Devils have a post-Thanksgiving feast with two more wins

If you could only use one word to describe this Devils season so far, you’d have to go with thrilling.  Not only is the team incredibly entertaining to watch, but seemingly every game (and certainly every win) comes down to the wire.  This week alone in four games, the Devils have had two overtime wins, one shootout of doom loss and another tight one-goal win against Vancouver on Friday.  In a macro sense you could say this week has been a good microcosm of the Devils’ shocking 14-5-4 start.  You could even go more micro and say one play this week perfectly encapsulated all of the characteristics of this Devils team in a nutshell – spoiler alert, see YouTube clip.

Playing Vancouver at the Rock on Friday night, despite the fact the Nucks have had their own surprising start, I was still fairly confident the Devils were not losing on Hockey Fights Cancer night.  Not with Brian Boyle and his family participating in the opening puck drop, getting the first of what would prove to be multiple standing ovations of the evening, in large part acknowledging his own brave fight against leukemia.  After the two teams traded goals early in the second came a dazzling sequence of skill started by Nico Hischier, who drew a power play with a ridiculous fake out of whatever hapless Nuck defenseman was playing him.  On said power play, Will Butcher made an even more astonishing move through the Vancouver defense and around Ben Hutton to gain a step, afterward finding an open Boyle in front with a sharp pass and Boyle did the rest – putting it home for the lead goal in a script that had to have been written by Hollywood.

Okay it wasn’t written by Hollywood, but it might as well have been.  And that goal was also a perfect microcosm of everything that has defined this Devils season – the youth and skill of Butcher, the determination and heart of Boyle.  Really the whole second period was an exhibition of the speed and skill GM Ray Shero’s brought to the club, led (and that is the right word) by Taylor Hall, who had a goal and two assists in the middle frame, helping the Devils out to a 3-1 lead and continuing his own resurgence into being a top player again.  Would this finally prove to be an easy, stress-free win?

Of course not since nothing’s ever easy with this Devils team, and the refs were as usual more than happy to try to screw us over, missing an obvious double minor high-sticking of Miles Wood during the third period (after missing an obvious boarding of Nico in the first period, and failing to wave off an icing that was touched by one of the Vancouver players in the second period just before their first goal).  Predictably it was on a power play where Vancouver scored midway through the third period to cut the deficit to one, and after dictating play most of the night the Devils fell back into their usual chickens with heads cut off defense holding a multiple-goal lead in the third period – more on that later.  At least this time the Devils didn’t blow the lead and have to go to OT, with Stefan Noesen of all people having a dominant final shift with two clears and a block to help seal it.

While Hall was the obvious player of the game and Cory Schneider again made some big saves against his former team, there was only gonna be one first star on this night and Boyle getting a third and final standing ovation of the night during the post-game interview on the ice was a fitting coda to the evening.

What could the Devils possibly do for an encore in Detroit last night?  How about give up the opening goal, get out to a 3-1 lead in the third period (again with Hall having a multi-point night and Boyle getting a goal, this time a masterful tip-in to tie the game midway through the first period), blow that lead but rally again to win the game in OT?  Just another day in Cardiac City.  Although technically the game was in Detroit in one of the dopey little quirks of the NHL schedule where both teams played in the tri-state area on Friday then flew to Detroit Saturday.  Would have made just a little more sense to have them play here and save the trip on the back-to-back for both teams, but this is the NHL after all.

As if mastering the art of the tease, the Devils for the second straight night had a 3-1 lead early in the third period and the game looked over.  However to tweak an old Stan Fischler phrase, it’s actually a two-goal lead that’s become the worst in hockey for us this season, and literally almost within two minutes the Wings had tied the game off a sloppy turnover from Wood and eeeh goaltending from backup Keith Kinkaid.  Noticing David Booth scored two of the goals for the Wings, I couldn’t help but think didn’t the Panthers used to have a good little player with a similar name?  Turns out it was that David Booth after all, back in the NHL this season after two years away at age 33.

Going into OT I was hoping John Moore – or someone – would score for us, I wasn’t in the mood for another shootout after the skills competition of doom on Wednesday gave me PTSD flashbacks to 2014.  Enter the amazing Brian Gibbons…again.  Gibbons made a sweet recovery from losing the puck, intercepting it back and scoring after making a goalscorers’ move in front for his eleventh goal of the season to date.  Bear in mind Gibbons had six goals in 66 NHL games before this season – and 16 all year in the AHL last season.  Now he’s leading the NHL Devils in goalscoring in another astounding reclamation/breakout in the mold of guys like Lee Stempniak, David Schlemko and Bobby Farnham two years ago.

Coming out of a four games in six night stretch with the holiday day jammed in there, you would hope there’d be some rest for the weary but they’re back at it tomorrow night before finally getting some time off before a road back to back in Colorado and Arizona next weekend.  All are winnable games where hopefully the Devils will continue to build on this momentum and bank more points before the schedule gets tougher later in the month.  At least there’s some good news on the injury front with Marcus Johansson returning to practice but ultimately this month will be about keeping as much of their cushion intact as possible till the cavalry (Johansson and Kyle Palmieri) arrive.

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Game 23: Lundqvist outduels Howard in epic showdown, Zuccarello wins it in overtime

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King of His Domain: Henrik Lundqvist was on fire stopping 40 of 41 shots to outduel Jimmy Howard in a thrilling Rangers 2-1 overtime win over the Red Wings. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy USA Today. 

These days, low scoring games are a rarity. With scoring up, you don’t get many well played old fashioned goalie duels. Jimmy Howard and Henrik Lundqvist gave a great show with the King’s 40 saves and Mats Zuccarello’s overtime goal giving the Rangers a exciting 2-1 win over the Red Wings. It was their seventh consecutive home win and put them up to a season high three games over .500 (12-9-2).

It wasn’t the first time these two netminders put on a clinic in unbelievable saves. Howard always saves his best for the Rangers. He idolized Mike Richter, which explains why he wears number 35 for the Winged Wheel. It’s nice to see him reestablish himself as a number one without Detroit. Lundqvist has been the backbone of the Blueshirts since he entered the league in ‘05-06. When he smiles and laughs after a win, you know it’s a good night.

There’s been a lot more to be happy about. For the popular 35-year old franchise goaltender, he’s posted a miniscule 1.02 GAA with a ridiculous .971 save percentage. That kind of brilliant play has the Rangers on a good stretch. They’ve won three in a row and nine of the last eleven to roll back into the Metro Division race. Up to 26 points, they’ve had to keep pace with the teams ahead of them. The Blue Jackets, Devils, Islanders and Capitals all won. Columbus has 31 points with the Devils at 30 while the Islanders are up to 28 and the Caps at 27. The Rangers passed the Penguins, who lost again in regulation.

