All-Star Kreider leads the way as Shesterkin eats Sharks up for shutout in return, Braden Schneider scores in NHL debut

Following a brutal loss to the Kings on Monday night in Hollywood, the Rangers bounced back by besting the Sharks in an entertaining 3-0 win in San Jose. The victory allowed them to split the Western part of the five-game road trip.

Better than that, Chris Kreider backed up his second All-Star selection by leading the Blueshirts with a pair of goals to the key victory at the Shark Tank. Not only did he net his team-leading 22nd and 23rd goals. But he also scored his first career shorthanded goal which proved to be the game-winner. Even more, the leader of the club also sealed it with an empty netter for the 200th goal of his career. All scored as a New York Ranger!

After a disappointing 3-1 loss in LA where they were severely outplayed by the Kings, it was Kreider who made some strong points about not playing with enough consistency. A mistake prone game resulted in them hanging a loss on Alex Georgiev, who wasn’t to blame. It was uncompetitive like the Vegas debacle.

The 30-year old veteran led by example in the character win over a good Sharks team who similar to the game at MSG, competed hard. However, they couldn’t score on Igor Shesterkin, who like his performance in the home match was perfect in stopping all 37 shots for his fifth career shutout (3rd of season). Not a bad way to return following the annoying protocol that now has Alexis Lafreniere out of action along with coach Gerard Gallant.

Even if it’s understandable why the league is taking the conservative approach to players who are positive, the cases are asymptomatic and several are starting to speak up about the strict rules that keep them out for a minimum of three games. Both Ivan Provorov and Claude Giroux, who both recently returned for the Flyers, vented their frustration over minor issues with the advanced flu. That’s basically what Omicron is. Especially if you’re vaccinated as almost every player is. Whether they decide to adjust the rules, I don’t know. I wouldn’t get my hopes up.

In a league that has bent over backwards to cancel home games for the seven Canadian markets due to a border and attendance issue that impacts revenue, we will continue to see more cancellations. How they plan to complete an 82-game full schedule remains to be seen. It is what it is.

It’s as sickening as the false propaganda with these Vaccinate NYC commercials. Who are they kidding? At least that’s not half as annoying as JB Smoove and those God awful Caesar’s Sports Book ads. More like Sports Crook! They can take those despicable gambling ads and stick it where the sun don’t shine. Promoting degenerate crap is more harmful than helpful. Lying to an easily influenced younger generation when prop betting is as bad as it gets. Rant over.

As for the game which also prominently featured the NHL debut of Braden Schneider, it was an entertaining brand of hockey. If you love the combination of skating, rushes, goaltending filled with edge and scrums, this was a very fun game to watch. It had a bit of everything including a scrap when things picked up during the second period.

Unlike the game Shesterkin and Georgiev combined on for a shared shutout on Dec. 3, this time the Rangers’ starting goalie went all the way. He was tested throughout by the attacking style of the Sharks. It marked his first game since Jan. 2 when he shutout the Lightning with 38 saves. He missed the last four due to Health and Safety Protocols. Georgiev did a good enough job in the two wins while not getting much help in the two defeats.

What was so impressive is how calm Shesterkin looked. He had an 11 day layoff, but you wouldn’t know it by how well he played. The Sharks got three good scoring chances early on. Shesterkin denied two straight and then got enough of a Tomas Hertl opportunity to push his shot wide. Hertl was able to get that due to Fil Chytil getting knocked off the puck in the San Jose zone. That lead to Ryan Strome taking the game’s first penalty.

As dangerous as they can be with a power play that features Timo Meier, Logan Couture, Hertl, Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, San Jose can also turn the puck over. Entering play, they had given up five shorthanded goals. The Rangers made it six. On a subtle defensive play from Adam Fox, he forced a turnover that sprung Mika Zibanejad and Kreider. Zibanejad passed for Kreider, who buried the first shorthanded goal of his career 11 seconds into the penalty kill. It was a huge lift.

In his first full year killing penalties, Kreider has shown good defensive instincts. He’s made smart reads and gotten chances due to his game-breaking speed. It felt like he would get one eventually. That he finally did was further confirmation of the standout player he’s been in this breakout season. Without the 23 goals with over half on the power play, where would this team be?

The chemistry Kreider and Zibanejad have is uncanny. They have such a comfort level. They nearly had another goal shortly after. If only Kreider had been a bit more selfish. He was in, but tried the pass across for Zibanejad that was intercepted. Shoot the puck! Especially with all the success he’s having. It’s a great development that Zibanejad is finally scoring. They need him to.

Although they were outshot 10-6, the Blueshirts held a one-goal lead after the first period. Shesterkin continued to stifle the Sharks. He was especially good at keeping his composure. Some of the stops he made weren’t as easy as they looked. That’s the sure sign of a great goalie. Imagine if he didn’t miss time. He could challenge Andrei Vasilevskiy in wins. There are many good netminders. For this season, the top three in my opinion are Vasilevskiy, Juuse Saros and Shesterkin. I could care less that Shesty isn’t an All-Star. It’s better off. Tristan Jarry (Pens) and Freddie Andersen (Canes) were selected.

Up by one, the Rangers got physical with the edgy Sharks. It was during the opening 20 minutes that Chytil got blasted by defenseman Mario Ferraro. He has the look of a tough skating hard-hitting defenseman who is a throwback. Even though a number of newer Blueshirts caught my eye, I thought Ferraro was the best San Jose defenseman in this game. He hits hard and blocks shots. Ferraro also pinched in for a chance that was denied by Shesterkin.

If there was one thing that really irked me along with other Ranger fans, it was the dirty hit from behind by Adam Raska on a defenseless K’Andre Miller into the back boards. I was disgusted that he only received two minutes for boarding. How ridiculous. Miller’s teammates including partner Jacob Trouba had his back during a scrum. This cannot be a two-minute minor penalty!

Do you think one reporter had the guts to ask Kris Knoblauch about that call? Kelly Sutherland is a good referee. He correctly called no goal on a tricky redirection that Shesterkin gobbled up without the puck going in. A play they later reviewed. My issue is with how the league interprets boarding. Why isn’t what Raska did a five-minute major? It should be reviewed by NHL Player Safety. Will it be? Unlikely because after Miller returned from concussion protocol, that meant he was okay. He’s lucky he can absorb such a reckless hit.

The battle level intensified. On another shift where they really went at each other, Meier didn’t take kindly to a Trouba hit. They josted and then Meier swung and missed. Both got minor penalties. Although I didn’t mind the officials letting them play, I felt Meier initiated it with his punch that caught air. There was no loss of man power.

In a very active period that saw both Shesterkin and Adin Hill come up with key saves, the Sharks went after Trouba. It was obvious they targeted him. Given his reputation for delivering clean hits, fine. But on a night where former first round pick Schneider debuted by playing like a seasoned veteran instead of a 20-year old rookie alongside Patrik Nemeth, Sharks tough guy Jeffrey Viel challenged Trouba to a fight. After taking his lumps, Trouba fought back before it was broken up with 6:36 left. Advantage Sharks.

Any time you take a dependable player like Trouba off the ice for five minutes, it’s a win. Rather than give Schneider a look with Miller, Knoblauch and assistant coach Gord Murphy kept him and Nemeth intact on the third pair. They probably didn’t want to put too much pressure on the kid. Certainly understandable.

Instead, they double shifted Ryan Lindgren with Miller. He also continued to take shifts with Fox. They worked Nemeth in when they could. But he mostly stayed with Schneider, whose steady presence made them an effective tandem. At no point did Schneider panic with the puck. He is polished. The Canadian kid makes smart subtle reads in the corners and doesn’t make any glaring mistakes like we’ve seen out of Libor Hajek and Zac Jones. I feel like Nils Lundkvist got a raw deal. But if they’re not going to play him, then it’s better he gets consistent ice time in Hartford.

Somewhat curiously, Trouba didn’t take a shift after returning to the bench. There were only two-plus minutes left in the period. Thanks to the stellar play of the goalies, the game remained 1-0 Rangers after the second. A one-goal game with a period left was a good place to be. But given that the Sharks can score at any moment, it was guarded.

