the leading goalscorer only registered a measly shot in the third period that looked like a beach ball.

Zibanejad’s struggles were unexpected. He only has two assists in four games. Even when the Devils gifted the Rangers three power plays, including two in the first period, Zibanejad never got a shot on goal.

It doesn’t help that Artemi Panarin is not scoring either. A player who came in playing well, the Bread Man hasn’t scored a goal yet. In Game Three, he missed three great opportunities, including a pair on a power play with less than five minutes left in regulation. There was also the missed breakaway. It hasn’t been a good series for Panarin. He only has two helpers. Both came in the 5-1 blowout during Game One.

You at least notice him. It just isn’t happening. On the other hand, Zibanejad is the engine that drives the Rangers’ offense. He can’t be this ineffective. Credit the Devils for doing a better job checking him and Chris Kreider, who also had a quiet game. He at least had a hand in setting up Vincent Trocheck’s rebound goal at 1:51 into the third period.

However, Kreider found it much harder to get to shots in front. He was paid closer attention to by the Devils defense. They crowded him and limited rebounds when Schmid was letting them out. He was shaky. However, the diligent checking from his teammates was the difference. They’re doing a better job playing in front of the 22-year old rookie.

Even when they got a power play due to Hamilton catching Trocheck up high with his stick, they couldn’t score on the five-on-four. Suddenly, that huge edge has disappeared.

The Devils have adjusted their penalty kill by being more aggressive up top. Fox doesn’t have as much time to operate. They are winning more battles and clearing pucks. Those hustle plays are momentum killers for a top unit that did whatever it wanted, scoring four times in the first two games.

Timo Meier, who has had his own struggles on the Jersey side, took a very lazy delay of game to hand the Rangers a second straight power play. They never had a chance. Instead, a rare Kreider deflection missed. Then, Vladimir Tarasenko took down Erik Haula to end the man-advantage.

It was frustrating. They out-shot the Devils 10-8. But anyone who watched closely knew better. This wasn’t the same effort from the players in the Blueshirt jerseys during identical 5-1 wins in Newark. Maybe it came too easy. Did they really expect the Devils to go with a tail between their legs?

The lack of killer instinct was really felt during a dismal second period. Not only were they anemic offensively. They also were getting beat on face-offs. There was more sloppy play. Due to more Devils’ pressure, they threw pucks away. For a second consecutive game, they had double digits in giveaways finishing with 15. That included some of their best players. It was ugly.

Shesterkin kept them in the game with a few timely saves. That included a key stop on Hughes early in the second. His best save came in the third when the game became a rollercoaster.

Another problem is that they continue to miss the net. Jacob Trouba had another good opportunity but sent a shot wide. He also absorbed a tough hit. One of the few times the captain was on the receiving end. The Devils have finished more checks in the past two games. A more controlled aggression has made a difference.

Gallant continued to keep Panarin in the left circle while Zibanejad worked more in the slot during the three power failures. That experiment has to go. The Devils have it figured out.

Even with Kakko driving play during most of his shifts and drawing a holding minor on Curtis Lazar, he saw fewer than thirteen minutes of ice time. He was the most noticeable Ranger. Even if he was only credited with one shot on goal in three attempts, he was active. Would it have killed the coach to reward Kakko with a power play shift or extra shifts at even strength?

Another difference was the Devils’ ability to create more forecheck pressure. They spent some time in the Rangers’ end. Even their checking line comprised of Lazar, Jesper Boqvist, and Dawson Mercer had a couple of strong shifts.

On the final power play, it was so bad that they allowed Haula to get a clean breakaway. He just missed scoring shorthanded. It was pitiful.

Lafreniere had one of the best chances. On a good play off the rush, Kakko got the puck over for him. But instead of going to a backhand, he tried a low percentage forehand that went wide. It was too hard an angle. As hard as he’s worked in the four games, Lafreniere is without a point. They need him to contribute.

The Rangers were held to six shots in the second. Half produced juicy rebounds, including a backhand try from Kane. Schmid thought he had it, but it went off the goalpost with the loose puck cleared away. Tarasenko had a long wrist shot that Schmid had trouble with. There weren’t enough bodies in front. Another area Gallant wasn’t happy with.