Every win and point earned right now is huge. Even if it wasnt perfect by any stretch, the Blueshirts are glad their goalie is red hot. Without him, they’d be toast.

Playing for the second time without Ryan McDonagh, they got themselves in trouble due to a couple of Brendan Smith minor penalties. The Red Wings may not have scored but got a lot of momentum off it. They forced the Rangers into neutral zone turnovers. Five on five was dominated by Detroit in the first period. By far the superior team, they outshot the Rangers 17-6.

If not for some super stops by Lundqvist, it could’ve been 2 or 3-nothing. He made some gigantic ones to deny point blank chances including a breakaway on Dylan Larkin and a glove save on Gustav Nyqvist. He also got a piece of a tough Mike Green shot that was redirected with the puck going just off the outside of the post.

Howard only saw six shots but denied Pavel Buchnevich twice. He was just getting warmed up. The second stanza was a complete role reversal. It was a much sharper Blueshirts who turned up the heat with a better sustained forecheck. The Detroit backstop made half a dozen jaw dropping saves that had the Garden murmuring.

He robbed Kevin Shattenkirk with a great slide across on a one-time try from point blank range. There were other stops that made you wonder if they would ever get one past him. Howard was in Richter beast mode much as he’s been when playing the Rangers throughout his career. He had players shaking their heads.

A great leg save thwarted Rick Nash off a superb Kevin Hayes centering pass on the doorstep. He also denied Jimmy Vesey, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad in tight.

Nothing was getting by the goalies. You had Lundqvist locked in. In a period Howard stood on his head making 16 saves, Lundqvist still came up with 10 himself to send a exciting scoreless game to the third without any scoring.

It was the Red Wings who broke through first. Following a ill advised Michael Grabner tripping minor in the offensive zone, they went to work on the power play. It took a while but following some more Lundqvist acrobatics, Niklas Kronwall threaded the needle across to Tomas Tatar for a quick one-timer past Lundqvist to the glove side upstairs just before the power play expired. Henrik Zetterberg set the whole thing up with a keep in following a Marc Staal clear attempt that didn’t quite make it out due to back pressure from Justin Abdelkader. The point was Zetterberg’s 918th tying him with former teammate Pavel Datsyuk. How I miss him. Zetterberg is now seventh among active players for most points. The guys ahead of him include Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Marian Hossa, Patrick Marleau, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

But the Rangers replied back 6:12 later on a gritty goal by Kreider in front. Off a broken play in which Buchnevich had his shot deflected, it came right to Kreider at the side. He was able to throw a quick backhand off Howard’s five-hole banking the puck in for his third in two games. After going five without one, Kreider has sprung to life. He celebrated by jumping deliberately into the boards. He’s always been streaky. Maybe he can keep going. Skjei drew the secondary assist.

Neither team sat back. Detroit applied pressure by firing 14 more shots on Lundqvist. But he wasn’t budging. He’s been on a roll at five on five. Not much is getting by him these days. Over the last four games, he’s stopped 132 of 136 shots. Even his best friend the goalpost had his back on a Green attempt. The Rangers also hit one against Howard.

It was fitting that such a great duel needed overtime. They’ve gone there before with Lundqvist prevailing last year on a J.T. Miller goal. He was good tonight centering Zuccarello and Grabner. He seems to be gaining confidence. Alain Vigneault has to be pleased with Miller’s progress since moving him over to center the third line.

It was a defensive play by Miller following a close call that led to the winner. With Green driving hard to the net for a backhand stuff attempt, an aggressive Lundqvist challenged him. He made the save but lost his goalstick. How many times has that happened recently? He’s definitely become more adventurous. With Lundqvist scrambling back into position, Detroit had a shot blocked in front.

Then Miller was able to get the puck to Skjei to escape trouble. Skjei then turned on the jets and made a great play. He skated down low and drew two Red Wings. That left Zuccarello all alone in front. Skjei was able to get the pass there for the patient Zuccarello, who had all night to decide what he’d do. He chose wisely firing a laser upstairs for the OT winner at 37 seconds.

It was a great conclusion to a heck of a game. One that Lundqvist sure deserved. He was the game’s first star with Howard second and Zuccarello third. Exactly the right order. Now, they get a day off to prepare for the Canucks on Sunday. Well earned.

Notes: The Rangers were down a skater with a injury to Boo Nieves limiting them to 11 forwards and 6 D. The Red Wings also lost a player with Trevor Daley holding his arm following a shot block. Nieves only played 3:10 while Daley logged 4:16 before exiting. Vigneault said Nieves suffered a hip pointer. He doesn’t expect him to miss much time. Does that mean David Desharnais Sunday? … Howard made 29 saves in a losing effort. The Rangers won the faceoff battle 42-35. They got great efforts from Zibanejad (14-and-15), Miller (12-and-10) and Hayes (13-and-7). Larkin was the Red Wings’ best going 9-For-15. He also was stopped by Lundqvist on a power play where he drove to the net and crashed into him getting a goaltender interference minor. … Shots were 41-31 Detroit with shot attempts 76-65 Red Wings. Key Stats: Missed Shots Detroit 20 Rangers 11. Giveaways Rangers 19 (4 with 2) Red Wings 15 (Green 3). … Red Wings blocked 23 shots paced by Luke Glendening (4). The Rangers blocked 15 led by Steven Kampfer (5). … Skjei registered two assists with four shots in 10 attempts going plus-two in 33 big shifts-22:16.

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Happy Turkey Day! Rangers Thankful For Stuffing Their Way Back Into Division Race

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Jesper Fast celebrates one of his two goals with a pumped up bench in a 6-1 win over the Hurricanes. The Rangers have won eight of ten to get back in a competitive division. They have plenty to be thankful for. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy SNY.TV 

Happy Turkey 🦃 Day everyone! We hope you’re enjoying your Thanksgiving with loved ones. It truly is a day to be thankful for what we have because not everyone is so fortunate. I’m thankful for my family, friends and a job I love. I’m also thankful for the hockey we got on Turkey Eve.

The Rangers should be thankful they’ve been able to recover from a bad start to get back in the division race. They reeled off six in a row before dropping two in succession which made us skeptical. But have since won two straight to make it eight of the last ten.

What could’ve been a disastrous start hasn’t been due to their resolve. Just when it looked like the end for Alain Vigneault, his team showed the tremendous character and resiliency the Garden Faithful have come to love. With a 6-1 trouncing of the Hurricanes in Raleigh last night before many Ranger fans, they improved to 11-9-2 through 22 games.

