A message for Artemi Panarin

Later today, I’ll share my thoughts about the crazy Artemi Panarin story that was broken by NY Post reporter Larry Brooks yesterday.

He will be taking a “leave of absence” from the New York Rangers for an uncertain amount of time due to a questionable rumor started by former KHL head coach Andrei Nazarov. A former NHL goon with an iffy reputation who accused Panarin of assaulting an 18-year old girl in 2011 when he was 19.

From reading tweets of Russian hockey reporters close to the story, it sounds like made up nonsense to smear Panarin’s name due to his political beliefs. He doesn’t support Russian President Vladimir Putin. This looks to be a deliberate attack by Nazarov to damage his former player.

When it comes to Russia and politics, it’s a lot more serious than anything in the United States of America. We are allowed to voice our own opinions and beliefs due to freedom of speech, religion and press. When it comes to Russia, a lot of that is off limits. I’ve seen people I follow on Instagram video protests stemming from last year during an election. They’ve even made their thoughts known.

Russia doesn’t play games. Whatever is going on with Panarin, he had no choice but to take timeout from his hockey career in NYC to address a much more important and personal issue off the ice. I can only hope and pray everything will be okay for him and his family back home.

I’ll have more on this insane story later with the appropriate quotes, tweets and more from Brooks, Mollie Walker, the Rangers and those key Russian insiders who all but shot down the rumor. Here’s my message for Artemi which should be steadfast.

Я поддерживаю Артемия Панарина!

I Stand With Artemi Panarin!

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A good news, bad news kind of weekend for the Devils

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way – it was a lost weekend for the Devils on the ice as they went pointless in both games, losing 3-2 to a desperate Sabres team on Saturday and 4-3 to a talented Caps team this afternoon. I don’t want to waste my time recapping losses so I’ll keep this part of the blog as brief as possible. Against the Sabres, the Devils got hit with an early right hand getting dominated in the first period and going down by three goals before finally finding their legs in the third period with a suddenly hot Kyle Palmieri getting his third goal in two games, and PK Subban finding the back of the net on a power play that’s at least starting to look like an NHL man advantage now after being lost in the woods for most of the season. It wasn’t enough though, as a furious rally came up short in Buffalo.

Against the Caps our issues can be summed up in three words – horrible penalty kill. When you combine the worst PK in the league with no practice time going up against the Caps’ talented unit, the result of three power play goals allowed was somehow predictable. Still it was a bit of a letdown all the same after the Devils jumped out to a much better start in DC, taking an early 2-0 lead after Andreas Johnsson scored a power play goal of his own in the first period for his third of the season, then Jack Hughes scored his fourth early in the second period but by then the Caps had started to impose their respective talent and experience advantages and changed the tide of the game.

After T.J. Oshie got the Caps on the board with their first PP goal midway through the second period, John Carlson tied the game midway through the third against backup goalie Aaron Dell, making his Devils debut at long last after visa and COVID delays, respectively. Dell played credibly, which the Devils are going to need going forward with a schedule that includes a weekend back-to-back and four games pretty much every six or seven days now. Unfortunately credible wasn’t enough against the Caps’ PP, which was humming at peak efficiency against our hapless PK. Oshie scored his second of the game to give the Caps the lead, and Alex Ovechkin put the nail in the coffin late in the third when the Devils unfathomably left the great 8 alone at the side of the net for a layup off an Oshie pass. Both goals came, of course with the man advantage.

I can’t say I spent a lot of time really watching either game although I did listen a lot to Matt and Chico on the radio, which is always fun even in a loss. I started out watching on TV yesterday and wanted to see the return of Steve Cangialosi (who came off the COVID list himself) but once the Devils laid an egg in that first period I went out and listened periodically on the radio network after that. I wasn’t going to deal with the national telecast of Pierre and John Forslund today so I listened mostly to the final two periods on the radio instead. Maybe I’d have been better off just going on total blackout since the roof caved in soon after.

I’d rather dwell on the positive from this weekend, of which there was plenty to report. First off, the Devils actually have a fully healthy lineup for the first time all season – after just a few days ago having an unfathomable nineteen players on the COVID list, the team’s finally all clear without any players in protocol. One of the longest stays on the list was by Travis Zajac but fortunately everything seems good with him and his family at the moment, and Zajac returned to the lineup this weekend – playing his 1000th NHL game in Washington. Maybe he didn’t get the on-ice ceremony such an accomplishment merited but you could do worse for a tribute than this video from family and friends:

To give you an idea of how rare this accomplishment is, Zajac’s only the 351st player in the 100+ years of the NHL to get to 1000 games. Fewer still have done it all with one team, although the Devils have three players who have – Patrik Elias, Ken Daneyko and Zajac. Plus Martin Brodeur who also hit 1000 only with the Devils, but didn’t quite finish his career here. Ironically, GM Tom Fitzgerald was also one of the 350 who have played 1000 games in the league, though not all with the same team. With Zajac on the last year of his contract there is a chance he might move on after the season, or the team could move on from him but hopefully we’ll get to a point where at least some fans will be able to show Zajac some more well-deserved appreciation at the Rock this year. Supposedly governor Murphy has a COVID announcement related to sports on one of the WFAN talk shows Monday morning, ostensibly this will be about fans coming back to the building.

Even Zajac wasn’t the headline off-ice celebration of the weekend though. Included in the return of everyone to the lineup was Nico Hischier’s season debut after a fractured tibia and a COVID stay of his own. Fortunately healthwise everything seems okay, or at least okay as it’s going to be considering Nico had to play a back-to-back in his first action for eleven months after coming off the IR and COVID lists. With Nico’s return came the announcement he would be named the 12th captain in team history, and at just 20 years old on the first year of a seven-year extension it should be a more lengthy tenure than many of our more recent captains.

I admit to being somewhat pleasantly surprised, if only because I wasn’t really thinking or caring in terms of who would be the captain at this point. Maybe it should have occurred to me since Nico hadn’t played they were holding the C for him, but I did kind of figure that it was going to be more of a wait and see with a new staff regardless. There was a couple of different ways you could have gone with the C – Palmieri or Zajac as a placeholder for a Nico or a Hughes down the road but it would have been tough to give it to another guy on a one-year deal after what happened with Zach Parise a few years back. Since then the Devils had given the C to older defensemen – Bryce Salvador and Andy Greene – but appointing Nico definitely signals the dawn of a new day around here.

To his credit, Fitzgerald let Palmieri and Zajac know the decision with Nico beforehand out of respect, and presumably both vets gave their support. Nico himself only found out from the GM the morning of the Sabres game. What a whirlwind of emotions he must have had – returning to the ice for the first time in eleven months after two months of rehab and quarantine, and coming back to the news you’re captain after just three seasons in the NHL. The Devils did a good job on their Nico video as well, with Sal narrating it.

Ironically it was another former Devil (Kevin Weekes) who first broke the news of Nico being named captain on Twitter. Weekes has broken other Devil-related news before, like Lindy Ruff being named coach over the summer. It’s probably not a stretch to see where he gets info from considering his buddy Marty is in our front office now. I was so juiced up over everyone coming back and Nico being the C, I kind of assumed the team would have that same emotion and we’d roll over the Sabres. Perhaps the emotion of everything this week had the opposite effect though, watching the game felt like a letdown compared to the emotion of the off-ice news, maybe playing it felt the same for the players – especially after big, unexpected wins on Monday and Thursday and a rapid-fire schedule not allowing time for any sort of regrouping.