Without Lafreniere, Chytil was again featured on the right wing. He played in a top six role on the second line with Strome and Artemi Panarin. Panarin had a rough game in LA. His line was caught on for two goals at five-on-five and were victimized on an empty netter. In this one, he was better. Chytil had his moments. After setting up a Zibanejad goal on Monday night, he recorded another assist on a milestone for Schneider.

On a brilliant play by Panarin at the San Jose blue line, he got the puck over to Chytil. He then fed Strome, who patiently waited before finding a pinching Schneider for a good wrist shot from the point that beat Hill at 1:27 of the third period. What a moment that was for Schneider. His first career NHL goal in his first game. It eerily reminded me of a goal he scored for Canada in the ’21 U20 World Junior Championships. He made a great read and hit the net. Congrats to the kid!

If you loved that, how about the surprising play of Anthony Greco? A Queens native who grew up rooting for the Rangers, the emergency recall was impressive on the fourth line. Wearing number 28, the 28-year old journeyman of only one NHL game was everywhere. Not the biggest in stature, the generously listed 5-10, 178 pound right wing was buzzing around Hill in the final two periods. In 9:44 of action, he had five shots including a couple of cracks at his first goal. But Hill denied him.

It wasn’t only Greco who stepped up. The Hartford gang all played their part. That included Tim Gettinger, Jonny Brodzinski and Morgan Barron, who looks like he belongs on the roster. They fit in seamlessly due to their strong work ethic. Familiarity with Knoblauch helps. He wasn’t shy about using them. The trait of a good young AHL coach with a bright future.

Greg McKegg also took a regular shift in a third line role. He also got some penalty killing time. The Rangers were 2-for-2. There wasn’t too much special teams. Three total power plays with each side taking the collar. Don’t forget the Kreider shorthanded goal. That allowed our side to get the upper hand and be in control throughout. It’s always better to play from in front on the road. Especially at a good atmosphere in San Jose. They have great fans.

Unsurprising was the amount of pucks Shesterkin saw in the third. The Sharks had a 17-12 edge in shots as both clubs attacked. When they weren’t at each other’s throats that is. For two teams that play on opposite coasts, you would’ve thought they were rivals. That’s how hardly fought the game was. Too bad there won’t be another one unless the unthinkable happens. Being that one of my closest friends is a loyal Sharks fan, I’d sign right up. It would be a dream.

Shesterkin made a strong stop on a driving Meier, who was able to get around Miller for a good scoring chance. He held the near goalpost and kept the puck out to bail out Miller, who’s hit a rough patch. It happens. He’s still learning. Luckily, Trouba had a steady game. Overall, he’s been the best defenseman this season. Not a knock on Fox, who is an All-Star. Trouba is playing the Ryan McDonagh role on this team. McDonagh does that in the shadow of Victor Hedman with the Lightning.

Leading by two, Trouba took an interference minor with exactly three minutes to go. Instead of going for the 6-on-4 that risks the opponent shooting for the empty net shorthanded, the Sharks instead used the first half to go with the more conventional five-on-four. I prefer that strategy down two. If you get one, then you can pull the goalie at even strength.

With Fox doing a good job on Karlsson and Burns throughout by limiting their time and space, the Sharks got nothing done. Eventually, they lifted Hill for the two-man advantage. The Rangers were up to the task. After Trouba returned, it became a 6-on-5. It didn’t matter.

On a smart defensive play by Kevin Rooney to clear the zone, Kreider was ahead of everyone. With only Karlsson trailing, he easily fired the puck into the open net for the exclamation point. Number 23 for the team’s MVP. When asked which goal he liked more by MSG reporter John Giannone in the postgame after scoring his 200th career goal, a grinning Kreider didn’t hesitate by indicating the shorthanded goal had more meaning. What a leader he’s become.

There isn’t anything else to add. The role players played well. Shesterkin shined in his return. Kreider continued his special season. And Braden Schneider showed more poise than any of the other kids while debuting with Nemeth. It was a very good win.

The Flyers are next on Saturday in Philadelphia. How tired will the Rangers be from the flight? You know it won’t be used as an excuse. That’s not this team. They really should win against an opponent who isn’t good. But they better show up ready. Until next time, see ya around.

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Unlikely defensemen step up for Blueshirts, Gallant in protocol, Panarin back, dilemma for NHL continues due to Canada

On Saturday night, the Rangers defeated the Ducks 4-1 at The Pond. It might not be called that anymore. But that’s way better than whatever cockamamie corporate sponsor their arena is named after. To say I hate that crap would be an understatement.

This was a no frills game. Compared to the dismal loss at Vegas where they barely competed, the Blueshirts showed some mettle to break down the highly skilled Ducks, who boast American duo Trevor Zegras and Troy Terry. Both are outstanding. However, they found it difficult to find time and space.

Credit our team for that. Even while using fillers for the lineup due to the annoying protocol that shall never end, they gave a good account of themselves. Let’s give key character players Morgan Barron, Tim Gettinger, Jonny Brodzinski and Jarred Tinordi their due. They all played key roles in the victory at Anaheim.

Barron recorded his first NHL point with an assist while winning seven of eight face-offs in a shade over 10 minutes. Gettinger set a perfect screen on Ryan Lindgren’s key insurance marker as the power play expired in a dominant third period. Brodzinski filled in on the fourth line with Barron and Gettinger with Ryan Reaves and Julien Gauthier out due to the protocol. Tinordi scored his first goal as a Blueshirt. It proved to be the game-winner for the veteran defenseman. A nice moment.

To think that they only allowed Alex Georgiev to face 14 shots thanks to a lights out third that saw them forecheck and turn the Ducks’ zone into a shooting gallery. Anaheim backup Anthony Stolarz played well. But his team didn’t. They were completely overwhelmed.

Aside from a mistake by Nils Lundkvist when his pass down low was intercepted by Cam Fowler, who then led the Anaheim transition for an Isac Lundestrom goal, the Rangers didn’t make a ton of mistakes. There were a few turnovers, but they cleaned it up in the third. By playing mistake free hockey, they controlled the final 20 minutes. It was a breath of fresh air from what we saw in Vegas.

Was this win worth getting carried away over? No. The Ducks played like poo. They also were missing a few key players including top defenseman Hampus Lindholm, veteran captain Ryan Getzlaf and starting goalie John Gibson. It still didn’t fully explain getting outshot 20-3 in the third and 28-7 the last two periods. For the game, the Rangers held a 40 to 14 edge in shots, making it the first time since January 2006 that they registered at least 40 shots and held an opponent to 14 or less. That came versus the Penguins.

What was noticeable is that even though they fell behind on the Lundestrom goal, they had the better of the play. Georgiev made a couple of key stops, but wasn’t asked to do anything special.

A key forecheck from the top line allowed them to tie it up when Kaapo Kakko got to a Jacob Trouba shot and made a nice play around the net to set up Mika Zibanejad for his 12th with six minutes left in the second. Although he’s still not finishing or shooting enough, Kakko is a solid overall player who can make plays with the puck. I’m not sure what kind of goalscorer he’ll be. But he certainly works hard enough. He’ll turn 21 soon.

If there was a surprise, it was who scored the three goals in the third period. On a strong shift from Alexis Lafreniere where he forced Stolarz into a good save and kept the puck alive for the third line, Kevin Rooney moved the puck down for Fil Chytil. He hadn’t been noticeable at all prior. But this time, he made a smart pass up for an innocent looking Tinordi shot that took a favorable Ranger carom off a Duck allowing the puck to go in.

On the play, Chytil was in the vicinity. It allowed him to record his first point in nine games. Unlike previous games this season, Gerard Gallant opted to move Chytil to the wing on an all center third line that featured Rooney and the hard-working Greg McKegg. Maybe that’s where he belongs. I’ve suggested it prior.

Even more stattling was the offense from Lindgren. As a power play was set to expire, Turk wisely stuck his top pair out for the end. Adam Fox had had a much better game than the crap fest in Vegas. He was involved throughout making smart plays with the puck to set up chances. On a Barron win in the Anaheim zone, Fox got the puck over to his partner. Lindgren just waited and fired a simple wrist shot that went in thanks to a great screen from Gettinger for a two-goal lead.