With 24 points, they still sit sixth in the Metro but are only five behind first place Columbus. The Devils follow with 28. Then the explosive Islanders with 26, followed by the struggling Pens and Caps. Each tied with 25. With the Canes at 22 and the Flyers at 21, eight total points separate the whole division.

It speaks to how competitive it is. With Pittsburgh and Washington not as good, it’s allowed the rest of the pack to catch up. Maybe the Pens go on a run but they’re clearly weaker at center and at backup goalie as well as defensively. Have you seen Sidney Crosby’s plus/minus rating lately? Hard to fathom. The Caps could get hot but they’re not as consistent.

Indeed, it’s wide open. The Blue Jackets just went ahead of the Devils due to yet another shutout from Sergei Bobrovsky. The best goalie in the league. If only they scored more consistently. The Devils are hanging in there with resiliency as shown in last night’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Bruins. Plus the overtime win over Minnesota with Mr. Overtime, John Moore scoring the winner. They score at a high rate and rely on Cory Schneider and the kids along with underdog story Brian Gibbons. You have the Islanders scoring tons thanks to Calder hopeful Mathew Barzal added to John Tavares and Josh Bailey. The D and goalies are still a question.

Basically, it’s anyone’s guess as to who the top three teams will be at just past the quarter mark. The Rangers have to feel good about where they are. They’ve made up a lot of ground. Full credit to the players and coaches for sticking with it. So what changed?

1.They’re scoring more. With 72 goals, they rank seventh averaging 3.27 goals-per-game. With offense up league wide, that favors high tempo transition offenses like the Blueshirts.

2.The power play is a weapon. With the key addition of Kevin Shattenkirk, the Rangers no longer put fans to sleep on the man-advantage. At any moment, they can strike. Shattenkirk runs the power play with precision passing and accurate shots that make him the most lethal right point since Sergei Zubov. It’s turned Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich into top threats. Along with Chris Kreider, who combines blazing speed with net presence, the power play is fifth clicking at 23.4 percent. That boost has offset inconsistent five on five play.

3.Mika’s A Number 1C. When they traded Derek Stepan to Arizona, it was for two reasons. To free up space to sign Shattenkirk and to invest in Zibanejad. So far, so good. The new top center is a point-per-game thanks to this gift 🎁 from Scott Darling with 22 points in 22 games.

My only reaction is Darling lost his concentration and had a look of bewilderment. I felt bad for him. But Zibanejad and #NYR will take it. He’s raised his level by leading the team in goals (11), points (22), power play goals (5) and power play points (11).

4.The King Is Back. In a year without a legit backup, they need Henrik Lundqvist much more than in years past when they had Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta. When Jeff Gorton signed Ondrej Pavelec, we knew he wouldn’t play much. So far, the schedule has allowed Vigneault to start Lundqvist most nights. He’s made 19 thus far and finally begun to find a rhythm. He’s back to making the electrifying save which has defined a brilliant career. King Henrik is up to a .914 save percentage with his goals-against-average down to 2.71 and 10 victories including a shutout at home over Ottawa. He’s only allowed three goals in the last three starts. Hank has 10 of the team’s 11 wins.

5.The D-Fence Has Been Better. It’s no secret the blueline remains sketchy. However, it’s made strides. The Brady Skjei-Shattenkirk partnership has been a great move by Vigneault and Lindy Ruff. One I suggested. Skjei has the skating and defensive awareness to help offset Shattenkirk’s one flaw. They work well off each other. Ryan McDonagh remains the backbone. He isn’t as consistent due to the workload and wear and tear. But the 12 assists show that he’s still able to contribute offense while taking on the toughest assignments. It hasn’t been easy rotating from partner to partner. But Nick Holden has surprised many with his strong play at even strength, going from healthy scratch to top pair. Marc Staal is perfectly suited for the third pair and remains a penalty killing asset. He no longer has to be overworked. When he struggled, Brendan Smith sat in favor of Steven Kampfer, who gives a honest effort. Smith has been better since returning and had his best game Wednesday getting a primary assist on Kreider’s goal a minute in and finishing plus-four. It’ll be interesting to see how long McDonagh’s out with a abdominal strain. He will not play tomorrow and is doubtful for Sunday.

6.Buchnevich Emergence. Entering his second season, Pavel Buchnevich needed to get stronger to hold up over a full 82. His back was a issue last year. The talent was there but he couldn’t be relied on. A more mature and better player has emerged. He’s easily one of the team’s best forwards five on five using his dynamic speed and playmaking to create problems for opponents. Even when he was demoted to the fourth line, he didn’t let it affect him. Buchnevich reminds me of Alexei Kovalev. A comparison I made last year. The skating and style is similar. Kovy was a beast. Buchnevich has the potential to be. His eight goals and eight helpers are proof that he’s a different player. Watch how he moves to open spots without the puck. Everything is better. Will he remain consistent? He’s on the top line and first PP unit for a reason.

7.The Supporting Cast. While the team still has a glaring weakness at center, the supporting cast remains strong. Vigneault deserves full credit for Kevin Hayes’ evolvement into a two-way center. His offense suffered early and he still does have the occasional brain cramp. But he’s being challenged and excelling in a role Stepan once had. The offense is coming. How about that pass he made on the Jesper Fast goal? No wonder Mats Zuccarello was practicing his dance moves before the third period explosion.

Speaking of which, Zuccarello is up to 17 points. He still has to do better than three goals. But his play is picking up. Vigneault has moved him around. Zucc currently is with J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner. With David Desharnais not working out, AV’s had to shift Miller around. So, he’s back at center for the time being. He’s more effective on the wing due to his forecheck. But remains a good playmaker with great vision. His 13 assists rank second behind Zuccarello (14). He needs to finish more. Three goals won’t cut it. That means shooting more. He is starting to. I can’t say enough complementary things about Grabner and Fast. They’re terrific five on five and splendid on the PK. Grabner is up to nine goals and Fast recorded his first career two-goal game. No more deserving player. Rick Nash is a constant on the forecheck and overall. But he still has only seven goals and two assists. It’s nice to see Kreider use all his tools scoring twice to get up to seven markers. What if he did it more often? Jimmy Vesey works hard enough but needs some breaks. He won’t produce on the fourth line.

8.The Coach. Sure. He makes mistakes that can really get on our nerves. But there’s not much panic from him. When they were losing, you saw a bit more edge from AV. He knew they had to turn it around or he may have been gone. The one thing I see is better adjustments. He’s not afraid to shorten the bench and double shift his best guys. Something Torts did effectively. I do think he can loosen up and play Boo Nieves more in the third. He’s responsible defensively and looks like a classic 4C. I did critique him over demoting Buchnevich in a loss and him not seeing the ice until the final minute was insane. It’s okay to put McDonagh and Shattenkirk together when it’s needed if they’re trailing by a goal in crunch time. But overall, I don’t have many complaints. Especially given the roster which will need upgrades.