At least the Devils will get another – two! – cracks at both the Sabres and Caps this week with a home-and-home against Buffalo on Tuesday and Thursday, followed by a home back-to-back against the Caps over the weekend to close out February. Our 5-on-5 play has been solid for the most part with a few hiccups, our PP has slowly improved but if one thing is going to be paramount this week it’s finding a way to fix the PK without any real practice time on the schedule. Even Buffalo for all their problems does have a top PP that we have to worry about, never mind how the Caps just abused us so things won’t get any easier for our PK, and our goalies by extension this week.

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Lafreniere and Zibanejad score in key win for Rangers over Capitals, Strome goal and assist

Getty Images Courtesy New York Rangers

Earlier this afternoon, the Rangers made it two in a row in the win column. They went into DC and handled the Capitals 4-1. It’s a game I didn’t watch. Instead, I listened to it courtesy of the returning Kenny Albert and Dave Maloney on ESPN Radio.

Albert had been on special assignment filling in admirably for COVID recovering Devils TV announcer Steve Cangialosi. I’m glad Cangialosi was able to return to the booth. That meant Albert back with the Blueshirts and sidekick Maloney. One day soon, those two could be the future of MSG replacing Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti. That’s all I’ll say about it.

I do enjoy the camaraderie Kenny and Dave have on the radio side calling and breaking down the action. It works. It’s similar to Bob Papa and Carl Banks calling the Giants. They definitely enjoyed themselves for a second consecutive game. It’s a lot more fun when the team wins. In doing so, they followed up a 3-2 shootout win at the Flyers by defeating a healthier opponent in their building. Good for team chemistry.

As bad as they were in the deflating 5-2 home loss to the Devils, that’s how good they played versus Alex Ovechkin and the Caps. It’s a bit strange. But they’re two-for-two against Washington winning both games comfortably. On the flip side, they are 0-for-2 versus the Devils.

Maybe it says something for how hard the Devils compete compared to the Caps, who are coached by Peter Laviolette. A former Stanley Cup winner with the Hurricanes, he’s now switched from Nashville to Washington. A proven coach, he prefers high tempo emphasizing offense with man to man defense. Something that doesn’t always work. They got off to a good start not losing in regulation for the first nine games. However, wins have been tough to come by recently. Ever since the Rangers exposed them on Feb. 4 by winning 4-2, they’ve only won twice over the last seven counting today. They give up a lot of shots, goals and quality scoring chances.

It was a good match-up for the Blueshirts. For the second time this month, they put up four goals against Washington. Dating back to last year highlighted by the memorable Mika Zibanejad five goal game with the overtime winner for a 6-5 triumph, they’ve now won the last four versus the Caps. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As talented as they are led by future Hall of Famer Ovechkin and great center Nicklas Backstrom, Washington isn’t known for its defense. They boast some superb players including John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson. But they’re not hard to play against.

In fact, the Caps have leaned heavily on rookie Vitek Vanecek. The 25-year old Czech made his 13th straight start with Ilya Samsonov just activated off the COVID Protocol list. Craig Anderson has been the backup. In other words, Laviolette didn’t have much choice. So, the Calder candidate was in goal again. He didn’t face as many shots, but the Rangers beat him three times on the 23 they got on Vanecek. The last shot being into an open net by the very thankful Mika Zibanejad, who needed one in the worst way.

One of the differences in this game were the changes David Quinn made to the lines. Skating without Kaapo Kakko, who’s back in COVID Protocol (hopefully not serious), Quinn finally decided to listen to me and break up the KZB Line. I had suggested flipping Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to the second line with Ryan Strome while moving up Artemi Panarin to play with Zibanejad. That’s exactly what he did except he bumped up slumping top pick Alexis Lafreniere to work with the top two forwards. It paid dividends.

Also of note, K’Andre Miller returned to the lineup after missing two games due to the notorious upper-body injury. They definitely needed him on a blue line that’s without top four defenseman Jacob Trouba (broken thumb), who’ll be out anywhere from four to six weeks. As critical as I’ve been over Trouba due to the inconsistency with him overpaid at an average of $8 million, he’s an important player. Quinn counts on him to log big minutes at five-on-five, power play and the much improved penalty kill under new assistant Jacques Martin. He gets full credit for the vast improvement on the kill and the evolving defense that’s not allowing as many shots or high danger chances.

Without Trouba, it looks like it’ll be invaluable extra defenseman Brendan Smith working with Miller, who remains poised for his age. He didn’t show any rust. The third pair appears to be the rejuvenated Libor Hajek with popular Island Park native Anthony Bitetto. A character player that’s been a good addition. He even picked up another point with an assist on a goal. Don’t forget his nifty backhand highlight reel tally against these same Caps.

Of course, the bulk of the minutes falls on top pair Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. Fox of course handling the most due to the power play time along with everything else. It’s astonishing to have such a good young defenseman, who’s by far the best this team has. He’s extremely mature and makes many subtle defensive plays look easy. It isn’t. It’s still gonna be a challenge for him and Lindgren. They are that vital. We’ll see how they hold up.

In regards to who popped in for Kakko, it was none other than Julien Gauthier. He only drew two penalties despite playing on the fourth line. I would really like to see more of him. But how’s it possible when eventually Kakko and the forgotten Filip Chytil will return? Who comes out? At this point, I’d scratch Brett Howden. As hard as he plays, he’s only good at face-offs and the penalty kill. They have Kevin Rooney for that. There’s no way Brendan Lemieux should be out of the lineup. He has played well. So too has Colin Blackwell, who can kill penalties and take draws occasionally.

You have to reward the guys who are contributing more. No disrespect to Howden, who doesn’t take shifts off. Unless he suddenly discovers whatever made him a first round pick, he’s the odd man out. Will Quinn do it? Your guess is as good as mine.

Getting to the game, it was one the Rangers played well in. Following a successful penalty kill of a Hajek high stick, they earned consecutive power plays. The first was hideous. Just listening to Maloney describe it told you everything. Quinn went back to his normal top unit that produced nothing. The second unit was so bad that they couldn’t get out of their end. This was not good.

However, after Gauthier drew a hooking minor on Lars Eller with under six minutes left in the period, the Rangers man-advantage went to work. This time, they executed to perfection to set up the game’s first goal. It was the play of the reformed top unit that got it done. A Strome dish for a Panarin one-timer with Kreider in front leaked right to Kreider, who buried an easy rebound for his fifth at 14:57. A rather simple formula that works. It made it two straight games with a power play goal.

The second stanza was a bit odd. There was no scoring for the first 17 minutes. It was the steady play of rookie netminders Vanecek and Igor Shestyorkin that kept the game at one goal. Unlike the first when the Caps had a slight edge in shots 8-6, the teams combined for 24 with the Rangers holding a 13-11 edge. Each side killed off a power play. With it looking like the score wouldn’t change, suddenly it did in a wild conclusion to the period.

There were three goals scored within a 1:37 time span. That included a pair from the Rangers less than a minute apart from Lafreniere and Strome. The first one came when Panarin made a great read to see up the 19-year old rookie for his first goal since the overtime winner at Buffalo last month. The big difference being this came at five-on-five in regulation for Lafreniere. After Bitetto fed Panarin, Lafreniere was wide open in front. Panarin waited before passing the puck to him where he was able to flip a backhand past Vanecek at 17:44.

