Kreider’s big night leads Rangers to huge Game Six win over Devils, force deciding Game Seven on Monday

For a while, it looked a lot similar to the past three games. On their heels at every turn for most of the first period in which they were badly outplayed, the Rangers seemed to be stuck in neutral.

They kept backpedaling against a very fast opponent looking for the kill. Fortunately, Chris Kreider had other ideas. It was his power play goal with less than 25 seconds left in the first period that gave them some life. He wasn’t done. It was Kreider, who keyed a 5-2 win over the Devils to take a do or die Game Six before a packed MSG.

In a brilliant performance by the longest tenured Ranger, Kreider’s goal and two primary assists highlighted a resounding home victory to force a deciding Game Seven on Monday night. He even made some history by tying hockey legend Mark Messier for the most goals (16) in elimination games. Exactly what you’d expect from the clutch power forward.

What it all boils down to is that despite all the more talented stars they boast, it’s Kreider who’s the heart of this team. He’s been the Rangers’ best player. After getting shut down over the last three games, which were all losses, he responded by getting his series leading sixth on a late power play. His three points came on the first three goals as the Blueshirts finally got to Akira Schmid.

After only allowing two goals in his first three postseason starts, the 22-year old Devils rookie gave up five goals on 29 shots in 52 minutes. He was chased by Braden Schneider with 7:32 remaining in the game. Vitek Vanecek replaced him to probably give Schmid a breather before Game Seven. It looked like a pull by Lindy Ruff to let him get focused on the biggest game of the series.

Only one team will advance to meet the Hurricanes in the second round. As expected, nothing has been decided yet. Both Hasan and I felt that this series would go the distance. Obviously, we made different picks. In less than two days, we’ll find out which team will come out victorious in the seventh installment of the Battle of Hudson.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect that at all. Five consecutive goals after the Rangers looked completely outmatched. The Devils’ speed was very evident in a better first, where they dictated most of the play. They were more aggressive and really pushed hard.

Faced with the tall task of again being the last line of defense in another big spot, Igor Shesterkin really delivered. He made 34 saves, including 10 big ones in the crucial first period. There were moments when he was the biggest reason the Rangers were able to take control of Saturday night’s game. By stopping 34 of 36 shots, that made it 22 straight playoff games where he’s allowed three goals or less. It’s all the more impressive, with it being his fourth series over two seasons.

Entering the elimination game, Gerard Gallant went with his reconstructed lineup that featured Vladimir Tarasenko up on the top line with Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Of all the changes he made, it was that one that had the most impact. All three players factored into the scoring.

Patrick Kane played with Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere. Artemi Panarin slid down to play alongside Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko. The fourth line remained the same as did the defense pairs.

Of course, the Devils rolled with the same lineup they’ve used since Game Three. It looked like it was working. Early on, Ondrej Palat got an early tester on Shesterkin that he gloved. He’d also stop Dawson Mercer to keep it scoreless.

It felt like the ice was lopsided. The Devils kept using their speed to get in on the forecheck. Even their fourth line created pressure. A Nathan Bastian offensive zone interference minor on Barclay Goodrow put that attack on pause.

On their first power play, Tarasenko replaced Kane on the first unit. They were able to get three shots on Schmid, but he stopped Zibanejad, Adam Fox, and Panarin. The second unit had Kane with Filip Chytil, Trocheck, Jacob Trouba, and Kakko, who replaced Lafreniere. They were unable to get any shots through.

After they killed the penalty, the Devils again got back on the attack. The dangerous Jack Hughes got off a backhand that Shesterkin handled. He also went wide with a shot.

The way the first half of the period was played, shots were at a premium. The Devils led in shots 5-4. Eventually, they’d break through to grab the lead on a strong shift from the fourth line.

On some sustained pressure started by Mike McLeod, who skated with the puck in the corner, Damon Severson pinched in at the point. He moved the puck across for a Kevin Bahl shot that rebounded off Shesterkin right to Curtis Lazar for an easy goal with 8:11 left in the period. During the play, Bastian was parked in front to create enough of a distraction. That was enough to give the Devils the lead.