Not quite 10 reasons. But all things considered, the eight I came up with are all positive developments. It’s up to the roster to continue to build on the recent improvement. With a winnable game at home against Detroit on Black Friday and then the surprising Canucks visiting Sunday, they can keep a six-game home winning streak alive. Come to think of it, that’s a good sign. Building a home ice advantage is important. The 6-1 rout of the Canes was only their third win away from MSG. An area they have to get better at. After Florida visits Tuesday, they’ll have played 17 home games compared with just eight on the road. So, it’s imperative to keep winning at The Garden.

Making the playoffs won’t be easy. Winning the games they’re supposed to win can help the cause.

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First quarter of Devils season a success, but many obstacles still ahead

On the morning of Thanksgiving, it’s probably a good time to take a snapshot of the Devils’ season as a whole to this point.  Especially since with 21 games played, more than a quarter of the regular season’s in the books.  In a micro sense, the Devils’ play has been up and down since my last blog and not entirely commensurate with the results.  In Toronto, the team played better but Freddy Andersen got well against us after a bad start to the season, making 42 saves in a 1-0 OT shutout loss.  While in Winnipeg and Minnesota the team didn’t play very well, but still managed to win against the Wild thanks to some timely goal scoring early and another John Moore OT special (see his sixth OT winner as a Devil in barely over two seasons in the YT above), despite blowing a two-goal lead in the third period.  Last night against the Bruins the team played reasonably well but a couple of mistakes early and shootout futility after Taylor Hall – to the tune of ten straight misses – led to a defeat in the skills competition.

At least enough positive results have been there to keep the Devils at or near the top of a competitive Metro division (last night they finally dipped a point below the Blue Jackets but still have a game in hand), but there’s been a little slippage lately – going 3-3-4 in the last ten games.  Not to mention the worst news out of yesterday wasn’t even the stupid shootout or the first-period mistakes against the Bruins, but rather the revelation that Kyle Palmieri broke his foot in Minnesota and was gonna be out another 4-6 weeks after already missing eight games earlier in the season with various lower-body ailments.  Honestly this came as a little bit of a shock because well, he finished the game without missing a shift after the shot block that broke his foot.  For a team where depth is still an issue, this extended absence to their best player threatens to derail the good feeling of the first quarter of the season.

Granted, there is a lot of good to build on so far.  In his second season as a Devil, Taylor Hall’s all-around game has gotten better and he’s acting more like a leader on the team.  During the offseason apparently GM Ray Shero gave Hall a bit of a motivational talk, among other things discussed in this Sporting News piece on Shero which served as both a pep talk after Hall had another season of missing the playoffs (while his former team finally made it, and into the second round), and a ‘we need more out of you now’ speech.  As a former #1 overall pick, Hall’s also uniquely qualified to mentor current #1 overall Nico Hischier about handling the expectations and demands.  So far Nico’s been a bit ahead of the curve in almost every way possible as an eighteen-year old, with 15 points in 21 games and only taking three minor penalties, although in two straight games recently he took one in the opening minutes leading to this astonishing exchange with coach John Hynes:

For an eighteen-year old to have that kind of drive and accountability is mind-boggling.  That can only help change the culture.  And for his part, coach Hynes has done a good job in enforcing that culture, benching or demoting guys (sometimes both) who don’t live up to the higher standards that are being strived for this season.  Perhaps my main complaint is he’s left Pavel Zacha too deeply in the doghouse for too long – especially as talented players like Palmieri and Marcus Johansson are still on the shelf – but even Zacha himself acknowledged that he needs to be better in this comment before he returned to the lineup on Tuesday.

“I hope everyone is going to be able to see it, because I know exactly what to do,” Zacha said. “Even coming to the practices, talking to my agent and the coaches, I know exactly what to do. It’s much different in juniors. You can do basically whatever you want there. I was a top player there. If I had a bad practice, no one really cared. Here, you have to do it every practice, every game has to be great. Knowing what you have to do is a much bigger factor than a lower level of hockey, and I hope I’m going to be able to show it as soon as I can.”

Another example of how accountability is helping is Adam Henrique, who was in one of his usual funks through most of November – not only not scoring but going into full invisible man coasting mode.  While he got a bit more rope than the young Zacha (much to the consternation of the Internet complainers), coach Hynes did drop Henrique down a couple lines in practice last week, and finally the intensity switch got activated with four points in his last two games, also playing with the jam you need out of one of your supposed team leaders.

While he’s done a good job with the locker room, coach Hynes still makes some head-scratching personnel decisions that make you wonder why he tries to get too cute or too conservative for his own good – playing Zacha barely ten minutes with an injury-compromised lineup is one, throwing out various seven-D lineups before Mirco Mueller’s injury being another.  To add in an oddity although it didn’t matter last night with the way the shootout went, sending out Brian Boyle fourth was a weird choice and could have been costly if Cory Schneider wasn’t near heroic in the shootout making nine saves, before young defenseman Charlie McAvoy finally ended that water torture of a skills competition that gave me 2013-14 bad acid flashbacks.

Perhaps the dirty little secret on the team so far is they haven’t been as effective offensively since Boyle and Travis Zajac returned to the lineup.  Some of that’s coincidence, some is inevitable rust on both their games, a little is the inevitable team shooting percentage downturn that was bound to take place, but you do have to wonder how coach Hynes will balance out needing to play to the team’s strength (youth and speed), which they did during their 9-2 start – while still integrating these vets who can be important in a potential playoff push.  Of course even with the team’s great start it’s still premature to talk about a playoff push.  The next 20-30 games can change the equation and start to make you wonder again what we can get for guys like Moore, Drew Stafford and Brian Gibbons in a worst-case where we’re selling off at the deadline again.

Brian Gibbons?!  In a season of pleasant surprises, he’s been one of the biggest – going from AHL/NHL tweener and afterthought to an indispensable part of the team’s early play, scoring ten goals and posting a team-leading +13 despite mostly playing on the back six, though with the recent injuries he finally earned a promotion into the top six last night.  True to his early form, Gibbons would take advantage, tipping home a Damon Severson shot for his tenth goal of the season with just five minutes left in regulation to tie the game at two.  Is it possible Gibbons and fellow breakout Blake Coleman can be our new Madden and Pandolfo in the bottom six?  Ironically it’s Coleman who brings the Madden-type grit and intensity down the middle but with a Pandolfo scoring touch (ergo none), while Gibbons is like Madden in terms of being able to chip in offensively to this point.