On the next shift, out came the new second line. After taking a pass from Lindgren at an open point, Strome was able to send an innocent looking wrist shot that found its mark thanks to a Kreider screen to make it 3-0 at 18:43. It was also his fifth and gave him a two-point game. I’ve been on record as saying he receives too much criticism from some unrealistic fans. The effort is usually there. Maybe he can produce without Panarin. Buchnevich and Kreider are good players. Congrats to Strome on his 100th career NHL goal. He also became the first player to record 100 points with both the Islanders and Rangers.

With it looking like they were completely in control, a late Caps goal from an unlikely source changed that. On really a simple play, Dmitry Orlov took a Nick Jensen pass and skated past Zibanejad and had his stoppable wrist shot sneak through Shestyorkin. It wasn’t a good goal. It came with over 38 seconds left in the period and cut the lead to 3-1.

Rather than let the Caps make things interesting, the Rangers didn’t in the third. There were two power plays for each side. But the dangerous Washington man-advantage didn’t do any damage. This was due to the improved penalty killing unit. They take away options and are more aggressive, able to get key clears when they need it. They also are now winning face-offs. Facing a good team in the dot, the Rangers won 32-of-56 with Zibanejad dominating by going 15-and-8. Strome also was over .500 by winding up 6-and-5. They limited the Caps’ power play to three shots in four opportunities. That is a great job.

With Bitetto off for holding, Laviolette went for it early. His team wasn’t generating much offense. So, he went for the six-on-four advantage. The last time these teams met, Buchnevich scored into an empty net to end a goal drought. This time, it was his buddy Zibanejad’s turn. A not so great funny clear from the center ice by the boards took a favorable bounce and went in for a shorthanded empty netter for the top center. He got a little monkey off his back from a funny Buchnevich. Very nice.

Maybe that goal gets him going. I know it was an open net. But when you have as many chances as Zibanejad has had that haven’t gone in, sometimes it only takes seeing the puck go in that does wonders from a mental aspect. The Blueshirts can only hope so.

They’re now off until Wednesday when they visit the Flyers again. That one is on NBCSN. Maybe I’ll watch it. That’s how sick I am of the MSG broadcast which features the dull Steve Valiquette and his off putting charts. I call such nonsense staterrific and scienterrific to my friend JPG. Hahaha. Wait till he sees this. He got a mention. I also made up a third new term called Chartographology. I’m not kidding. Ask John or Brian. This is who I am.

It was fun to finally recap a win that didn’t require extras. I sure hope Laffy13 stays with Zibanejad and Panarin, who’s amazingly productive despite the lack of offense. That all could change if Zibanejad and Kreider get going.

As bad as it’s been, the Rangers find themselves 6-7-3 with 15 points. Believe it or not, another win and that’s called, “a winning streak. It has happened before.” I’ll never get sick of the late great James Gammon as the memorable Lou Brown from Major League. That would put them back at NHL .500.

I know I don’t plug myself or our blog too much. But I can be followed on Twitter or Facebook.

Twitter: Dflex2123

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Maybe one of these days, I’ll do another podcast on the state of the Blueshirts over on Anchor. If I do, I’ll be sure to post it here.

THREE STARS OF GAME

3rd 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR (5th goal on power play, +1 in 16:07)

2nd 🌟 Artemi Panarin, NYR (2 primary assists in 16:17)

1st 🌟 Ryan Strome, NYR (5th of season plus 🍎, +1 in 16:49)

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The development of the kids is a process for Rangers

By now, you’ve seen the numbers. They don’t lie. There is no way to explain what’s happening with Alexis Lafreniere.

15 Games Played

1 Goal

0 Assists

1 Point

-7 Rating

2 Penalty Minutes

21 Shots

Since getting the thrilling overtime goal to defeat a bad Sabres team on Jan. 28, the 19-year old 2020 top pick has been shutout over the last eight games. Over that span, Lafreniere has totaled eight shots and 14 hits. There are shifts where you notice him around the net. But others where he isn’t as visible.

On a “rebuilding team,” in name only when you see how much ice time disappointing vets Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider get, Lafreniere still doesn’t have a defined role. They’re a quarter into the 56-game schedule and coach David Quinn doesn’t quite know what to do with the much hyped teenager from the Province of Quebec. He seems very committed to the struggling Zibanejad and Kreider playing top minutes with Pavel Buchnevich.

That leaves Ryan Strome between top scorer Artemi Panarin and emerging second-year right wing Kaapo Kakko. A player who the Blueshirts took second behind Jack Hughes in the 2019 NHL Draft. He too struggled mightily to establish himself in Year One. But for Kakko, the skating and strength along with the defensive awareness weren’t quite there. It was understandable why he only would up with 10 goals and 13 assists for 23 points with a minus-26 rating in 66 games.

Even though he only has two goals and an assist with a nice shootout goal in a badly needed win in Philly the other night, Kakko has improved his skating and overall play to generate a lot more scoring chances. The 28 shots show a player who’s still getting acquainted with his surroundings. His attention to detail has allowed Quinn to use him much more. That included a dominant shift in overtime where he used his puck possession and vision to all but set up Buchnevich, who drew a penalty.

Maybe there’s too much pressure on these kids. It isn’t easy to fit into a team that believes it can compete for a playoff spot in a tough East Division. So, what you get instead is a lack of production from the young players who aren’t quite ready for prime time. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for growth. Both Kakko and Lafreniere are mature enough to understand that this is the NHL. The hardest league to score in.

The thing is when the Rangers hit the NHL version of the Lottery, everyone was excited to see what Lafreniere could do. They didn’t envision a tough transition for the former World Junior Championship Tournament MVP for Canada a year ago. The truth is he’s a left wing, which puts him third on the depth chart behind Panarin and Kreider. That means third line duty.

Lately, it’s been Brett Howden filling in for Filip Chytil, who’s not ready yet. So, that’s a checking center who wins draws and either the gritty Colin Blackwell or Phil Di Giuseppe. As well as Blackwell has played, it isn’t an ideal situation for Laffy13, who is on the second power play which doesn’t see enough time under Quinn. He defers too much to his top unit that for the most part has featured Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Adam Fox and Ryan Strome.

At least on Thursday versus the Flyers, the third-year coach realized Zibanejad needed a break and replaced him and Kreider. Ironically, it was Buchnevich and Kreider, who were involved in the second unit that saw Blackwell redirect a Buchnevich shot past Carter Hart for a power play goal. The first in an eternity. It honestly felt like they hadn’t converted one since the days of Jaromir Jagr playing with Michael Nylander, Martin Straka, Petr Prucha and Michael Rozsival.

Lafreniere was on for the power play goal. Even if he didn’t have a piece in it, at least he was out there. With the exception of one game, the former Rimouski Oceanic star has gotten double digit minutes under Quinn. Even if he shuffles lines like a deck of cards, he hasn’t forgotten to include the rookie.

I wonder if having Chytil back would help Lafreniere, who doesn’t have an offensive center to play off of. Chytil was off to a good start with two goals and an assist in five games before being sidelined by an upper-body injury. They can certainly use him. Especially with Zibanejad stuck on one goal and not quite himself. Kreider not much better either with four goals. That’s supposed to be two-thirds of the number one line.