Even after some undisciplined penalties from both teams including Lindgren, his teammates including Tinordi picked him up. Out came Lindgren from the box which allowed Barclay Goodrow to lead him in for an empty netter. It was his first career two-goal game. He was all smiles as were his happy teammates.

It’s always good to see a gritty, defensive defenseman get rewarded. Lindy as they call him, is a gamer. He seems to always be getting banged around or taking pucks to the face. Funny enough. The way he plays reminds me of Dan Girardi. The former gritty defenseman who always took his lumps and kept coming back for more. He wore number 5. Maybe there’s a parallel. Lindgren wears number 55.

If you like simple yet effective hockey where defense is played along with forechecking, then the Blueshirts supplied us with it. They didn’t need to put on a show like the younger Ducks. Zegras even tried another Michigan from behind the net. But his pass was too high for Sam Steel in front. He is an exciting player with a bright future. Saturday wasn’t the time for that kind of trick. He rebounded nicely with a goal, assist and shootout tally in a win over Detroit.

As they turn their attention to the Kings in LA, the Rangers know they’ll be without Gallant. He’s now in protocol. However, Artemi Panarin was cleared to return. He took practice with Ryan Strome and Goodrow. Lafreniere was on the third line with Rooney and Chytil. I liked what I saw from Lafreniere. He was very active. Getting shots is still a chore. But his confidence is growing.

Having Panarin back for the upcoming game at Staples Center presents an interesting dilemma for Kris Knoblauch. He’ll coach for Gallant. Similar to when he filled in for David Quinn. What to do with Panarin on the first power play. He shouldn’t be in the left circle over Zibanejad. That would be a mistake. Do they consider keeping Kakko up over Strome? Probably not.

Aside from the gruesome final two periods in the 5-1 blowout loss against the Golden Knights, they played well without Panarin. However, he’s the leading scorer and should provide a boost. The offense isn’t great. Would they ever consider a reunion with exiled prospect Vitaly Kravtsov? That remains to be seen. They don’t have to answer that for a while.

There is enough cap space for GM Chris Drury to make an upgrade. What that is remains to be seen. It’ll depend on supply and demand. Given how mediocre the West is, I don’t know what to expect. So, don’t get your hopes up for Tomas Hertl. Wouldn’t Corey Perry look good on this roster in retrospect? He sure has made a difference in Tampa.

With the unpredictable nature of Omicron, nobody knows what to expect. Especially from a league that continues to bend over backwards for its seven Canadian teams. Canceling games due to attendance doesn’t seem right. Postponing due to rosters being adversely affected is understandable. The Devils are not playing their next game versus the Lightning.

How the NHL plans to make up all these games I have no idea. May is looking more and more likely if they are all in for a full 82. How do you think the Islanders feel? They’re still waiting. It’s insane. Canada is making the rules and it’s hurting American teams due to the border.

There doesn’t seem to be a solution. The league deserves criticism for not preparing for this scenario. It was never going away. It might not. Not with different variants likely. How will they deal with it?

If you haven’t seen the 30 Days of 30, watch. So far, MSG has done a great job airing old games of Henrik Lundqvist. It really brings me back. I have enjoyed watching. It was a different game. Seeing those teams go up against the powerhouse Penguins and classic blood rival Devils is great. Those were fun times.

Even though we didn’t come out on top in 2012, I miss the old playoff format. We’ll likely never see another Rangers/Devils in an Eastern Conference Final. Is that good for the league? I doubt it. They’re preventing some potential heavyweight match-ups with the divisional format. Shouldn’t we get the best in the Conference Finals? I think so.

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Devils’ season again comes to a halt due to COVID

Well I guess it was too much to ask to get through January without another Devils COVID outbreak. It’s hard to keep track anymore of who’s playing and who’s not, part of the reason it’s been hard for me to get into these games the last few weeks. I know that Nathan Bastian and Jesper Bratt got put on the COVID list hours before our 5-3 loss to the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Saturday, which could be our last game for a while given previous postponements next week of games in Canada against Toronto and Montreal. After Damon Severson and Janne Kuokkanen got put on the list today, a postponement of tomorrow’s game seemed inevitable and arguably one game too late as the Devils’ lineup was clearly compromised Saturday night by having to play eleven forwards and seven D including a bunch of AHL call-ups. I mean if we’re gonna put off games due to crowd size in Canada, why not due to an actual competitive disadvantage on the ice?

Even if our Thursday night matchup at Belmont goes off as scheduled, the Devils will play at most that one game in the next ten days until their next scheduled game against Arizona on the 19th at the Rock. That’s probably a good thing for goalie Mackenzie Blackwood considering the Devils have no interest in playing another goalie at this point with only kids and journeyman Jon Gillies in the organization since Jonathan Bernier’s injury and good in the near term for the rest of the team to hopefully get over this season’s outbreak. Assuming it is the last one anyway…it seemed like things were heading to critical mass a couple weeks ago before the NHL postponed games en masse just before Christmas.

It’s also hard to keep track of how many games get postponed and why they did. Officially our game last month against Pittsburgh was canceled due to a compromised roster, and it’s likely our game against the Habs two nights later would have been postponed if it hadn’t been already due to travel concerns across the border, and the Devils also had a game with the Blues pushed back after the holiday when the NHL extended the Christmas pause one more day. With tomorrow’s cancellation and the NHL postponing two of our games in Canada in the next several days, that brings the number up to six games that will need to be made up from our schedule. At a certain point soon even squeezing them into the three weeks that were free due to the potential Olympic trip could become an issue.

Leaving out the Devils’ unsatisfactory record on the ice, the off-ice issues just make it even more difficult to really care about what happens in yet another season that’s become messy and disjointed. Overall the Devils will have played either six or seven games in exactly a month span by the time the team next hits the ice at the Rock. Not exactly conducive to keeping people’s interest in what’s already become yet another ‘wait till next year!’ season.

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Hockey Community remembers St. Luke’s Teddy Balkind after hockey tragedy

On Thursday night, a horrible tragedy occurred during a high school hockey game between Brunswick School and St. Luke’s School in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Tenth grader Teddy Balkind fell to the ice during the game. He was accidentally caught by another player who was unable to stop in time. The collision proved fatal for Balkind, whose neck was slit by a skate.

Unfortunately, after being rushed to Greenwich Hospital, he died from the injuries sustained during the game. St. Luke’s School held a vigil for students and family Friday night to honor the memory of Teddy Balkind.

The hockey community is mourning the loss. It was shockingly announced by Sam Rosen on MSG Network during Thursday night’s game at the studio where he and Joe Micheletti broadcast the Rangers’ loss at Vegas from. It didn’t take long for an outpouring of support for Balkind from the NHL.

Kudos to the NHL, the teams and its players for recognizing the tragedy. Sticks out for Teddy Balkind. 🏒😥💜

Prayers go out to the family, St. Luke’s and Brunswick, along with the Connecticut hockey community. 🏒⭐✨

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Hughes, Bratt continue to shine as Devils beat Blue Jackets

Despite the fact I was going to my first home game in a few weeks last night, I was not really looking forward to it, partly for reasons discussed in my last blog so I won’t rehash it too much here. Leaving all that aside for the moment, there was also the fact that Columbus has been a pain in the neck team for us historically – evidenced by the fact we’d only won one of our last eleven games against the Jackets dating back to late 2017, and that one came in a shootout. Despite Nico Hischier dragging his sprained ankle into the lineup, we still had absences to deal with – starting with lead defenseman Dougie Hamilton – out with a broken jaw last night and for the next few weeks, as if that wasn’t enough he was put on the COVID list this afternoon along with forwards Pavel Zacha and Yegor Sharangovich.

At this point it’s hardly worth keeping a running tally of who’s in and who’s out on a nightly basis, it’s like trying to stick a fork in jello. Fortunately, Nico’s return off a one-game absence ensured we had our top three centers in the lineup at once, which has been a rarity this season. Also returning last night was coach Lindy Ruff, taken off the COVID list after a short stay. Thankfully all seems to be well physically with our 61-year old coach, who was even helping the staff from a sequestered room at the Prudential Center during the first of his three games away from the bench.