While Gibbons and Coleman have come out of nowhere to make a name for themselves at age 29 and 25 respectively, it’s still the kids that have been the story of the season.  If Gibbons hasn’t been the biggest surprise of the season, 19-year old Jesper Bratt has been, going from sixth-round afterthought last year to an indispensable two-way player on the team this year, playing in all situations.  After a hot start, his production inevitably cooled for a bit, but last night his power play goal got the Devils on the board after an early 2-0 deficit threatened to derail the pre-Turkey Day return home.  Also making a name for himself as a rookie is Will Butcher, whose point production continues to be outstanding – 16 in 21 games, to be exact.  Butcher even scored his first NHL goal on the most recent road trip – then followed it up with another the next game, but his strength so far has been distributing the puck and quarterbacking the power play, as the fourteen assists show.  Other young defensemen like Mirco Mueller (before his horrific collarbone injury that’s laid him out for at least a couple months) and Steven Santini have also been improving through the course of the season.

Although the young d-men have improved they all still have a ways to go – Butcher being stranded in South Dakota last night while not taking his man or the pass in what turned into a two-on-one last night is one example – and the ‘vets’ (including Damon Severson at this point) still make too many WTF mistakes at this point themselves, but at least as whole the team D’s been a bit better since their run-and-gun shaky start to the season.  Goaltending is the only aspect of the team I haven’t really touched on yet, in part I really don’t know what to make of Cory Schneider right now.  He’s had his share of good games like last night, the shutout in Vancouver, holding the fort early in Minnesota – but he also has a knack for giving up soft or untimely goals (the game in Minnesota also being an example of this too, in the ultimate Jekyll-Hyde moment).  Despite a high GAA, his save percentage is slowly creeping back up towards .920 and this team’s gonna need Cory more than ever now with two key offensive cogs out of the lineup.  Backup Keith Kinkaid has also been shaky at times too, not as solid as he was last year.

In short as I close this Thanksgiving Day post, there is a lot to be thankful for as a Devils fan through these first two months.  I don’t want to focus on the ‘but, look at the challenges ahead’ part today.  That’ll come soon enough with a back-to-back the next two nights, at home against Vancouver tomorrow and at Detroit Saturday night.  Coupled with a home game against the Panthers on Monday there are still winnable games in the immediate future that this team needs to take advantage of before the schedule toughens up in December.

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Fit For A King: Lundqvist pitches 63rd career shutout in 3-0 win over Senators

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Kevin Hayes celebrates his goal with happy teammates during a 3-0 shutout win over the Senators. AP Photo via Getty Images

Two days after wasting a great performance from Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers rebounded by winning their sixth straight home game. A straight forward 3-0 domination of the Senators before a happy crowd at MSG. They played well in front of the King, who pitched his 63rd career shutout by making 20 saves.

The two-game losing streak is history. Coach Alain Vigneault gets credit for putting together a good game plan. Healthy scratching a ineffective David Desharnais and tweaking the third and fourth lines with one of my suggestions, he was able to roll all four while using three effective D pairs. For once, everything was in sync. Partially due to a tired Sens playing a back to back with travel. But that doesn’t excuse them for a lethargic showing that drew the ire of captain Erik Karlsson.

Vigneault reconstructed the lines. The top unit of KZB stayed intact. Kevin Hayes centered Rick Nash and Jesper Fast. J.T. Miller shifted to center while Michael Grabner moved up to the third line with Mats Zuccarello. Rookie Boo Nieves was on the checking line with Paul Carey and Jimmy Vesey, who still played a pivotal role on one of the goals while getting 3:14 of his 12:17 of ice time on the power play.

For a second straight game, the D stayed the same. Ryan McDonagh and Nick Holden paired up while Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk remain a thing. Marc Staal and Brendan Smith were the third tandem until Smith’s ejection on a controversial interference major on a huge hit that injured Senators’ defenseman Mark Borowiecki in the third period.

As expected, goals were hard to come by in a tight checking first where the Rangers had the edge in play outshooting Ottawa 10-7. Craig Anderson made some key saves early including a flat out denial on Nieves, who Vesey set perfectly up off a strong cycle. Anderson had won three in a row at MSG in the regular season. He also bested Lundqvist in last Spring’s Eastern Conference Semifinal showdown.

So, it wasn’t too surprising that the action was dull. Ottawa plays that defensive system under evil comic book character Guy Boucher. It stifles creativity. How soon before Matt Duchene realizes it’s a bad fit. He failed to register a point again. Since being acquired, he has no points and is minus-six. Hardly a upgrade over Kyle Turris thus far.

The second was the tell tale sign that the Rangers were clearly superior. That extra day off to prepare helped. They were strong defensively at limiting the Sens to the perimeter. They also were strong in the neutral zone and generated a consistent forecheck in the Ottawa end.

Eventually, it resulted in the game’s first goal. It’s funny how Sam Rosen mentioned to Joe Micheletti how he thought the first goal might be important. That’s what makes him so great. He has been around long enough to give a good insight on how the game’s being played.

Sure enough, some good work down low by Vesey and Fast resulted in Hayes sniping his fifth past Anderson top shelf at 4:46. Vesey threw a shot that deflected off a Senator right to Fast who centered for Hayes, who made no mistake. Just think if he used that shot more. He’s coming around. The increased defensive role is making him a better player. His penalty killing was vital later.

The Senators played a bad game hardly attacking enough to make Lundqvist sweat. When they did get shots through, he saw them. They also were lazy handing the Rangers a couple of power play chances to break it open. But they were unable to cash in for a third game in a row. It could’ve come back to bite them. But they played a complete 200 foot game.

The kind that produced sustained attacks which led to a Grabner tip of a Staal point shot from Zuccarello for a 2-0 lead at 4:52 of the third. Staal did a good job on that shift keeping the play alive. Zuccarello got the puck to him for the shot which Grabner redirected for his ninth. A splendid bit of a teamwork.

Prior to his goal, Lundqvist came up big when he denied Derick Brassard on the doorstep with a stack of the pads to kick out a rebound. The kind of save that’s made him a future Hall of Famer and one of the greatest Rangers.

Even when the Sens were handed a golden opportunity to get back in it, they couldn’t muster anything. In a race for a puck behind Lundqvist’s net, Smith came together with Borowiecki. At first glance live, it looked like Smith’s intention was to hit the attacking Senator defenseman and not play the puck. That’s probably what Tim Peel saw. Borowiecki didn’t anticipate getting crushed. He wound up on his back for a few minutes.

Smith was given the gate for a interference major with 12:28 remaining. The crowd booed showing their displeasure. They probably saw the replay before MSG showed it. Once it was shown, it was painfully obvious that both players were going for hits with the puck in the vicinity. Smith just beat Borowiecki to it with a clean shoulder. It was sad to see. But that’s hockey sometimes.