We saw how anemic they were without Panarin, who missed two games. They scored only twice in two losses to the Bruins and Devils with the latter unacceptable. Offense wasn’t supposed to be an issue. However, stranger things have occurred in the Covid Era. See Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins for proof.

Maybe Quinn shouldn’t be as patient with the KZB Line. If they continue to struggle at even strength, break it up. Perhaps Lafreniere can earn another shot with Zibanejad and Buchnevich. Or even try the gritty Blackwell or underused Brendan Lemieux, who for whatever reason rarely cracks 10 minutes despite bringing more to the table.

At some point, Lafreniere needs a better idea of who he’s playing with. Interestingly, he took seven face-offs and won three versus the Devils earlier this week. He isn’t a center. If he were, problem solved. We know Strome isn’t the longterm solution at second center. He loses too many draws and isn’t a top six forward. But he’s been unfairly blamed for the team’s inconsistency more than the Invisible Duo. That doesn’t make sense. At least you notice him creating opportunities. I’d advise Strome to avoid the pair of bad penalties he took in the offensive zone. His first two of 2021.

On the plus-side, there’s been the more polished play of rookie K’Andre Miller. He could miss another game due to an upper-body injury on Saturday when the Rangers visit DC for an afternoon tilt. Perhaps playing college hockey at Wisconsin helped prepare him for the NHL.

Look how well Adam Fox has blossomed into the number one defenseman the Blueshirts have lacked. He spent three years at Harvard before forcing his way to the team he rooted for growing up. A great trade by GM Jeff Gorton that is a steal for the organization. Who knew he was that good? They lucked out due to Fox opting not to sign with Calgary or Carolina.

They also didn’t realize initially that Ryan Lindgren was the kind of hard-nosed defenseman Marc Staal once was. Although when you watch him battle and take his lumps, it more reminds you of a better version of Jeff Beukeboom or Dan Girardi. That’s how important the former Bruins prospect has become. Part of the Rick Nash trade that has been a real winner.

So, at least the young defensemen are getting it done under Quinn. They’ve also discovered that Libor Hajek can play solid minutes since the injuries. He definitely should stay in the top six when Miller returns. Jack Johnson should come out. A signing nobody can understand. Especially with what Bitetto and Brendan Smith have supplied.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the development of young players is a process. Whether it’s Quinn remaining behind the bench or a different voice which might be needed to bring the team up to the level management believes, it’ll remain a balancing act.

What they need is to have more consistency. By that, I mean don’t jerk around these kids. Line consistency allows for better chemistry. Especially up front. Look how well former Rangers assistant Lindy Ruff has handled Hughes and several rookies across the Hudson. That shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

Patience is a virtue. You have to allow the young players to play through their mistakes. There’s a time for learning and a time for trust. It can’t be a two-way street.

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More Urgent Blueshirts get a much needed win in the shootout over shorthanded Flyers

It didn’t matter how they did it. The Rangers desperately needed two points. They got it by going into Philadelphia and defeating a shorthanded Flyers 3-2 in the shootout. Had they lost after allowing Joel Farabee to tie the game with 1:14 left in regulation, it would’ve been brutal.

From a psychological aspect, they had to have this game. After being unable to score on a four-on-three power play in overtime with Mika Zibanejad unable to do anything, they needed a shootout to end a four-game (0-3-1) winless streak.

Two players stepped up in the skill competition. They were Kaapo Kakko and tonight’s starting goalie Alex Georgiev. With Zibanejad continuing to struggle, coach David Quinn opted to go with Kakko in the first round of the shootout. The improving Finn rewarded his faith by beating Flyers netminder Carter Hart with a forehand shot. He deserved it. He’s been playing real well. Maybe it boosts his confidence.

Georgiev was a surprise starter. Quinn explained his decision during the postgame by indicating that they need him. It can’t fall on only Igor Shestyorkin, who didn’t have his best game in an exasperating 5-2 loss to the surprising Devils. Georgiev had a strong game. He finished with 20 saves and denied two of three Flyers’ shooters to pickup his first win shutting out the Islanders over a month ago on Jan. 16. He needed it.

There are two storylines coming out of this game. The first is that it was a lot better than the no show the other night. The Rangers worked harder and controlled most of this game against a wounded opponent. Even though the Flyers hung around without key forwards Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, Jakub Voracek and Scott Laughton, it was the Blueshirts who played with more urgency. They even earned a big goal from second effort courtesy of Brendan Smith. Something that’s going to be needed the rest of the way.

The second theme was Quinn finally deciding to take Zibanejad off the power play. That even included a crucial part of the second period when they trailed the Flyers by a goal. Nicolas Aube-Kubel had scored in the game’s first minute when he was allowed to get to a rebound and bank the puck in off a diving Adam Fox. Fox logged a game-high 30:17. He and partner Ryan Lindgren were leaned on heavily by Quinn and top assistant Jacques Martin.

That’s how it’ll be without Jacob Trouba and until key rookie K’Andre Miller returns. He was a late scratch which meant the triumphant return of Jack Johnson. See what I did there? As if to remind his fans what they’d missed, Johnson took a lazy tripping minor penalty on Nolan Patrick on his first shift less than three minutes in. Thankfully, the penalty kill was able to bail him out. They were busy killing off five Philadelphia power plays. The special teams was needed due to some bad penalties from Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome (first two of season both in offensive zone) and Kakko.

The Flyers power play was unable to set much up without Giroux, Konecny and Voracek. However, give the Rangers credit for getting back to the aggressive style of penalty killing that has greatly improved a previously weak area. Georgiev only had to make four saves on the five power plays. He stopped 16 of 18 shots at even strength.

Following finishing off a kill of a Kreider hook early in the second period, former Ranger Kevin Hayes got caught flat-footed by Kevin Rooney, who was tripped up by the Flyers’ top center. Quinn sent out a top power play unit minus both Zibanejad and Kreider. This wasn’t a coincidence. He tried Kakko in place of Kreider and Strome replaced Zibanejad.

After a Flyers clear, the second unit came on. It included Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich with sparkplug Colin Blackwell. Also out on it was Alexis Lafreniere and defensive defenseman Anthony Bitetto. Given an opportunity to play on the man-advantage, neither Blackwell or Bitetto disappointed. After forcing Hart to come up with a save, Bitetto got the puck over to Buchnevich for a simple low wrist shot from the point. The gritty Blackwell got a piece of it to steer it by Hart with four seconds left on the power play.

Blackwell now has goals in consecutive games and five points (3-2-5) in seven games. He missed four. It can’t be overstated how well he’s played. The guy makes things happen. He might not be the biggest player. But he makes up for in heart and hustle. Think about it. This guy has two more goals and points than Zibanejad. He’s got as many points as Kreider. Neither were made available following the game. They didn’t deserve it.

Even though they were unable to take the lead in the second, Buchnevich got a golden opportunity to put his team up. He got in alone on Hart, but was taken down from behind by defenseman Ivan Provorov. That resulted in a penalty shot. On it, he skated in tight and went for the forehand deke. However, a very calm Hart shrugged it aside with over three minutes left in the period.