With nothing happening, he made a switch to his top two lines. Kane and Kreider went down to play with Trocheck. Panarin and Tarasenko moved onto the Zibanejad line. It provided an initial spark. That was the only positive from a lifeless game.

On a face-off, Kane sent a pass for a Kreider backhand shot that Schmid leaked out. That allowed Trocheck to clean up the rebound to get his first goal of the series at 1:42 into the third period.

The crowd erupted. They hadn’t had much reason to get excited. Following that tying goal, the Blueshirts picked up the physicality. They tried to turn it on.

The trouble was that the Devils weren’t cooperating. A strong response saw Meier and Hughes create chances that Shesterkin calmly handled to get a stoppage.

Trocheck had the best scoring chance. In transition following a Nico Hischier turnover, he fired high and over the top of the net. If he hits the net, it’s in.

On a good shift by the Devils, they reclaimed the lead, thanks to some good work in transition. Hamilton moved the puck for Hischier along the boards. He found a trailing Siegenthaler cutting in for a shot from the left circle that beat Shesterkin underneath his glove. It went off the far goalpost and in.

On what proved to be the game-winner, Trocheck was too late getting back. That allowed Siegenthaler to fire a good shot that beat Shesterkin far side. In these kinds of high impact games, it’s the details that matter.

Right after the Devils went back ahead, Shesterkin came up with two big saves. First, he denied a driving Hischier on a tip-in. It was a spectacular save. A falling Hischier collided with Shesterkin, leading to a stoppage. He apologized to him, even tapping Shesterkin.

It wasn’t a penalty. The ice was horrible. There were instances where players lost their edge. It happened a couple of different times to the Devils in one spot. The Garden is very busy with the Knicks playing. So, it wasn’t good.

Shesterkin would also stop a Haula backhand to keep it a one-goal game. He tried his best to move the puck up to help the offense. But they really struggled with the Devils defense.

As the clock went under 10 minutes, the Devils began to shrink the ice. They played a 1-2-2. It was like the Rangers’ players had never seen a neutral zone trap before. They refused to adjust. Instead of making short passes and dumping pucks in, they continued to force passes right into the middle of the ice. They were easily intercepted.

Those kinds of sloppy turnovers never help. The Devils’ 2-1 lead felt like it was 5-1. This wasn’t the Oilers or Leafs coming back to win in overtime. It was tight checking with little space.

The Rangers were so bad that the only shot in the last seven minutes was a weak Zibanejad attempt that Schmid easily gloved. That came with 4:35 left in regulation.

If not for a Palat misplay that resulted in an icing with exactly two minutes remaining, who knows when Gallant gets Shesterkin off the ice for an extra attacker. They were completely disorganized. Outplayed and out-hustled.

Following some more strong work defensively, Haula sent Bratt for a shot that missed wide. The rebound came off the back boards for a Palat empty netter that put the Rangers out of their misery.

When the buzzer sounded, there was a smattering of boos. It was mostly quiet with only the Devils and their contingent that made the Path train ride into Penn Station celebrating. They earned it.

For the Rangers, it’s back to the drawing board. They will get an extra day off before the pivotal Game Five this Thursday. Maybe they can look at the video and see what they did wrong.

Similar to the Devils, they’ll have to make necessary adjustments. Ruff was able to make key changes by bringing in Schmid and lineup moves that have solidified them.

Now, it’s Gallant who’s faced with a similar crisis. He identified what went wrong. Let’s see how his team responds. The pressure is on the Rangers. How quickly things change.


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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1 Response to Missing stars costing Rangers in deadlocked series with pesky Devils

  1. hasan4978 says:

    You’re waiting for Ziba and Panarin, we’re still waiting for Nico and Timo to start scoring…this series might come down to which ‘other stars’ step up first, since you’ve had Kreider going and we have Hughes going.

    I noticed Gallant had Goodrow out in the 6-on-5, I don’t know if it’s something he’s done all year but it seemed a bit odd to me.


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