They made the wrong call. At most, it was a minor penalty for interference. It didn’t matter. The Rangers had to pick up a teammate for five minutes and did so in such a assertive fashion that it made you proud. The work of Hayes, Nash, Grabner, Fast, Staal, McDonagh, Skjei, Holden, Zibanejad and Zuccarello was masterful. They played with the kind of snarl that has often been missing. It was nice to see.

Zibanejad added a empty netter for his team best 10th with 2:29 left from Zuccarello and Chris Kreider. When the buzzer sounded, Lundqvist had his shutout to chants of “Hen-rik! Hen-rik!”

BONY 3 Stars ✨

3rd Star ⭐️ Brady Skjei 2 shots in 4 attempts, 2 takeaways, 2 hits, 6 blocks, +1 in 27 shifts-23:01 including 3:18 SH

2nd Star ⭐️ Kevin Hayes 5th of season, 2 shots, +1 in 21 shifts-15:24 including 3:22 SH

1st Star ⭐️ Henrik Lundqvist 20 saves for shutout number 63

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Rangers waste great performance from Lundqvist in 2-0 shutout loss to Blue Jackets

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Nothing got by Sergei Bobrovsky who pitched his first career shutout versus the Rangers with 36 saves in a 2-0 Blue Jackets win that sent the Rangers to a second straight loss. They’re 9-9-2 at the quarter mark with plenty of questions. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NBC Sports

This was one they’ll regret later. Game 20 was a old fashioned goalie duel between Henrik Lundqvist and Sergei Bobrovsky. Each took turns making gigantic stops. Both former Vezina winners showed why at Nationwide Arena in Columbus.

Ultimately, the Rangers blinked in the second period. After playing the Blue Jackets on even terms in a fast moving first where both Lundqvist and Bobrovsky were called upon to make tough saves with the latter remarkable, they got severely outskated and outplayed- giving up 19 shots to only nine.

Zach Werenski’s goal was enough as Bobrovsky stopped all 36 shots in a 2-0 shutout to send the Rangers to a second consecutive loss. So after working hard to get back in it by winning six in a row, they’ve now dropped two in succession on the road getting outscored 8-3. At 9-9-2, there remain more questions than answers.

At the quarter mark, what are the 2017-18 New York Rangers? In the previous post, I documented the lack of center depth following top pivot Mika Zibanejad and second line center Kevin Hayes. It’s starting to become problematic. David Desharnais had a nightmare game with his line caught out for the Werenski winner. They were pinned in often. Eventually, Alain Vigneault broke it up by moving J.T. Miller around with Jimmy Vesey elevated to the Hayes line.

I didn’t agree with every change. Consider they trailed by a goal when Vigneault broke up the KZB line. They’ve carried them thus far. So why did Pavel Buchnevich get the short end of the stick after being one of the few bright spots? How did he go from Zibanejad and the underwhelming Chris Kreider to total obscurity? It makes no sense. Somehow, the evolving 22-Year old Russian with 16 points took only two shifts in a exasperating third period.

The first proved costly with Buchnevich taking a unnecessary interference minor in the offensive zone on a pick play. Even though the bench protested, it was the right call. It didn’t help that the Blue Jackets scored on the power play with new Ranger killer Artemi Panarin scoring for the third time in three games against them. He took advantage of a Hayes miscue. Rather than take the easy clear, he tried to pass the puck to Rick Nash. Disaster struck when Oliver Bjorkstrand intercepted it and got it over for Panarin who ripped a high hard one past Lundqvist for a crucial insurance marker with 12:46 left.

Astonishingly, Panarin has scored all three of his goals this season against the Rangers. Hard to believe. He still hasn’t found chemistry without Patrick Kane. That trade has not been good for the Blackhawks either with Brandon Saad ice cold following a hot start. It says here that Panarin will figure it out. He’s too good not to.

The thing that really irked me is the sad but basically accurate sarcastic prediction I made prior to the Panarin power play goal.

He didn’t see the ice again until the final minute when the game was over. He made a save on a empty net try by getting a piece of it with his body. What I fail to comprehend is why he gets penalized by the coach while Kreider (no shots in 18:00) never misses a shift. This is what drives fans crazy. Vigneault punished Brendan Smith, who finally returned after sitting out the last six games. Steven Kampfer was a healthy scratch. Smith was a minus-one in 14:25 while paired with Marc Staal. It’s going to take a while for him to get into a rhythm.

Vigneault tried Nash with Zibanejad and Kreider while Hayes worked between Vesey and the comatose Mats Zuccarello, who had one of those games where you barely noticed him. They’ve been more common. They really need him to get going. Three goals in the first 20 isn’t enough from one of the veteran leaders. I know he brings a lot to the table. But he should be more consistent. Hayes and Vesey each had good games five on five.

It looked like Miller saw time with Buchnevich and Desharnais for one shift. You also had Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast moved up. Grabner had four shots including a great opportunity which of course was swallowed up by the brick wall known as Bob in ‘Lumbus. There’s a reason he won his second Vezina. He makes the kind of acrobatic saves Dominik Hasek made a art form. It’s still a bit poetic that the Flyers gave up on him for Steve Mason, who now is the Winnipeg number one goalie. Straight up. It might go down as one of the worst trades. Especially if Bobrovsky can ever carry his anemic team to a deep run or Stanley Cup. John Tortorella has done a good job but they have yet to take that next step.

In a losing effort, Lundqvist made 40 saves. He really deserved better. This was vintage King Henrik. He faced a number of odd man rushes in a ugly second and made his own acrobatic saves that would’ve made The Dominator proud. But Werenski’s sixth from Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner at the 13:34 mark was enough to deal him a hard luck loss. The Panarin tally self inflicted by a poor decision from Hayes.

I’ll be curious to see what Vigneault does for Sunday’s match against the Senators, who are leading the Coyotes in the third at home currently. How will the team respond to back-to-back disappointing performances? It’s the same Ottawa that eliminated them. They will have a different look with Matt Duchene recently acquired in a blockbuster three team trade from Colorado. Kyle Turris is now in Nashville. That might be a good thing considering how he killed them last Spring. They certainly gave up a lot. We’ll see if they can slow down the red hot Mark Stone.

They’ll need better games from Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk. Neither distinguished themselves on Friday with in particular, the captain reverting to his early poor start the last two losses. When partner Nick Holden has been better in those games, that’s bad news for the team.

As far as the center issue, you cannot be serious. Boo Nieves deserves more trust than not being used in the third while Desharnais has his ice time cut. Deservedly so yesterday. This was the total number of shifts and ice time for each.