After killing off the remaining 30 seconds of an undisciplined Strome minor to start the third period, the Rangers took their first lead thanks to some extra effort by Smith. The character seventh defenseman was able to find some loose change in front due to a great backhand feed from Panarin to get his first of the year at 8:21. A Strome rebound set the play up. Then, Panarin did what he does. But Smith drove the net to put himself in position. Not bad for a guy who earns his paycheck as a physical meat and potatoes guy on the back end.

For almost the remainder of regulation, it looked like the Rangers would protect the dreaded one-goal lead. But after Flyers coach Alain Vigneault lifted Hart early for an extra attacker, his team made the most of it to tie the score on a crazy play. After a wide Couturier shot that caromed off the back boards right to Hayes, a sprawling Georgiev denied him. But Farabee was able to stuff home the rebound to force extras.

It was kind of unlucky. But that in a nutshell describes these Blueshirts. They can’t hold one-goal leads to save their lives. So, overtime was required. Most of our schizo fan base was worried about Georgiev, who hadn’t stopped a breakaway this season. He didn’t have to.

A Nolan Patrick (Sam Rosen called him Nolan Ryan 😂😆) hooking minor on Buchnevich handed the Rangers a four-on-three power play with 2:38 remaining. They stuck Zibanejad back out with Panarin. But by now, you know the story. The puck isn’t going in for him. He had one shot on goal that Hart stopped. That was for the entire game. He and Kreider combined for two shots. That’s pathetic. At some point, they have to be better.

Despite leading in shots 33-22 including 4-2 in overtime, the Rangers needed the shootout to prevail. In it, Kakko scored in the bottom of the first. But Couturier evened it. That set the stage for Panarin. The Bread Man didn’t disappoint. Starting out way wide, he smoothly skated in and shot a perfect wrist shot over Hart’s blocker short side at the end of Round Two.

That meant James van Riemsdyk had to score in the top of the third. He came in fast but couldn’t even it, sending his forehand wide to give the Rangers a badly needed victory.

Next up are the Capitals for an early bird special on Saturday. The start time is 12:30 EST. Originally, it was a night game. Due to the schedule, it was moved up just in case. The Flyers are slated to play the Bruins at Lake Tahoe on Sunday afternoon at 2 PM. If for any reason they can’t play, the Rangers could sub in. Hopefully not.

THREE STARS OF GAME

3rd ⭐ Brendan Smith, NYR (1st of season, +1 in 14:59)

2nd ⭐ Colin Blackwell, NYR (3rd of season, PPG in 12:59)

1st ⭐ Artemi Panarin, NYR (shootout winner plus 🍎 in his return, 8 SOG in 22:07)

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Surprising Devils stick it to the Bruins again

In the season’s opening two games the Devils managed to take three of a possible four points from the defending President’s Cup winning Bruins, but those games looked like an anomaly (at least from the Boston end) given that Boston had won nine of their previous eleven games and were missing key goalscorer David Pastrnak in the opening two-game series in New Jersey. Of course Pasta was back for the teams’ third matchup in Boston while we still had two of our top three centers (Nico Hischier and Travis Zajac) out of the lineup due to COVID absences. Admittedly I didn’t have much faith in the Devils to keep up their winning form playing a better opponent than in Tuesday’s surprising return victory, and the Bruins would surely be taking us more seriously than they might have at the beginning of the season…but this team just continues to earn faith and not let anything stop them.

Instead of the 5-2 loss I was expecting, I tuned in early in the second period with the Devils already up 1-0 after a beauty of a goal from Kyle Palmieri, which really translates into a beauty of a feed from Jack Hughes, whose no-look drop pass against the grain gave K-Palm a near gimme that he didn’t waste, finally getting on the board for his first goal of the season.

And given the old adage goalscorers can be streaky, it figures K-Palm’s second wasn’t too far off either, getting another just minutes later while shorthanded when Damon Severson’s chip eluded two Bruins off the boards and got to a streaking Palmieri for another breakaway goal. Unfortunately Palm giveth and taketh away on the same penalty kill, when an ill-advised clear toward the middle got intercepted by Jake DeBrusk, who scored and then played to the crowd of empty seats with his goal celebration afterwards. Oh well…given the Devils had three minutes to kill after a double minor on PK Subban canceled out our usually ineffective power play, I’ll take a net zero on that with the lead.

Especially given what was to follow when Pavel Zacha might have had the best shift of his NHL career, spinning away from Bruin defenders twice with the puck and then finding the open spot at the side of the net for a nice feed from Andreas Johnsson to restore the Devils’ two goal lead. I haven’t been a Zacha believer in a long time but he seems to be playing with a purpose since the pause. Maybe being briefly demoted to the fourth line against the Rangers spurred him, sometimes it seems like tough love is the only thing that motivates the quiet Czech.

Truth be told however, coach Lindy Ruff is getting the best out of all of our younger players right now. After getting protected minutes early in the season, Ty Smith has played 20+ in both games since the pause, alongside Severson on the team’s top pairing with neither looking out of place. Severson’s been playing the best hockey of his career this year too, though his play has steadily improved since the in-season coaching change last year. Not much needs to be said about Mackenzie Blackwood in goal, fighting through personal doubts over his conditioning in the wake of his COVID illness with his second strong outing in three days.

After being a surprise healthy scratch for the first nine games of the season, Will Butcher finally returned to the lineup post-pause (in part due to Ryan Murray missing both with suspected food poisoning) and responded with a goal Tuesday and another assist tonight, averaging over eighteen minutes of icetime in these two games. With Sami Vatanen making his return to the lineup tonight, there’ll be healthy competition on the blueline for the first time in a long while. It seems like forever since John Moore was a top four D for multiple seasons here, now reduced to being an expensive injury fill-in for Boston.

All of our young forwards have been buying in and none have looked out of place, though it’s the Crash Line 2.0 of Miles Wood, Mike McLeod and Nathan Bastian that is more asthetically pleasing and all have traveled interesting roads. Wood, while being a regular for the last few years has seldom matched the level of play he briefly flashed in 2017-18, until now. Going into the season he made a point of saying it was time to grow up and act like a veteran, and perhaps being on a line with two rookies does give him added responsibility. McLeod was a first round pick in 2016 that was largely labeled as a disappointment in his brief pro career until he quickly reinvented himself, from the talented skater who couldn’t score to a gritty, physical center that gets under people’s skin popping in the occasional goal. Bastian – who was a second rounder in the same draft as McLeod – looked like a pro in his initial debut late in 2018-19, and followed that up with a solid AHL season last year before earning a spot in the Opening Night lineup this year and not looking back.

All in all there’ll be some interesting lineup decisions for Ruff to make when (if?) we actually have a fully healthy lineup at any point. At one point saying the Devils had an interchangeable flock of forwards was looked at as an insult but how else do you describe the balance up and down the lineup? No forward played below eleven minutes tonight, no forward above eighteen and change. Who’s going to come out of the lineup? You look at a guy like Janne Kuokkanen who started the season on the fourth line, despite struggling offensively early the staff saw something in him and promoted him to a top six role for a couple of games…and he responded with a three-assist night against the Rangers and overall has six points in eleven games. Yegor Sharangovich hasn’t scored often yet but he’s made his goals count with two game-winners.