Of course after the first period, Lindy might have been wondering if he should go back into seclusion as the Devils had their worst period since the holiday break. Things actually looked good after fifty-one seconds when Jesper Bratt made a pretty feed through traffic to find a wide open Tomas Tatar, and the Slovakian winger took advantage of time and space to score in his first game off the COVID list. After that, it was all Columbus in a period where they outshot us 18-5. It looked for all the world as if it was going to be another long game for goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood as well, after leaving a juicy rebound for Max Domi to pounce on, and Domi tied the game at 4:54.

Shockingly Blackwood might have found a second wind in that first period last night after a series of games where he played tired, but obviously no relief is coming since the Devils clearly aren’t interested in playing another goalie at this point. Be that as it may, the goaltender had his best period in weeks with several key saves during the Blue Jacket surge, including a couple of point-blank stops on Patrik Laine, and a diving save on Oliver Bjorkstrand in the final moments of the period to keep the game tied. Even though Columbus had tied the game, it seemed as if that period still took something out of them and they lost a step afterward.

Still, the game dragged on into the third period tied at one before a Devils power play changed the momentum…shockingly in a positive way. Not so shockingly our dynamic duo was in the middle of things again, as Jack Hughes first gained the zone by passing it to himself off the boards, then streaked behind the net to find a wide-open Bratt in front for what would prove to be the winning goal. I guess turnabout is fair play since Bratt pretty much created the Tatar goal earlier, now Hughes did the same for him at 1:16 of the third period. Each continues to look like they’re in the middle of a breakout season, with Bratt already up to 32 points in 34 games, including 8 in his last five. While Bratt may be hot, Hughes has been downright sizzling since the break with eleven points in his last five games including last night. No Devils player – even Taylor Hall in his MVP season – had a five-game stretch of that many points since Zach Parise nearly fifteen years ago.

After getting assists on the first two goals, it would be the Devils’ budding star who sealed the game with an empty-netter after a rare workmanlike third period by the team without much drama. Hughes, Bratt and Blackwood may deserve the accolades with the most predictable three stars all season, but let’s not forget the top four on D when throwing around praise for last night and the team’s recent stretch of four wins in five games. Damon Severson and Jonas Siegenthaler each had 26+ minutes last night while PK Subban and Ryan Graves played merely 22+, and all were a big reason the Devils went 5-5 on the penalty kill last night. Amazing what merely competent special teams and a legit breakout from Hughes and Bratt can accomplish, compared to what this team was doing before the break.

I’m not sure we’ll be able to sweep Columbus in the home back-to-back tomorow, after all they are still a pain in the neck until proven otherwise, even after some high-profile defections in recent seasons. Still, it was nice to see only my second home win in person since early November. Not that my home record’s all that bad overall (6-4-3), but going 4-1 in the first month of the season kind of colors my view of the hockey I saw since then for the most part, till last night at least. And it was my first game watching them in the black jerseys. Even though I’d seen them on TV a couple of times, I still had the eerie feeling that I was watching another team out there with a completely new jersey than any of us are used to. Not that it’s all that bad, after the initial sticker shock and with the full kit on the ice as opposed to just the jersey itself in the initial rollout, I have to admit they could have done a lot worse.

I can’t say I’ll be running to buy one anytime soon although I may use some reward points on a jersey for the hell of it. I don’t even know when my next home game will be at this point though. Probably watching last night in a mask contributed to the eerie feeling I had at times last night. Predictably, the mask mandate wasn’t exactly enforced from what I could see. For everyone that legitimately had their mask off to eat or drink there probably were 2-3 people who didn’t care once they got in the building. I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised given it’s more or less similar non-enforcement at your local bar or restaurant after the minute you enter. I did keep mine on for the whole game, because I figured with my luck I’d be the one tapped on the shoulder by some usher to put it back on. Fortunately the guy behind me kept his mask on too, if he hadn’t I probably would have moved at some point since god knows there were available seats all over.

It was the longest I’d kept a mask on at once and while I was glad it didn’t really bother me as much as it could have, I’m not really in a rush to do it again either, nor am I in a rush to take any more chances with the Omicron variant than I already have. Even with the team playing a little better I’d rather wait till mandates are a bit more relaxed (not to mention the spread itself going down) before going back more frequently. As I said I mostly went to the game to get my longsleeve giveaway shirt, which wasn’t anything to write home about, but it’s at least well-timed with the weather finally getting colder. If there’s one good thing about the sparse crowds this season, it’s the fact I’m able to find more free parking on the street just outside the lot I normally park in. At least the team made it worth my trip last night. Between the mandates, virus and winter weather we’ll see when my next one is.

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Rangers get Knighted in forgettable loss at Vegas

There wasn’t much that went right at the Fortress for the Rangers. After a good first period followed by Chris Kreider’s team-leading 21st goal to tie things up early in the second, they fell apart in a 5-1 blowout loss to the Golden Knights.

Vegas didn’t treat them too kind. Unless they try their luck at the slots, blackjack or poker with the next game versus the Ducks scheduled for Saturday uncertain, the Blueshirts will want to forget quickly about the way they played last night.

Facing a perennial Stanley Cup contender, this wasn’t even a contest. It was a bad night. The first game of a scheduled five-game road trip didn’t go exactly as coach Gerard Gallant had planned. Honored before the game by the classy pregame video tribute from the former expansion franchise he guided to a Stanley Cup appearance, Gallant was quick to point out what went wrong.

He was referring to the dismal second period. Following Kreider catching Robin Lehner napping with an unscreened wrist shot that went by his glove at 52 seconds to tie the score, they unraveled. Unable to get anything going with the forecheck, they instead turned pucks over and paid dearly due to the speed of the Golden Knights.

They countered through the neutral zone with token resistance. In fact, Alex Georgiev was under siege. Making the start for Igor Shesterkin, who’s in the protocol (out a minimum of 3 games), he certainly was sharp. In the first period, Georgiev denied consecutive shots on a rush. He wasn’t to blame for this mess.

It was the lackluster play of the team defense that came back to haunt them. After Georgiev allowed a Jonathan Marchessault power play goal with 1:25 left in the first on a Ryan Lindgren trip, he had to deal with a ton of relentless pressure from Vegas. For a while, he kept the Rangers all even after Kreider’s goal. Eventually, it became too much.

Chandler Stephenson intercepted a Libor Hajek pass in his zone and started a counterattack up ice. With the Rangers having four players back, they seemed to be in good shape. But Adam Fox dove to take himself out of the play. The end result was Evgenii Dadonov passing back across for a Mark Stone skate redirection into an open net with Georgiev pulled wide.

On the play, they reviewed to see if it was a kick after Georgiev complained. However, there was no question that Stone legally deflected it in off the heel of his inside skate. That’s not a kicking motion. Something Gallant knew, which is why he didn’t challenge.

Trailing by one, the mistakes continued. On what also was an emotional night for Ryan Reaves, the popular former Knight was given a nice video tribute and ovation from appreciate fans at T-Mobile Arena. Unfortunately, it was his fourth line that got victimized on the crucial third Vegas goal.

After failing to get the puck deep, a giveaway allowed Keegan Kolesar to get the puck over for Mattias Janmark, who was able to get a step on Hajek and fire a shot past Georgiev, who was too deep in his net. While many hung the goal solely on Hajek, who had a tough game going minus-four with rookie D partner Zac Jones on for three goals against, the Rangers’ backup could’ve been more aggressive and challenged.

Chalk it up to being overwhelmed. The shots for the second favored Vegas, 13-7. But most of their shots came off the rush. Matador D is how I’d describe the Blueshirts. A Walt Clyde Frazier Knicks term. They didn’t defend much and allowed the Knights to dictate the tempo. It was a bad recipe.

On a night where there weren’t many penalties, special teams favored Vegas. After a near miss from Jones on a great Alexis Lafreniere set up that hit the goalpost, it was the Golden Knights who capitalized at 18:35 in the first when a Nicolas Roy low shot saw them outnumber K’Andre Miller and Georgiev. Fox came out high to challenge. The Knights got three looks before Marchessault potted his 17th on a backhand in front.

The one thing the Rangers won at was hits. But it didn’t matter. If you’re the one finishing most of the checks, that’s usually not good. It means they were defending too much. They outhit the Knights 45-17.