Following Lazar’s first of the series, the Devils continued to control most of the play. However, Shesterkin was able to keep them at one. If he hadn’t, we might not be talking about Game Seven.

On a better offensive shift with less than five minutes remaining, Kane had a backhand stopped by Schmid. He then calmly cut down the angle on Ryan Lindgren. At that point, he hadn’t been seriously threatened. It wasn’t enough pressure. That was partially due to them paying more attention to defending against the Devils’ speed. They backed up a lot, which hurt the offense.

With under a minute to go, Mercer lost the puck and took down Kane to put the Rangers on their second power play. That penalty would prove pivotal. Unable to get much established up to that point, the Rangers needed a boost from a man-advantage that had gone ice cold.

After going 0 for their last 14, the Rangers finally broke through to tie the game. On a good set play, Adam Fox made a short pass across for a Zibanejad one-timer that deflected off of Kreider’s leg to tie the score with 24.9 seconds left. He was parked in front. His usual spot. Even though it wasn’t the usual tip-in, just being in the right spot gave him his sixth goal, which got the crowd into it.

That goal was critical. It breathed life into both the team and the building. Prior to Kreider’s latest power play goal, not much happened. The fans were waiting for something to happen. From a psychological standpoint, it was huge to get the game tied before intermission.

At the buzzer, Palat took an offensive zone minor for tripping up Jacob Trouba. As usual, the captain was involved physically. While partner K’Andre Miller has been pretty quiet, Trouba has continued to play solid throughout the series.

After getting out-shot 11-8, the Rangers had a third consecutive power play to start the second period. They attempted four shots with two getting through. But Schmid kept the game tied. He’d later make a good save on Kane when the teams were back at even strength.

Palat would then take another penalty in the offensive zone. He chopped down on Miller’s stick to draw a slashing minor. It wasn’t much. But Miller wisely dropped his stick to get the call. At that point, the Rangers led in power plays 4-zip. That didn’t please Ruff.

However, here came an important moment. On a bad turnover by Zibanejad, who tried to skate the puck in, that allowed Erik Haula and Mercer to come in the opposite direction for a two-on-one shorthanded rush. Shesterkin made two of his biggest stops when he denied Mercer and then got across to thwart Haula on a rebound. If either goes in, who knows what happens.

At that moment, the Rangers power play wasn’t sharp. They could’ve paid for it like in Game Five when Mercer scored a shorthanded goal. Instead, Shesterkin made the two biggest saves of the game to draw the familiar “Ig-or, Ig-or” chants from the crowd.

The game turned around thanks to a big Zibanejad face-off win against Hughes in the defensive zone. After easily getting out of their end, the Rangers finally got the puck deep against the Hughes line.

On a Tarasenko pass behind the Devils’ net, Kreider drew both Ryan Graves and John Marino out of position. He then sent a perfect backhand feed in front for Zibanejad, who finally got his first goal to give the Rangers the lead with 9:50 left.

The scoring play was all Kreider. He used the back of the net to draw attention on him and then slipped a great backhand pass between Marino’s legs for Zibanejad’s go-ahead tally. You could tell Kreider was feeling it. He wasn’t done.

With the crowd fully into it, they began to take it to the Devils. Following an effective shift for Kane and Trocheck that saw Schmid make three saves, there was a scrum. During it, Trocheck foolishly punched annoying pest Timo Meier. He still doesn’t have a point but keeps getting underneath our players’ skin. He sucked Trocheck into a bad penalty.

On their first power play, the Devils managed two shots from their best two players. But Shesterkin stopped both Hughes and Nico Hischier to keep them off the scoreboard.

After the key penalty kill, Braden Schneider caught Meier with a good open ice hit, knocking him down. He got cheers. Nicknamed Baby Trouba, Schneider has picked his spots well in the series.

When the Devils tried to find offense, they were thwarted by some stronger resistance. In particular, Fox had one of his better defensive games – finishing with four blocks and five takeaways. He really came through with an excellent overall game. He also had two assists to pick up his first two points since the first two games. Fox leads all skaters with eight helpers in the series.