Going into the season I scoffed at the notion that whatever results happened, all that matters is the younger players play well. I scoffed because you can’t have it both ways, if the younger players don’t play well the team won’t win. If they do then you’ll almost certainly see better results than we’ve had in recent seasons. So far they’ve done the latter in spades. For a while tonight actually looked like it was going to be an easier than expected win but if there’s been one downer so far this season (besides that whole two week COVID pause), it’s been special teams. Our PP has been hopeless pretty much all season ranking in the bottom five of the league while the PK was dead last before going 1-3 tonight.

What started as an uplifting sequence – the entire team sticking up for Hughes after a predictable Brad Marchand cheap shot left the Bruins in a 5-on-3 hole early in the third period – turned into a momentum swing for the Bruins after they killed it off. It wasn’t until the Bruins’ own power play late in the game when they were able to pull the goalie and get a 6-on-4 that they were finally able to dent Blackwood though, and it was none other than Pastrnak who scored on a tip-in to set up a frantic finish in the final ten seconds…but this time Blackwood would stone the same Pastrnak to seal the two points and another surprise win over Boston.

Devils Three Stars:

  1. Kyle Palmieri (two goals, 17:45 TOI – we’ll overlook his one mistake)
  2. Pavel Zacha (highlight-reel goal – that’s enough for me to give him the #2 star)
  3. Damon Severson (assist, 22:54 TOI)

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Eye Raising Quotes on bad loss to Devils

If the 5-2 loss the Rangers suffered to the Hudson rival Devils weren’t bad enough on Tuesday night, so too were the eye raising quotes that came from Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad during the Zoom Conference.

If it’s true that neither team leader has been close to their best form during the first 14 games that’s seen the Rangers go 4-7-3, both veterans shouldered responsibility for what they didn’t do right during last night’s game. Unlike a perplexed coach David Quinn, who seemed out of sorts in the postgame, both Kreider and Zibanejad didn’t mince words on what’s wrong.

“For a majority of the game they out-hit us, out-skated us, outworked us, won the majority of the battles,” Kreider told a host of reporters after the Rangers’ fourth consecutive defeat. “I mean, chances aside, we got away from the things we had been doing well.”

Kreider, who was more involved throughout due to stepping in for fallen teammate Zibanejad in an early fight with Mike McLeod, nailed it.

“They flat-out wanted it more. It’s unacceptable.”

In a game they wound up getting 39 shots on winning Devils’ goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, the Blueshirts were too inconsistent over the full 60 minutes to prevail over a team that skated without several regulars due to COVID Protocol in their first game since Jan. 31 at Buffalo. He wound up making 37 saves, but didn’t have to stand on his head. It was only in a much better second period where the Rangers dictated the pace that Blackwood did his best work by turning aside 14 of 16 shots to keep it tied headed to the deciding third period.

It was the Devils who overcame their tired legs to play a better final 20 minutes to earn the win. Even though they got goals from Yegor Sharangovich (deflection), Nick Merkley (one-timer) and Mikhail Maltsev (empty netter) to take the contest, it was their surprisingly strong first that set the tone.

A big McLeod hit on Zibanejad knocked him down in front of the bench. Only 29 seconds in, Kreider fought McLeod to go to the penalty box with each assessed five-minute fight majors. That took Kreider off the ice.

It was the Devils who had more energy in their shifts by outshooting the Rangers 16-9 in the period. Igor Shestyorkin stood up to the challenge while slow teammates allowed an opponent that had one practice to carry the play. It was mystifying.

“We were lacking a little bit of desperation to be honest with you,” Zibanejad pointedly said after again going without a goal for an 11th straight game. “The whole game, we didn’t get up to the level we needed to.

“We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

With Zibanejad stuck on a goal (1/19 vs NJD) and two assists in 14 games, he’s far from the form that saw him register a career high 41 goals and 75 points in only 57 games last season. Whether it’s due to having the Coronavirus before the season started, or not having his timing, he hasn’t been close to the same player he was last year. It can’t continue.

Neither can the inconsistencies they have shown as a team. It’s been disjointed. They don’t look hungry enough. Even when Artemi Panarin played the first 12 games, they were under NHL .500 at 4-5-3. However, their level was much higher in the two-game series versus the Bruins. That included an overtime loss and a 1-0 shutout in which it was hard to question the effort.

Maybe the biggest indictment was that despite registering 39 shots including 16 in the second when they scored both their goals thanks to Colin Blackwell and Pavel Buchnevich, the Rangers never had one power play. How is that possible? The Devils themselves only were rewarded two on bad penalties from Kreider (delay of game) and Zibanejad (elbowing in offensive zone) with the latter leading to a Pavel Zacha power play goal.

The lack of consistency has been the issue. Perhaps the lack of bodies in front of Blackwood is a good indicator of what kind of team this is. With the exception of the Buchnevich goal which he let get through him, the Devils starting goalie was sharp. He stopped most shots that he saw.

You wonder why it was the Devils who made life more difficult on Shestyorkin. With the exception of the effective second line that featured improving forward Kaapo Kakko (5 shots), they didn’t do a good enough job making Blackwood work.

Quinn indicated that it’ll be addressed the next two days before the team plays the Flyers on Thursday. If it goes off as scheduled, there has to be more urgency. If there isn’t, something is wrong.

It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to the adversity.

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Rangers embarrassed by no name Devils

Let me preface this by saying that I had a sinking feeling. Unless you live in a cave, you can’t feel good about this team.

The uneven play. The inconsistency shift to shift. The bad penalties. The mystifying play of certain key players. It’s getting bad fast.

I wish I was kidding here with that tweet. If the Rangers cannot beat a shorthanded Devils team playing its first game since January 31, why should we be excited? They let a bitter rival skate circles around them in a lousy first period. If not for Igor Shestyorkin, they would’ve been down two or three goals.

Who was the team that didn’t play for over two weeks? I’m at the point where I can’t watch these games. I switched to the radio after a period. Credit Don LaGreca and Dave Maloney, who numerous times pulled no punches, for a more objective broadcast than the garbage on MSG. I don’t know how any fan can listen to the yuck fest between Sam Rosen and the annoying Joe Micheletti. It’s not a good telecast.

I’m not blaming Sam for this. He’s almost done. It just isn’t fluid. Kind of like the play of the team.You lose to what should’ve been a rusty Devils team 5-2 at home, and you don’t deserve any excuses. No more alibis.

It’s hideous. Sure. Some players continue to play well even if they’re not on the score sheet. I’m referencing the dramatic improvement of Kaapo Kakko, who must be wondering what he has to do to score more goals. Ditto for the consistent grinders that bring it every shift like Brendan Lemieux, Kevin Rooney and Julien Gauthier.

Colin Blackwell scored because he consistently works his butt off. He is an overachiever on a talented roster that has too many passengers. Even if Chris Kreider showed up by fighting Mike McLeod to defend Mika Zibanejad after a good clean hit 28 seconds in. He even recorded his first assist of the season on a game-tying goal from Pavel Buchnevich with under a minute left to tie the score in the second period.

A Buchnevich, who redeemed himself following a lackadaisical turnover that drew the ire of Micheletti when I did watch. The KZB Line stayed intact. They created more, but it was another empty for the struggling Zibanejad.

If you’re tied at two following two periods on home ice, you should feel good about your chances of winning. Not this team. Even if they finally awakened from the malaise that saw the Devils register 16 shots on a sharp Shestyorkin in a scoreless first, it was still not good enough. It hasn’t been for a while.