Trailing 3-1 after two, it wasn’t over. At least technically speaking. But any comeback hopes were dashed by the superior Knights. To make matters worse, Dylan Coghlan moved the puck up for an actually healthy Nolan Patrick. He made a smart move and pass to open up the ice for Brett Howden. Like the game at MSG last month, he scored by going five-hole on Georgiev at 2:11 of the third period.

While Howden was all smiles after getting his fourth (half versus NYR because of course), it was another dismal period. Who knows why. Was it the flight? The Rangers were all but invisible. If I didn’t know any better, the guys in the white jerseys were ghosts. They may as well have been.

It went from bad to worse. On a play at the blue line, Hajek got caught to lead to a two-on-one rush for Vegas. With only Jones back, he gave Marchessault the shot. He had no trouble snapping one upstairs on Georgiev, who was a bit off his angle to make it 5-1 Vegas.

That was it. There was nothing else significant that happened. This was a bad game. They do happen sometimes. The Golden Knights are very good. Getting Stone back helped. Even minus top sniper Max Pacioretty and eventual top center Jack Eichel, who’s skating on his own, they are a handful. There’s no shame losing to them.

I wish our side had played better. But there were too many passengers. I can’t think of many Blueshirts who showed up aside from Kreider. This was one you burn.

Will they play Anaheim on Saturday? I don’t know. The NHL just rescheduled a game between the Red Wings and Ducks. Given that the Western part of the road swing is spread out, it’s possible Saturday gets moved. We’ll see.

With easy target Hajek having a night time forget along with Jones, you have to expect Gallant to make changes to the defense. At least he kept putting them out. They didn’t miss a shift. In games like last night, that’s the only way young players will learn. I would figure Nils Lundkvist gets back in and Patrik Nemeth if he’s finally ready to return.

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Devils’ winning streak ends amid more bad news

Despite the Devils’ three-game winning streak before last night’s tilt in Boston, I wasn’t getting all nuts about what it meant for our playoff chances (playoffs…playoffs?!) even though in theory a matchup against the current second wild card in Boston would be big given the fact we were only three points behind them. I mean after all, with a team like Boston you have to count on them getting at least 5-6 extra points with all those games in hand – plus they’re flat out better than us anyway so running them or any of the other current East playoff teams down would be extremely unlikely even in the best of circumstances.

Of course we didn’t play the Bruins last night in the best of circumstances with a storm of injury news marring what in theory should have been a big game. From the fact that Dougie Hamilton had surgery on a broken jaw and will now miss a few weeks, to Nico Hischier missing last night’s game with a swollen ankle after his stirring OT winner in Washington plus the news of Pavel Zacha and Yegor Sharangovich going into COVID protocol, our lineup was drastically changed over the last week. Not to mention the confirmation that Jonathan Bernier had hip surgery and is all but confirmed out for the season just added more gloom to a busy injury news dump on a Tuesday afternoon, and a reminder of how screwed we are in net with Mackenzie Blackwood’s play going to crap and no other realistic option to threaten his job.

So no, the playoff race wasn’t exactly my biggest concern last night although if you had any delusions about the Devils making a last-ditch surge for the second wild card (cough MSG cough), their 5-3 loss in Beantown should have pretty much ended that. What was annoying about last night is in spite of everything, this game was eminently winnable too. After a shocking win in Washington – their first win over the Capitals since before the pandemic (including an 0-8 last year) – the Devils were right on the cusp in Boston despite our depleted lineup. Unfortunately two familiar themes came back to bite us yet again – Blackwood’s continued decline, and Ty Smith’s continuing series of meltdowns defensively. Blackwood gave up two, possibly three soft goals yesterday alone while Smith cutting behind the net and oleing the puck as David Pastrnak cut in front of the net on the winning goal late in the third was a braindead decision on the par of Zach Wilson’s QB sneak Sunday afternoon.

It was because of the latter that I couldn’t bear to watch Devils-Capitals on Sunday afternoon right smack after my football team’s blowup in the final two minutes. Even as the Devils got out to a 3-1 lead in Washington I feared the collapse, which eventually came in the third period as Blackwood’s horrible puck management (a more charitable way of saying it was a late Christmas present) handed the Caps their tying goal. Fortunately some #1 overall magic between Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier led to the Devils’ OT winner and a third straight win, tying their longest streak of the season.

Last night we weren’t so fortunate, except with Nico off the ice as a rumored fracture turned out to be just a bruise and the captain’s expected to play tomorrow night. Essentially my only goal from the rest of the season is to see more of what we’ve seen in the last four games – production from our #1 overalls and other younger players we hope can be a part of the future. Not to mention our improving D outside of the Hamilton injury and Smith concerns. A normally inconsistent Damon Severson seems to be responding with increased icetime the last few weeks, with two goals and five assists in his last seven games with an even plus-minus in spite of the goaltending woes, while playing 25+ minutes in six of them. While we’re not looking for point production from Jonas Siegenthaler, he’s certainly responded as well, the way he has all season with solid work in his own zone and giving us quality minutes pretty much all year.

Despite those two, PK Subban and Ryan Graves holding down the fort for the most part defensively, there’ve been too many mistakes around then in recent games. As bad as the Devils’ defense has been at times, there’s no reason other than shoddy goaltending that Blackwood should have allowed 28 goals in his last seven starts (exactly four a game). Once again GM Tom Fitzgerald finds himself in between a rock and a hard place in net with their supposed 1B again being out of the equation early in a season while the 1A looks far less worthy of it by the season. As much as I didn’t really care about losing Scott Wedgewood early on, post-Bernier injury we could sure use a guy like that now. Or really anyone that this coaching staff will deign to play enough to give Blackwood some deserved pine and needed rest, even a scrub at this point would give you the level of play Blackwood has lately. I don’t want to hear the he’s playing through injury excuse…it goes back to the famous Jimmy Connors line, if you’re injured don’t play, if you’re playing you’re not injured. We’ll need more from Blackwood in the second half, and he needs more too, otherwise Fitzy may be doing more than just looking for another 1B this offseason.

Tomorrow night, the Devils return home to the Prudential Center to play Columbus. Also returning will be the black jerseys, for my first game in attendance to see ‘Jersey’ play. Despite the fact I haven’t been to a home game for about three weeks now I’m not looking forward to tomorrow night, particularly with COVID cases still spiking across New Jersey and the new mask mandate in effect. I’m only going because A) I’m picking up my long-sleeve t-shirt giveaway, and B) I’m expecting a spaced out crowd and can get a drink with my free f/b card to give myself a mask breather. Not to mention C, tickets aren’t selling regardless of A or B. I can’t promise I’ll stay for all three periods either, that’ll depend on both the crowd around me and the game itself. While I may be there tomorrow, I don’t know when my next game will be after that even if I can’t sell my pairs for certain games.

Hopefully the Devils at least give me something to watch going forward, wherever I am for games.

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What a difference two months make for improved Blueshirts, Lafreniere and Miller emerging after win over Oilers

It was two months ago that they met the same opponent at Edmonton. At that time, the Rangers were winning hockey games. But relying largely on Igor Shesterkin. It wasn’t sustainable. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl exposed them in comeback fashion while Alex Georgiev struggled.

They then were blown out completely by the better Flames. It was also a road trip that saw them blow a third period lead to the Canucks before they made a coaching change. The only win on that trip was over the expansion Seattle Kraken out Northwest. They were lucky to get the two points.

It’s almost exactly two months later. A lot has changed. Playing a better overall game under Gerard Gallant, the Blueshirts are winning by outworking opponents. It isn’t all about the stud goalie, who got a night off due to a busy schedule. It’s also become about Georgiev, who played very well in backstopping the Rangers to a satisfying 4-1 home win over the struggling Oilers.

It’s Edmonton who looks like they need a face lift. Following a strong start led by the dynamic duo of McDavid and Draisaitl, they’ve fallen on hard times. So much so that it’s possible the Rangers might’ve helped send coach Dave Tippett to the unemployment line soon. His team relies too much on the skill of the game’s best two players. They don’t have the will like the grittier Blueshirts.