On a late shift where they got the match-up against the Devils’ fourth line, the Zibanejad line delivered a big goal to go up two. On a Fox pass for Kreider, he again made a great play to find a cutting Tarasenko wide open. He made no mistake picking high glove on Schmid for his third of the series. That put the Rangers ahead 3-1 with 1:35 remaining.

At that point, the new top line had combined for three goals and four assists. Exactly the kind of production Gallant hoped for when he decided to move Tarasenko up in place of Kane. He was quite happy with the results.

Entering the third ahead by two, the Rangers had to make sure they didn’t take their foot off the gas pedal. As they’ve proved, the Devils are capable of coming back. They never gave up. However, Shesterkin was not having it.

Over a minute into the period, Zibanejad took down Hughes to go off for tripping. However, the penalty kill did an outstanding job by limiting the Devils to a pair of shots from Meier and Hughes that Shesterkin handled. Both came from the outside.

When they weren’t clearing pucks, the Blueshirts were finishing checks and blocking shots. They blocked 21 for the game. Both Fox and Trouba each had four while Schneider chipped in with three. Checking forward, Tyler Motte blocked two as well. It was a team effort.

As they continued to search for offense, the Devils found it tougher. Still without a point, Lafreniere came back for a takeaway and also had a hit during a shift. He’s played hard. Obviously, it would be nice to see him get rewarded. There is one big game remaining that’ll be played Monday night in Newark.

When they did have opportunities, the Devils were kept at bay by Shesterkin. He kept making saves. In the third, he stopped 16 of 17 shots.

On a Bahl turnover, Barclay Goodrow came in transition with Jimmy Vesey. On a Vesey shot from a sharp angle that Schmid had trouble with, a driving Goodrow bunted it out of mid-air to get his first of the series. That made it 4-1 with 12:37 left.

That goal was definitely one Schmid should’ve had. He started to show cracks in the armor. When Schneider beat him on a long one-timer short side, that was it for him. On a good Panarin forecheck behind the net, he got the puck over to Chytil, who moved it up for Niko Mikkola. He sent it over for Schneider, who broke a long drought with his first goal since Jan. 5.

With the game decided, Trouba delivered a hit that knocked down Hischier. He was called for roughing. The Devils captain was none too pleased. He exchanged words with Miller during a scrum. Both Trocheck and Bahl got misconducts to get the rest of the night off.

Trailing by four with 5:31 remaining, Ruff opted to lift Vanecek for a six-on-four. It worked. Following a Hughes pass for a Hischier shot, the puck came right to Mercer, who rifled it home upstairs to cut it to 5-2 with 4:48 left in regulation.

That’s as close as they came. The Devils continued to play with an extra skater. After a Hughes dump in on goal, an aggressive Shesterkin went for it. He tried to score into the empty net. However, his attempt was intercepted by Meier. But a diving Fox blocked his shot.

As they neared the conclusion, Trouba caught Hischier with a clean hit. To his credit, he got back up and nearly made it interesting. Hischier got a great chance to score. All set up in the slot, he had his wrist shot gloved by a very confident Shesterkin who got more “Ig-or, Ig-or” chants.

That was the exclamation point on the game. For one night, the Rangers showed their playoff experience. They bounced back in a big way to tie the series at three games apiece. It was nice to see the true character of this team finally show up in a big spot.

Now, it’s all about Game Seven. The best words in sports. There’s no greater theater. Hasan said something in reply about this series being weird. I agree. If you think momentum matters, I’d stop you short due to the extreme shifts we’ve seen. It’s been unpredictable. For that reason, I don’t know who’s going to win Monday night.

It’ll probably be the team that makes the fewest mistakes but can dictate the terms. It marks the third time in the Hudson Rivalry that there’ll be a do or die seventh game. It hasn’t happened in 29 years. I’m not going to revisit the details. That’s what ESPN is for.

For my three stars, I went with Shesterkin, Zibanejad, and Kreider, who was the game’s deserving first star. The media selected Tarasenko third star. I chose Shesterkin due to the big saves he made. Without those, who knows.

Onto Game Seven.


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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