Who’s to blame? I think you have to start looking at the coach. He talks a good game. He’s a nice guy. But when push comes to shove, David Quinn falls short. He only disciplines guys he doesn’t like. Tony DeAngelo is understandable. But you have to wonder why Zibanejad and Kreider rarely get punished. I know they’re looked upon as leaders. But it’s okay to drop one of them or miss a shift. Maybe Zibanejad needs it.

The simple threat of Buchnevich being demoted to the third line resulted in something positive. Zibanejad took an ill advised penalty 180 feet away from his net in the second period. Pavel Zacha scored on the Devils’ power play. Zibanejad didn’t miss a shift. He plays a lot of minutes as does Buchnevich, who gets a shade over 20 minutes due to the expanded role of killing penalties which he’s been good at.

Sometimes, even a veteran can learn something from watching a shift. This is one of my biggest gripes with Quinn. He doesn’t follow through. He also can’t seem to get the offense going.

Artemi Panarin or no Panarin. Other teams have played without their best players. It has to be more than two goals in six periods without him. Just by accident, the puck has to start going in. It’s not always going to come from the bottom six. But there you had Brett Howden of one assist make a perfect drop for the hardworking Blackwell, who let it rip right by Mackenzie Blackwood to tie the score. No hesitation.

If they played more like that, it would be more successful. A shooter’s mentality helps. Ask Buchnevich about his fourth goal that evened it at two when Blackwood let it go underneath his arm. Buchnevich too often tries to skate around and pass the puck. If he shot it more, it gives him a better chance and keeps opponents honest.

North/South hockey is what wins in these games. You can use East/West when there’s more operating room. That’s fine. But simplifying the approach would help.

This team looks lost. Maybe not so much when it comes to the effort which for the most part is there. They usually defend well. The goaltending isn’t the issue either. I know Shestyorkin gave up four. But a couple of those shots that went in had some puck luck for the Devils.

That included a Will Butcher wrist shot that banked off Jacob Trouba, who can’t seem to get out of his own way. He did finally add an assist for only his third point on the Buchnevich tally. But he’s really been a disappointment. He didn’t return for the third due to some injury. So, we’ll update that when we know why.

Whether they were down a defenseman or minus Panarin and K’Andre Miller, they had enough players to win the game. Another weird bounce saw Yegor Sharangovich have a P.K. Subban shot deflect off him and past Shestyorkin for the game-winner. That’s the breaks.

Even Nick Merkley scored for the Devils a few minutes later to add an insurance marker. Merkley isn’t some offensive dynamo. But he was in for Lindy Ruff due to his normal roster still not entirely healthy. That included no Travis Zajac, Nico Hischier, Ryan Murray and Sami Vatanen.

It didn’t matter. They got it done while the Rangers couldn’t. Mikhail Maltsev, who I never heard of, scored into a vacated net. Of course he did. I said he would. You cannot make it up.

There really is nothing left to say. I’m tired of hearing that they didn’t match the intensity. Or that they’re snake bit. They simply aren’t generating enough offense to be successful.Four wins in 14 games. 4-7-3.

The Devils passed them in the standings by doing what it took to win despite a struggle in the second. They wanted it more. Maybe Ruff wasn’t the problem. Maybe it’s the coach.

I am speechless. This team makes you wish they didn’t play for a week or two. It would actually be beneficial for our fans and the devoted reporters who cover the team. Nobody likes losing. This was embarrassing.

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Opening Night 2.0 for Devils tonight at the Garden

After more than two weeks off, the Devils are just hours from finally returning to the ice – for the most part. Still a handful of players remain on the COVID list including Travis Zajac, who’s been there the longest outside of Mackenzie Blackwood, who hasn’t played in nearly a month (and may well not play tonight either). Fortunately according to teammate Kyle Palmieri – also a confirmed positive – Zajac is feeling better and should be coming off the list soon. As Miles Wood put it, the scariest part was how the virus wiped almost the whole team out at once. Wood, incidentally as one of the few players who somehow avoided the virus confirmed he actually had it before camp, which isn’t a surprise at this point. With the amount of guys that went on the list, you almost had to figure guys who didn’t get it had already either had it or gotten a vaccine somehow.

Also still missing is Nico Hischier, who hasn’t played a game yet this season after a suspected fracture in his leg. According to coach Lindy Ruff, Hischier is on track to play once he gets off the COVID list (hopefully just a quarantine in his case), so that’s good I guess. Even our broadcast team didn’t get off unscathed as Steve Cangialosi revealed on Twitter he’s been dealing with the virus for a couple of weeks and will be unable to broadcast the next few games – to be replaced by Kenny Albert ironically – starting with tonight’s return matchup against the Rangers. With the handful of Devils still missing and recovering from injury or the virus itself we have no real idea what the lineup is going to look like tonight. Considering the Rangers are also missing star forward Artemi Panarin, tonight’s matchup feels more like a second preseason game than a second Opening Night.

Maybe that’s why I’m still finding it hard to get excited for Opening Night 2.0, at least in part due to the fact the next few games we’ll still be getting the rust off and returning to form – if that even happens this year. Even world-class athletes have been affected by COVID for far longer than they had the virus for. Look no further than across the river where a slow start from the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad can be directly attributed to his own bout with the virus, right smack before camp.

There’s also a little bit of resignation that the games seem less important right now, both with what’s going on in the country and on a more direct level as a fan of this team after you had so many players and team members afflicted with the virus and still fighting it. As a sports fan, I was fortunate to avoid having to deal with this for the Mets and Jets, as both teams had minimal cases in their seasons, whatever their issues were between the lines at least I didn’t have to be concerned over players, broadcasters or 60+ year old coaches getting ill.

With the Devils the virus clearly hit with full force, and Zajac’s long stay on the list had me a bit more worried until Palmieri said he was at least on the other side of things. Most of the players thankfully seem to have had mild-ish symptoms, although there’s always two levels of concern – the immediate concern while they have the virus and the most distant one of how this affects them (and everyone else) long-term, which there’s no easy answer for. If you want to look at a silver lining, it’s at least highly unlikely the Devils will have to worry about a second outbreak given the number of players who have had cases during this one including Blackwood, Palmieri, Zajac and Damon Severson among others.

Apart from healthwise, the long delay also affects the schedule in a major way with games being pushed back and crammed in. It’s unavoidable quite frankly, there’s no perfect solution. Just cancel games and go on point percentage? That’s a yucky situation. Extend the season longer? The NHL claims they don’t want to do that in part of the Olympics (which may well be cancelled anyway) and it’s hard to do that if five or six teams have to make up games while the others just sit at home for days or weeks and wait anyway.

Get ready for a TV routine of a lot of Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday games assuming we don’t get games canceled again due to another outbreak here or elsewhere in the Metro plus division.

As far as tonight’s game itself, who knows what to expect from either team? If Buffalo’s game with the Islanders yesterday – after they missed about as much time as we did – is any indication it likely won’t be pretty. Of course we’re not playing the Islanders but tonight’s game will still be a challenge. I do like this response from Ruff to the on-ice challenge ahead which I’ll end this blog with:

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Rangers to face returning Devils without Panarin and Miller

There are two storylines for tonight’s second installment of the Battle Of Hudson. The first one is that it’s the first time the Devils will play in February due a COVID-19 outbreak. Their last game came on Jan. 31 when they defeated the Sabres 5-3 to end a three-game losing streak. Then both teams had COVID issues which paused their seasons. Buffalo played last night falling to the Islanders 3-1.