Let’s highlight that grit. By adding high character players like Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Reaves last summer, Team President and GM Chris Drury is looking like a genius these days. His hire of the experienced Gallant behind the bench is paying off. He continues to push all the right buttons while having a calm demeanor win or lose.

It isn’t only the veterans who are excelling. Highlighted by a three-point game out of Ryan Strome and 33 saves from a refocused Georgiev fresh off the protocol, the Rangers also got arguably the best game of the young career of Alexis Lafreniere. The emerging 20-year old former top pick recorded a goal and assist while being assertive throughout. He was named the game’s Second Star for his effort.

He wasn’t alone. There has also been a noticeable improvement during this winning streak from K’Andre Miller. The second-year defenseman seems to be maturing. After logging a team high 26:52 in an impressive 4-0 win over the Lightning on Saturday, he continued to make outstanding reads and have an active stick against the likes of McDavid and Draisaitl. Although he and physical partner Jacob Trouba didn’t hit the score sheet, they were rock solid at five-on-five. Miller got the most even strength minutes (21:47) with Trouba (20:31) right behind.

Buoyed by the return of Ryan Lindgren, who had an assist and one very strong hit on Slater Koekkoek, the Rangers had consistent play from all three defense pairs including Libor Hajek and rookie Zac Jones, who stayed in the lineup over Nils Lundkvist. Each received at least 15 minutes and were responsible. Adam Fox was involved offensively with a pair of assists while making subtle defensive plays as usual in over 21 minutes.

If there was one contrast from Edmonton where they don’t like to play in their end, the Rangers blocked 22 shots to the Oilers’ three. In fact, both Trouba and Hajek each had four blocks. Kevin Rooney made three in his return out of protocol. Although he would be bailed out by Georgiev, who made the save of the game to rob McDavid on a crucial Edmonton power play. Rooney definitely gave Georgiev some love in the postgame.

As is also part of their identity under Gallant, they finished checks against the star players in Oilers jerseys. That even included Fil Chytil knocking down McDavid at the end of a shift. If that doesn’t show commitment, what else will? As a team, the Rangers out-hit the Oilers 29-12. Some of that was due to the puck being in their end in the second and third period. But for the most part, they didn’t allow either superstar to break loose like the run n’ gun nightmare on Nov. 5.

This was a complete effort by 20 players. Let’s call it The Turk Effect. He has successfully changed the way the Rangers play. You notice it with a maturing Lafreniere in how he comes back harder defensively and breaks up plays. You see it with Kaapo Kakko too. Even though the scoring is still an issue, the other 20-year old high pick works hard. It is that commitment to all three zones that Gallant has been able to get his emerging team to execute.

When they need a big save, Shesterkin or in Monday night’s case Georgiev can give it to them. It’s become a good trend. It’s why they are where they are in the standings. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. Go read other hot takes. The truth is through 34 games, they find themselves in good position thanks to a 22-8-4 record with 48 points. What that means is a good first half. It’s not time to toot our own horn. There’s more work to do.

In a first period mostly controlled by the Blueshirts in the second game of a back-to-back, it was a smart dump in by Lindgren that caused problems for Koskinen. With the puck outside the designated area (crapezoid), Koskinen got into trouble when a hustling Strome beat him to the loose puck and centered for Lafreniere, who buried another one into a vacated net. For the cynics who cry over everything, Lafreniere puts himself in the right spots to get those goals. He’s now up to eight. All at even strength.

After holding Edmonton to only six shots, the second period was different. The Rangers would have to defend a lot more. However, not before Barclay Goodrow continued his consistent play. On a subtle defensive play from Strome, he moved the puck up the boards trapping Duncan Keith. Out with the puck came a flying Lafreniere. He knew what to do dishing across for Goodrow, who scored for the third time in three games. That gave Lafreniere a two-point game. He earned it.

There weren’t many penalties in the game. However, a Koekkoek hold on Mika Zibanejad gave the Rangers a golden opportunity to extend the lead. But before they could do much of anything, a Kakko hook evened things up.

Afterwards, they still had chances. Zibanejad rang one off the crossbar. A lot of their plays came off counters due to forcing Oilers into turnovers. That even held true for McDavid and Draisaitl. They take risks. That can be exposed by harder working teams. Something our team is becoming.

One thing I noticed was how many one-on-one battles they won. They got their sticks on pucks against both McDavid and Draisaitl to break up plays. Miller was a standout during a four-on-four. He was very aggressive and made the right reads to break plays up and use his skating to go in the opposite direction.

However, the Oilers began to tilt the ice in the second half of the period. Consecutive strong shifts from the McDavid line and Draisaitl line had the Rangers working extra hard. Following an icing, an exhausted Fox was able to get free for a two-on-one. But over two minutes into his shift, he couldn’t quite finish with a diving Koskinen able to get on top of the attempt and cover up. That kept the score at 2-0.

Ironically, it was actually the Oilers’ support players who finally made it a game. On a good play along the boards to gain entry by vet Kyle Turris, he got the puck over to Tyler Benson. With Chytil defending, Benson was able to slide the puck in front for a Ryan McLeod finish to cut the deficit to one with six minutes left in the second. It was a well executed play.

With momentum, Edmonton sure came. They spent more time looking for the equalizer. But unlike the game a couple of months ago, the Rangers didn’t break defensively. They were still able to keep the Oilers to the outside. When there was a good opportunity, Georgiev was locked in and made the key saves. He definitely looked like he had something to prove. It was understandable.

Entering the third, the Rangers were nursing a one-goal lead. Lately, third period leads have not been automatic. But this time, they got some huge insurance on special teams. On nothing but sheer hustle from gritty veteran Greg McKegg after stealing the puck, he drew a tripping minor on McLeod.

With the game hanging in the balance, the top unit went to work. After Fox twice fed Zibanejad in his office for good shots with Koskinen kicking one out with the other attempt just missing, a good Kakko recovery kept a play alive. Although he didn’t get a point, it was that determination that allowed a patient Fox to calmly shoot a low wrist shot for a Chris Kreider special. He got just enough of it to squeak it through Koskinen, who couldn’t quite hang on.

That gave Kreider a new career high with 12 power play goals. It also was his 20th of the season. It marks the seventh time in his NHL career that he’s reached 20 goals in a season. The big difference is the 30-year old is having a career season. Now up to 31 points (20-11-31) in 34 games, Kreider has never played better. He continues to make defensive plays and lead by example. O’ Captain! My Captain!

That goal would prove large. Not only because it made it 3-1. But due to the Oilers. A desperate man, Tippett double shifted Draisaitl with McDavid. They are like two horses when together. Think Crosby and Malkin. As imposing as they are, the Rangers were up to the challenge. Jones even got baptized by fire having to go up against McDavid for a shift. He was successful.

Things got interesting. Following Strome drawing a slash on Kailer Yamamoto, Trouba caught Colton Sceviour up high for a hi-sticking minor penalty. This was after the Rangers spent the first 1:38 on a five-on-four that could’ve sealed the game. Instead, there was some four-on-four followed by the dangerous Edmonton power play.

It looked like the penalty kill would escape. But with a clear opportunity to shoot the puck down, instead Rooney made a puzzling puck decision that almost proved costly. He decided to pass back. As I yelled, “No!!!!!”, at the TV, Draisaitl intercepted it. Everyone knew where the puck was going. Over for McDavid, who would score. Not so fast. A quick reacting Georgiev got over and made a fantastic save. Fantabulous. A word I once made up to describe such things. Save of the season?

The key to that 10 bell save was how aggressive he was. Georgiev knew what Draisaitl would do. He’s not the best passer in the game for nothing. He just anticipated it and absolutely stole a sure power play goal for McDavid. If he scores there, who knows. Maybe it’s a different finish. They never got to that point. How’s that for confidence from a goalie we were ready to run out of town?

To his credit, Gallant never stopped supporting Georgiev. He continues to call both Georgie and Igor great goalies. They sure have been a good tandem. Even though we know how special Shesterkin is. You gotta give Georgiev a lot of credit. He stayed ready by taking shots in practice. But more than that, he turned his year around after Shesterkin went down. He stepped up. That shows true character.