You cannot be successful in this league with only two centers you trust. If this continues, Vigneault will have no choice but to shift Miller to center. I would consider flipping Nieves and Desharnais due to the rookie’s size and two-way ability. I didn’t like the Desharnais signing. Now you’re seeing why. It’s almost as if Vigneault is begging Jeff Gorton to do something. Filip Chytil is currently injured. Vinni Lettieri could be a option if they eventually go that route. He has seven goals and three assists so far.

The Rangers can’t afford to go too much longer with this center situation. It’s hurting them.

BONY 3 Stars ✨

3rd Star ⭐️ Zach Werenski #CBJ GWG-6th, 6 attempts, 2 blocks, +1 in 27 shifts-18:47

2nd Star ⭐️ Henrik Lundqvist #NYR 40 saves including 18 of 19 in 2nd

1st Star ⭐️ Sergei Bobrovsky #CBJ 36 saves for 1st career shutout vs NYR

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Rangers have center weakness that must be resolved

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Kevin Hayes continues to progress as a second line shutdown center under Alain Vigneault. As he improves, so will the Rangers who still are thin at center after Hayes and Mika Zibanejad. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy SNY. 

By show of hands, who actually thought Mika Zibanejad would be a point-per-game replacing Derek Stepan as the top center? Well, with nine goals and 10 assists for a team-leading 19 points in the first 19 games, at least there’s that for the Rangers, who finally had a six-game win streak end last night in Chicago with the Blackhawks beating them 6-3.

The 24-Year old Zibanejad has more than filled Stepan’s shoes. Anchoring the cohesive KZB Line featuring Chris Kreider and emerging sophomore Pavel Buchnevich, he’s earning that new contract that pays him an average of $5.35 million over the next five years through 2022.

Without the production of that line, the Rangers would be sunk. Excuse the inconsistent defense for a second after it reared its ugly head at the United Center. The offense is reliant on Zibanejad, who quickly is becoming a team leader. He makes that line go along with the supremely skilled Buchnevich, whose eight goals and eight assists for 16 points place him third in team scoring. The third part Kreider does the heavy lifting in front and behind the net where he made a bullet pass for a Zibanejad finish in the first period on Wednesday night. He has yet to be consistent. He scored all five of his goals over a six-game span. At 5-4-9, he needs to pick it up.

Entering the year, coach Alain Vigneault knew it would be a challenge after losing a reliable player in Stepan, who he trusted in every situation. Such is life in the salary cap era. Players with big contracts are sacrificed before no-trade clauses kick in. That way teams can afford other key restricted free agents who are due hefty raises. Following the first round disappointment in 2016, Derick Brassard was sent packing to Ottawa for Zibanejad in a trade that also netted a second round pick which became Brendan Smith. He was a key cog in the club’s first round win over Montreal but has yet to get untracked after re-signing for four years at $4.35 million AAV last summer. Vigneault is looking for Smith to be better when he returns to the lineup tomorrow in Columbus.

By subtracting Brassard and Stepan the past two offseasons, the Rangers have drastically changed from the ‘13-14 and ‘14-15 rosters that made deep playoff runs. They’re no longer considered a Stanley Cup contender by most experts. It’s going to be harder to qualify for the postseason this time. The poor start guaranteed it.

This is a flawed roster in which all sums of its parts must perform well. Otherwise, you get predictable ugly results like the awful third period that chased Henrik Lundqvist yesterday. It’s not only the D which is harped upon in many circles. It’s also the center situation. One which must be resolved.

After Zibanejad and improving two-way second center Kevin Hayes, it gets paper thin. As Hayes continues to progress in more of a shutdown role which could hinder his offense, David Desharnais is currently the team’s third center. The ex-Hab is a nice player who works hard enough but he’s also been skipped over in the rotation by Vigneault in some third periods. He has two goals and six assists thus far. Hardly enough production to merit him playing between J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey. When GM Jeff Gorton signed him, it was to be a fourth line pivot who could replace Oscar Lindberg. He’s not a top nine forward.

At some point, the organization must make a decision on how to upgrade the center position. It’s a glaring weakness against better competition. You can never have enough centers. With Desharnais on the third line and promising rookie Boo Nieves centering the fourth line, it’s an area of concern.

Vigneault prefers using Miller on the wing where he can create more off the forecheck. Currently tied with Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh for the team lead with 12 assists, Miller is very effective along the walls at recovering pucks, skating into open ice and finding open teammates. I can understand why the coach would be hesitant to move him back to center. It puts added responsibility on Miller and hurts his production. He’s currently 3-12-15 which ranks fourth on the team. He does need to shoot more and avoid missed assignments such as on one of Artem Anisimov’s three goals.

Michael Grabner remains on the checking line with Nieves and Jesper Fast. His eight goals are tied with Buchnevich. Half have come with an empty net demonstrating the trust Vigneault has in the defensively responsible winger with good instincts and game breaking speed. Grabner and Fast usually replace Buchnevich and Kreider at the end of games when protecting leads. A wise move by a coach that’s been often criticized for in game adjustments.

The issue is can this team survive with the current centers. Hayes scored his fourth goal last night. He’s getting better overall. But it’s taken away from his offense. He only has four helpers, meaning the team’s second center has only eight points. That’s crazy. Hayes no longer plays power play with one of the top ranked units producing at a high clip thanks to Shattenkirk, Zibanejad, Buchnevich, McDonagh and Kreider.

For Hayes, he must find offense five on five and continues to create it shorthanded as one of the key penalty killers. With Rick Nash heating up and Mats Zuccarello the playmaker, his production should improve. It’s a matter of time. He’s certainly showed positive signs over this last stretch. k

It really becomes about the bottom two lines. Are Miller and Vesey being shortchanged? Nothing against Desharnais. But wouldn’t he be better suited on the fourth line?

Whether it’s recalling a Vinny Lettieri or moving Miller back to center and sliding Grabner up, there needs to be marked improvement. Opponents are going to focus on taking away the KZB line. That will mean more from the supporting cast.

Shattenkirk has been instrumental providing the Blueshirts with a legit power play quarterback and offensive defenseman. He’s the best right shot they’ve had since Sergei Zubov. His ability to get shots through and find the open man make him a dual threat. It’s allowed McDonagh to be the second option with Brady Skjei third. McDonagh has a dozen assists while Skjei is 2-3-5 forming a good tandem with Shattenkirk at even strength.

Offense from the back end is important in today’s transition game where points are left open. The offensive boost has helped the Rangers.

With the team not rushing first round pick Filip Chytil, Lettieri or young blueliners Neal Pionk, Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Graves, they’ll remain patient. Development is the key before they summon anyone else from Hartford. That patience has worked with Nieves, who has adequately filled the fourth line center slot. He won eight of nine draws in less than nine minutes of ice time.