With a few players still not available, it’ll be interesting to see how the Devils play. Will there be some rust? Colorado lost too the other day after returning. This will only be their 10th game. The Devils are 4-3-2 with 10 points. They’ve performed okay under Lindy Ruff, even getting recent contributions from Mike McLeod, Nathan Bastian and Miles Wood. Jack Hughes is the offensive leader who makes everyone around him better. Rookie defenseman Ty Smith was off to a great start. Ultimately, it’ll depend on Kyle Palmieri, who didn’t score a goal before the pause. He’s in a contract year. That means Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald must decide if he’s worth keeping.

The second storyline surrounds the Rangers, who enter play winless in three straight. The only point against the Bruins in an overtime loss on a Brad Marchand goal. They’ve been shutout in two of the three games including a mind numbing one-goal loss to their Kryptonite, Rangers killer Jaro Halak. He only had to make 21 saves. That one turned in a wild second period that saw fisticuffs with even Pavel Buchnevich defending himself against Jeremy Lauzon. The power play continued to fire blanks and Boston swung the momentum on a Nick Ritchie goal that banked in off Igor Shestyorkin. Ritchie would bump into Shestyorkin later with not one Blueshirt coming to his aid.

The lack of offense has been problematic. They’ll be without leading scorer Artemi Panarin for a second consecutive game. Rookie defenseman K’Andre Miller also won’t be able to go due to an upper-body injury. The report from New York Post reporter Mollie Walker is that Panarin is close to returning. So, it’s possible they could have him back for Thursday night versus another COVID opponent in the Flyers. Also expected to return despite several regulars not being ready. That isn’t good.

As strange as it is for the NHL due to all the disruptions in the schedule from the pandemic, it’s play on. For the Blueshirts, that means resolving their scoring issues. They’ve held down opponents to 33 goals. However, they’ve only scored 31 themselves. Defense isn’t the issue. Neither is goaltending with rookie Igor Shestyorkin rounding into form. He’ll once again get the call. Until the team starts getting more done at five-on-five and on the power play, they’ll continue to struggle. They’re 2 for their last 31 and are 6 for 52 (11.5 percent). That ranks near the bottom. At least the improved penalty killing unit is doing the job. At 84.4 percent, they rank in the top five.

The key to fixing the lack of scoring is simple. Get Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider going. Zibanejad has been in an awful slump with only one point in his last 10 games. The lone point a primary assist on an empty net goal from Buchnevich. Another player who’s fallen back to earth. Zibanejad’s only goal came via the power play versus the Devils on 1/19. As for Buchnevich, that empty netter is his only point in the last five. He hasn’t been shooting the puck enough recently. He has fallen back into bad habits by over thinking. That got him in trouble when he committed a turnover that led to Marchand’s OT winner last Wednesday.

Kreider remains stuck on four goals with only 27 shots. That’s four less than Buchnevich. If you combine the KZB trio, they have eight goals with seven assists for 15 points in 13 games with a minus-13 rating. That’s not even close to what they were last year. So, David Quinn Took Buchnevich off the first line and demoted him to line three (really four) in the third period of last game. That’s how annoyed he was.

To be honest, Kreider deserves to be off the line too. He’s not doing anything. The lack of scoring is one thing. He’s always been streaky. But the lack of physicality from a player who must be engaged is the biggest disappointment. He needs to get back to finishing checks and making life tougher on opposing goalies. When the power forward plays with edge, he can be very effective. He also is a superb skater. It’s just not clicking.

Zibanejad is the engine who makes it go. Whether it’s from having COVID before the season and basically no training camp, we haven’t seen the same electric player who lit up the Caps for five goals last year. They’re not going in. Either he’s misfiring as he did last Friday or the netminders are getting over to make the saves. There’s also been some bad puck luck with the top center drawing iron. At some point, it has to go in for him. He’s too talented a player for this to continue. Once he gets going, it’ll have a positive effect on Kreider and whoever plays with them.

Ryan Strome remains stuck on six points (4-2-6). Despite playing better after the slow start, the second center needs to produce more. Sure. He’s been moved around on the power play. But he’s a capable player at even strength. So what if there’s no Panarin. It’s not like they had the same form as last year. If it is Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko again, there’s enough skill for the second line to get on the score sheet. In fact, I’m calling a breakout game for Kakko, who has been better than his 2-1-3 line suggests. He’s been doing a lot right and putting himself in position to score. I say he gets one. I also think Lafreniere is close as well. He works diligently and is noticeable.

Quinn seems to like Colin Blackwell. There’s a good chance he starts the game with Zibanejad and Kreider. Not the biggest in stature, Blackwell makes up for it in work ethic with his grit and determination strong suits. He wins most board battles and does a good job protecting the puck. The Rangers have been looking for a Jesper Fast replacement. It’s either Blackwell or complementary wing Phil Di Giuseppe. Both work hard at five-on-five.

The line of Kevin Rooney, Julien Gauthier and Brendan Lemieux have been so effective lately that they’ve easily been the team’s best. All have factored in on goals with Gauthier getting his first NHL goal against Boston. Lemieux has played some of his best hockey, picking up two assists in a game. Rooney has been a nice fit. He is a good penalty killer as advertised, scoring a shorthanded goal. He also is solid on the forecheck. That has resulted in some points. They are the best checking line the team has had in a while.

Figure Buchnevich to start with Brett Howden and Di Giuseppe. It’s been tough sledding for that line with Howden unable to replace Filip Chytil. Chytil is still not skating. They badly miss him. What happens to Howden when Chytil gets healthy? I think Gauthier should have a spot on the fourth line with Rooney and Lemieux. Is Howden a bust? He kills penalties okay and is good on face-offs. But where is the offense? It’s hard to believe this is the same guy who started so well his rookie year. He’s still only 22.

The defense will have a different look without Miller. That could mean Jacob Trouba back with Brendan Smith, who is set to return after missing time. The best defenseman is Adam Fox, who gets around 26 minutes a night. He does everything for this team. Between playing well at even strength against quality competition along with warrior Ryan Lindgren, Fox runs the point on the power play and kills penalties. There’s nothing he can’t do. For all the ink Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes receive, it’s the more well rounded Fox who’s a better overall player. He has a high IQ. The good news is he’s still on his entry level contract through next year. Lindgren is up this summer.

As for Trouba, he plays hard by finishing checks and blocking shots. But he takes undisciplined penalties, sometimes gets caught out of position and isn’t contributing enough offensively. I’m not suggesting he’ll ever reach 50 points again. That was on a high scoring skilled offensive team in Winnipeg. But Trouba should be able to hit the net more frequently with his heavy shot. He should be good for six or seven goals and around 25 assists. For the money they pay him, he’s been a disappointment. The effort is there. The execution isn’t. Maybe he should make a phone call to Bret “Hitman” Hart.

I would guess Anthony Bitetto and Libor Hajek remain as the third pair. Why not? They haven’t been bad. No glaring mistakes and Hajek is showing more confidence with the puck in his end.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what Devils team shows up later. It’s their first game in 17 days. If the Rangers don’t come out fast for this one, there’s no point in discussing it. They need to score goals and get a win. End of discussion.

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