Following the save, it was obvious that Edmonton was done scoring. It didn’t matter that McDavid had seven shots. He was held off the score sheet with Draisaitl for only the fifth time all season. A total T-E-A-M effort by the Blueshirts.

If you needed confirmation of how good a night it was for Strome, he took a Goodrow pass and came up ice and had his centering feed bank in off an Edmonton player. His eighth from Goodrow and Fox put it away with 5:49 remaining.

Despite getting outshot 14-5 in the third, the Rangers closed it out for their third straight win. For now, it counts as another victory against a playoff team. I’m skeptical about the Oilers. They don’t play like a together team. There’s too many passengers.

One thing is certain. The Blueshirts are a true team in every sense of the word. Remember how much they used to struggle without Artemi Panarin? No problem anymore. They have the players who step up including Strome, who didn’t need Panarin to earn the game’s First Star with a goal and two assists. He is a leader. Just listen to his postgame interview. He has a bright future as either a coach or color analyst. That’s after his career which is peaking.

Next up are the Golden Knights in a rematch from last month. Good. Bring on another good opponent. They’ll be without Max Pacioretty for a while. But they’re playing well and are back in first having left Edmonton in the dust. Vegas is a tough place to play. That’s on Thursday.

The Rangers also will be out West for the improved Ducks, Kings and Sharks. They conclude a five-game road trip at Philadelphia on Jan. 15. That’s if there’s no more surprises in the schedule. The next game at MSG is not until 1/19 versus Toronto. The final regular season meeting.

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The Good, Bad and Ugly for improving Devils

Yesterday afternoon, the Devils took on Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in DC. They won their third in a row thanks to overtime heroics from captain Nico Hischier. His second goal of the game gave the Devils a 4-3 OT win.

The good was the continued emergence of former top pick Jack Hughes. It was his smart defensive play and good pass that allowed Hischier to get the winner. For the third straight game, Hughes recorded at least two points with a pair of assists. During the team’s three-game winning streak, he’s caught fire by tallying seven points (3-4-7) with a plus-five rating.

At age 20, Hughes is starting to figure it out. Even though he missed significant time due to a shoulder separation, he’s now at a point-per-game in his third season. The seven point outburst over the three wins since they returned shows what he’s capable of. Hughes has eight goals and eight assists for 16 points in 16 games.

We’re seeing the superb skating and elite skill he has. It was his great move and finish past Mike Smith during an overtime home win over Edmonton that ended 2021 on a bright note. He used Connor McDavid as a screen by shooting through him to fool Smith. That capped off a two-goal, one assist game. One in which he was the hero in an exciting New Year’s Eve game against McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The improvement of Hughes is a great development for the Devils. It’s his team. He is the best player they have who’ll lead the franchise for years to come. Hopefully, for suffering fans like Blogger Hasan, out of obscurity and back to relevance in the Metropolitan Division.

Another encouraging sign is the two-goal game from Hischier on Sunday. Also a former top pick, the 22-year old captain hasn’t been known for scoring consistently. Injuries have held him back. It’s easy to forget that in his rookie year of ’17-18, he scored a career high 20 goals and tallied 32 assists for 52 points while playing all 82 games under former coach John Hynes.

That was the last time the Devils sniffed the playoffs. It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. They were carried by surprising Hart winner Taylor Hall. Hischier centered the top line which also included Kyle Palmieri. Even more shocking is that it was the play of current Rangers’ third string goalie Keith Kinkaid that helped that team qualify for the postseason. It was a best case scenario.

Since then, Hischier hasn’t played a full season. After going 17-30-47 in 69 contests in ’18-19, he had 36 points in 58 games during the COVID-19 shortened ’19-20 season. He hardly established himself due to more setbacks last year. Hischier went 6-5-11 in only 21 games.

Now in Year Five, he’s finally healthy enough to contribute. With Hughes doing the heavy lifting by centering the current first line that features the emerging Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich, Hischier is playing with Pavel Zacha and at the moment Jesper Boqvist. He’s on a current five-game point streak.

The six points (2-4-6) date back to 12/8 and 12/10 before Hischier extended the streak when he returned after Christmas. Even in another pandemic interrupted season, he’s quietly up to 20 points (6-14-20) over 28 games. A good overall player who is over 53 percent on face-offs that plays both power play and penalty kill, he’s an important player. If he was more durable, the Devils could have a good 1-2 punch at center.

With rookie Dawson Mercer on the third line having a good first season with nine goals and 10 helpers for 19 points, the Devils are strong at the center position. Checking pivot Mike McLeod plays on the fourth line. But it’s the promise of the top three that should be cause for optimism in Newark. Especially with Hughes. All three centers are 22 or younger.

Surrounding them with good finishers will make a big difference. Alexander Holtz was participating in the U20 World Junior Championships for Sweden before a few positive cases shut down the marquee prospect tournament in Edmonton and Red Deer. It was poorly handled by organizers. Let’s leave it at that. Holtz has 10 points (6-4-10) in 11 games with AHL Utica. The 19-year old former ’20 first round pick could become a fixture with the big club in the future.

With the team having won three straight to brighten moods for the New Year after struggles, they have to feel better about themselves. It helps to have Hughes and Hischier leading the way. Something that should be the norm moving forward. That’s the Good.

The bad would be Dougie Hamilton leaving the game after taking a puck to the face. He didn’t return for the third period. The big scoring defenseman was taken to the hospital for evaluation. Here is the latest from MSG Devils reporter Amanda Stein.

Also bad was Mackenzie Blackwood totally butchering a loose puck in front which he turned over for the tying Caps goal. They rallied from a 3-1 third period deficit to get a point before Hughes’ fantastic play for the Hischier winner.

The ugly continues to be a disturbing trend for veteran defenseman P.K. Subban. On a Nic Dowd goal, he was caught in an interesting position with his leg against Garnet Hathaway.

It’s dangerously close to a slew foot. Something that has become far too common for Subban. There have been three previous incidents including one in the preseason against Ryan Reaves. There also was the unfortunate play in the corner that ended the season for Sammy Blais.

Not once has the Department Of NHL Player Safety stepped in to suspend him. If you’re a repeat offender involving a dangerous play frowned upon, it shouldn’t matter what your position is in the league. Subban has definitely skated by only receiving a $5,000 fine.

If he continues to do this, it’ll have serious consequences. Perhaps someone will take matters into their own hands. Let’s hope not.

The Devils next game is Tuesday night in Boston. A win would pull them within one game of NHL .500. They’ll enter play with a record of 13-15-5 with 31 points in 33 games. Undoubtedly, they would prefer to keep things moving in the right direction.

We’ll see how they do this week. After the Bruins, they got the Blue Jackets at home on Thursday. It’s a home-and-home series concluding this Saturday in Columbus.

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Mika Day At Garden! Eighth career hat trick for Zibanejad and huge first period from Shesterkin carries Rangers to statement win over Lightning

For a while, you wondered if we’d ever see the same Mika Zibanejad from ’19-20 when he caught fire prior to the long pause. In fact, we attended his remarkable five-goal game which was Capped off by a highlight reel overtime winner to win it 6-5. That was Mika Night. Sunday afternoon was Mika Day.

In a much earlier start without Artemi Panarin (protocol), Zibanejad had the magic back. He again stepped up big time by recording his eighth career hat trick to highlight a statement 4-0 win over the Lightning at MSG. He wasn’t the only star. Igor Shesterkin shined brightly with an unbelievable first period. He stopped all 18 Tampa shots (38 overall in his 2nd career shutout) while Zibanejad scored twice on the power play followed by an important Ryan Strome goal at even strength to build a 3-0 lead.

This was a terrific game by the Blueshirts. Without their top scorer and minus both Ryan Lindgren and veteran defenseman Patrik Nemeth (who played well in the New Year’s Eve win at Tampa), they sure delivered a message to the rest of the league. In sweeping a two-game home-and-home series with the champs, who were healthier in the rematch, these were the biggest two wins of the season.

Many naysayers pointed to a 3-8-2 record versus playoff opponents prior to the pair of games. Now, they can eat crow or cry about charts and foolish ‘Expected Statistical’ crap in their basements. Games aren’t decided by that. Rather by the way the team plays. And while they were out-attempted by a wide margin in a very wide open first period that probably favored the Bolts, it was the brilliance of the goalie along with the star of Zibanejad that stood out the most.

Zibanejad got the party started early on. With the Rangers on the power play, he waited for Chris Kreider to move just out of the way of Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose vision was interrupted enough for Mika to get that patented wrist shot through low stick side for the game’s first goal. Of note, Zibanejad was back in his office in the left circle. A place he did most of his damage in his career season two years ago. It’s where he should be even when Panarin returns.

Despite falling behind, the Lightning certainly got their scoring chances on Shesterkin. What they discovered was that the recently turned 25-year old Russian was a brick wall. He celebrated his birthday on Dec. 30. It’s hard to believe he was a fourth round pick in 2014 who went number 118. If there’s one thing the organization can do, it’s find goalies late in drafts. When healthy, it’s my belief that Igor is every bit as good as Henrik Lundqvist. The proof is in the chants from the crowd. It’s gone from, “Hen-rik, Hen-rik,” to “Ig-or, Ig-or!”

Indeed, Czar Igor as friend Sean McCaffrey of bluecollarblueshirts.com likes to call him, is the heir apparent to Number 30. When his jersey goes up to the rafters later this month despite the ridiculous whiny crap from Larry Brooks, it’ll be a very special night at the World’s Most Vaccinated. The torch will officially be passed to Igor Shesterkin, who when healthy is a big difference maker for this team.

He showed it in the first period. In between a pair of Zibanejad power play goals including a pass for Kaapo Kakko that banked right off former Rangers’ captain Ryan McDonagh, there was Shesterkin denying the dangerous Lightning time and time again. Two of his best stops were stoning Brayden Point in the slot off a good Anthony Cirelli feed, and then stretching out to rob Mikhail Sergachev with a great glove save. That one may as well have been from the old Lundqvist highlight reel. There was a time when his glove was pretty good. Just ask Alex Ovechkin. He’d be a lot closer to Gretzky if not for the work Henrik did over their careers.

If there was a momentum shift that told you it wasn’t Tampa’s day, it wasn’t the Zibanejad bank shot off McDonagh that made it 2-0. We’re talking about the Lightning here. They were turned away by Shesterkin, who must’ve had at least seven great saves. It was the Strome goal at five-on-five that really was meaningful. Taking advantage of a Cirelli turnover in the neutral zone, Barclay Goodrow gained the Tampa zone and found Strome open in the slot for the third goal. One that snuck underneath Vasilevskiy, who wasn’t at his best. It was his first game back.

Even up three, the Rangers were hanging on defensively. They let Shesterkin do most of the work in the first. By the second, it wasn’t only the performance of the brilliant Vezina candidate that kept the Bolts in check. After being on their heels the first seven minutes, the home team picked it up. They blocked several shots with Alexis Lafreniere making a good play to take away a chance and Chris Kreider diving in front of a shot to lead by example. There was also a big hit from Jacob Trouba on Mathieu Joseph that resulted in, “Trouuu” chants from the crowd. It reminded me of the classic “Beuuuukk” chants. He’s gaining a reputation as one of the game’s best open ice hitters.

The best part of the win was how the defense improved over the contest. Even without Ryan Lindgren and Patrik Nemeth, the kids stepped up. K’Andre Miller had a second straight strong game. He played a few more minutes with Trouba as they were relied upon more by coach Gerard Gallant. It’s all about improvement. Speaking of stepping up, Libor Hajek was back with Adam Fox. He was solid in extended time. Rookie third pair Zac Jones and Nils Lundkvist were okay. With the exception of Jones getting turned around by the very tricky Point on a chance, they were fine.

Still leading by three, there was some anticipation for Zibanejad to get the hat trick. We’ve seen it before. It was a subtle play that lead to his eighth game of three goals or more. In a strange play, he knocked down a clearing attempt to keep the puck alive. This would be challenged by Lightning bench boss Jon Cooper. Then Kreider swatted the puck before making a good pass over for an easy Zibanejad tap in for the hat trick.

As hats flew down with fans celebrating, Cooper made the coach’s challenge. After a lengthy review, it was determined that Zibanejad’s stick wasn’t high. To the naked eye based on the replays, it looked okay. He was crouched down and looked like his stick was low enough. That’s exactly what the refs determined on video review. It was the right call. There wasn’t enough conclusive evidence to overturn it. Even as Steven Stamkos pouted, he was brushed aside by an emphatic ref who if you read lips gave him an expletive. Cooper just shook his head. It wasn’t his team’s day.

After Shesterkin made 11 more saves for 29 through two periods, all that was left was whether he’d get that category where there’s a zero next to his name on the game sheet. To my observation, it looked like the Zibanejad third goal which made it 4-zip really took the wind out of the Lightning’ sails. Psychologically, it’s a huge difference being down three compared to four.

We saw that in how the Bolts played the third. It wasn’t so much that they gave up. They didn’t. They’re repeat Stanley Cup champs for a reason. But none of the nine shots they got ever felt like they were destined to get by the razor sharp Shesterkin. Or Shestyorkin. If you prefer Russian like me since I took it in high school and mastered the language (94 on the Regents), that’s Игор Шестёркйн! Очень хорошо Хоккей.

Part of the third was also how the Blueshirts defended. They didn’t give up too much. You didn’t see Shesterkin having to stand on his head in the first. That was even true for the second where they blocked at least nine shots. The Lightning also had some attempts go wide. You also noticed some over passing. Something you see when a hot goalie is in a zone.

It was a much better game from Shesty, who wasn’t at his best Friday or in the Panthers’ loss. Maybe the way he denied the three big Lightning shooters in the skill competition got him going. It was his third game back. It takes time for a goalie to get sharp. That was evidenced by Vasilevskiy giving up a couple of goals he normally has.

One of the real takeaways from this victory is they beat a healthier Lightning. They had Vasilevskiy, Cirelli and Erik Cernak back. But none of it mattered. That is what was most impressive about the win. Not only did it back up their hard fought fugaze shootout win in what can best be described as a strange and sloppy game.

They did it by out-Lightning the Bolts. Especially in that fast paced race track that was a very entertaining first period. It really was great action by both teams. The score could’ve been very different if not for Igor. The play of the goalie matters. Ask some of my Bolts friends about how much Vasy means to their team. I’ve watched a lot of their games. More often than not, Vasilevskiy is their best player. I put him in the MVP conversation with the Oilers’ twins and Ovechkin.

If Shesterkin could stay on the ice, perhaps you could make a case for him as well. But that’s more of a long-shot. Overall, it was a great win. The best of the season. Especially with the Oilers coming in tomorrow night for the second of a back-to-back.

I’m going to say this right now. If our team doesn’t get sucked into another run and gun with the flawed Edmonton team despite McDavid and Draisaitl, they’ll win. Forecheck them to death. We know what happened at Edmonton. They don’t want a repeat. Especially if it’s Alex Georgiev in net like last time. This is a different team now. I expect them to win tomorrow and move Dave Tippett one step closer to the unemployment line. We’ll find out soon enough.

One other point of emphasis from today’s game. I thought Lafreniere played well. He was very active throughout. His defensive awareness is improving. He is coming back defensively and making good reads. He also looked more noticeable with a real center as opposed to the incomplete and puzzling Fil Chytil. I don’t see it at all with him. Even Julien Gauthier got a clean breakaway in the final period where Vasilevskiy easily turned him down. Imagine if Gauthier had hands.

I also want to give credit to Greg McKegg. The Keg Man played a solid game on the fourth line. He’s a gamer. There’s nothing wrong with having him fill in for Kevin Rooney until he’s medically cleared. McKegg works hard and hustles. That plays in this league. Dryden Hunt fits much better on the checking line too. Keep him there.

There’s nothing else left to add. It was a very good day for the Blueshirts. Let’s keep it going.

BATTLE OF HUDSON 3 STARS

3rd 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR (3 assists including perfect set up for Zibanejad hat trick, diving block, a real leader)

2nd 🌟 Igor Shestyorkin, NYR (38 saves including 18 for 18 in first period for 2nd career shutout)

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, NYR (3 goals for his 8th career hat trick, dominant throughout)

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