The question for management is how long will they wait to address the center hole. Trades are tough to make due to matching salaries. At first, I believe they’ll try to solve it in house. So Vigneault will continue to mix and match as he sees fit. If that means double shifting Zibanejad or shifting Miller, he will.

The next test is tomorrow at Columbus. While the focus will surround Smith’s return, keep a close eye on the center situation. It remains problematic.

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Blackhawks 6 Rangers 3: A Arty Party ends win streak

If you’re gonna lose, why not do it in style?!?! That’s what the Rangers decided on in a 6-3 loss to the Blackhawks at United Center. So went the win streak which ended at six.

No. They didn’t party like it’s 1999. But there was a Arty Party. Yes. Old friend Artem Anisimov doomed his former team by scoring a hat trick to help the mediocre Hawks get back on the winning track. He scored all three the same way. By finishing in front of the net. He’s always been a good player. So, I’m not too upset.

One thing should be perfectly clear. You can’t win every game. The winning streak was nice because it got them back in the division. It was gonna end. The bottom line is they wasted opportunities with a waste of a four minute power play that really came back to haunt them.

Henrik Lundqvist was sensational during a whirlwind second period when Chicago picked it up dramatically. They created all sorts of chances by pinning the Rangers defense in for long stretches. That included some tough shifts for Marc Staal and Steven Kampfer along with the fourth line. Somehow, they didn’t give up a goal with Patrick Kane ringing a backhand off the crossbar and Lundqvist balling them out.

Honestly, the goaltending from Lundqvist and Corey Crawford was splendid for two periods. They both made gigantic saves. If Lundqvist doesn’t allow a late goal to emerging rookie Alex DeBrincat which eluded him, do the Rangers fall apart in the third? It definitely swung the momentum despite Lundqvist playing his best period this season.

Sometimes, that’s hockey. Your goalie is playing lights out and lets in a clunker and it changes the game. The way they defended that second, it was a ominous sign.

They really should’ve had more than a one goal lead by that point. The Blackhawks hideous defense couldn’t handle the forecheck of the KZB line. Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider combined to set up Mika Zibanejad for the game’s first goal. A brilliant feed by Kreider for a sweet Zibanejad finish in front. He’s over a point-per-game so far and is proving himself as a number one center.

If there’s a weak spot, it’s the lack of center depth. After Kevin Hayes, who is developing into a shutdown second line pivot who has improved defensively, it gets really thin. David Desharnais is a nice player but is miscast as a third line center. Imagine if J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey had a real center. That would go a long way to strengthening a weakness.

Nothing against Desharnais, who works diligently and is crafty. But he should be on the fourth line. You can’t tell me he’s better than Boo Nieves, who is a great fit with Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast in line four. Maybe Alain Vigneault should consider shifting Miller back to center and moving up Grabner into the top nine to play with J.T. and Vesey. Desharnais could work with Nieves and Fast.

Until the organization either deems someone ready (Chytil, Lettieri) or swings a deal, center will remain a question mark. Fans will have to remain patient.

As for the D, it was a rough night. They self destructed in the third getting outscored 5-2. Lundqvist allowed three straight goals to Anisimov, John Hayden and Anisimov. There were total breakdowns from top defensemen who had performed better during the streak.

FRyan McDonagh gave away the puck leading to Anisimov’s first. He took a Kane feed and beat Lundqvist with Zibanejad and Buchnevich out of the picture. Kevin Shattenkirk had a bad shift afterwards which allowed Hayden to score 46 seconds later for a 3-1 lead.

Anisimov then made quick work of a Mats Zuccarello tripping minor by finishing in front 12 seconds in for a power play goal that made it four straight Chicago goals. It happened that quickly.

At that point, Vigneault gave Lundqvist the rest of the night off by inserting Ondrej Pavelec. Yes. He’s actually still part of the team. You wouldn’t know it with the King getting all these starts due to no back to backs. It was the right move.

The move sparked the Rangers. Hayes was able to beat Crawford from Zuccarello and Rick Nash a couple of minutes later. He deserved it. He was the best Ranger skater. A few minutes later, Nash was able to sneak a backhand through Crawford to suddenly make it 4-3 with over eight minutes left. It’s nice to see Nash finishing again. He’s up to seven goals.

The Rangers applied pressure on the fragile Hawks defense. They came close a couple of times but were unable to tie it.

It was a great Hawks counter started by Richard Panik that resulted in Anisimov’s hat trick. Nick Schmaltz made a perfect pass in front for a nice Anisimov deflection past Pavelec to make it 5-3 with 3:48 remaining. McDonagh got beat badly on the Arty Party as hats rained down. It was a stunning turn considering how well the captain had played.

Jonathan Toews added a empty netter to wrap it up.

There really isn’t a whole lot else to add. The Rangers were due for a stinker. It didn’t happen until the ugly third that saw Lundqvist get chased.

Even though they were outplayed in the second, they were far too reluctant to shoot the puck. The Hayes unit had a few great opportunities and didn’t get a shot on odd man rushes. They made one too many passes. The Hawks countered by simplifying their game and getting shots through. Eventually, they got to Lundqvist.

Sometimes, the Rangers are their own worst enemy. That was the case tonight.

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Devils’ wild and crazy comeback in Chicago

Sometimes out of nowhere, games just happen where you have to pinch yourself to make sure this wasn’t some Dallas-like dream or a figment of your imagination.  During the first period when the Devils fell behind 4-1 in Chicago after seventeen minutes, it looked like this could be an even worse runaway than I feared coming in, one of epic proportions.  Especially losing Mirco Mueller to an UBI early in the game, and afterward he was spotted with his left arm in a sling.  I was already getting worried about goalie Keith Kinkaid getting Valiquetted (i.e. being left in to die and allow double-digit goals), and the internet joke was that his usual postgame emoji recap would contain just one – the one for taking a dump.  For the better part of twenty minutes, our struggling team with five healthy defensemen seemed like the salve a talented but struggling Blackhawks team needed.

Then IT happened.

At first the ‘it’ was just Miles Wood, who scored the team’s first two goals and kept the team within shouting distance at the end of the first period down 4-2.  Still, I would have given Kinkaid the hook at that point – especially with the game becoming theoretically winnable.  Coach John Hynes did leave Kinkaid in though, and fortunately the team that came out of the locker room was the one that blitzed the league the first eleven games of the season.  My disbelief level rose as the goals piled up.  First Andy Greene scored with assists from the fourth line, then came goals from Nico Hischier, Taylor Hall and Brian Gibbons.  Literally within twenty minutes the Devils had turned a 4-1 deficit into a 6-4 lead.  On the road, in Chicago on a back-to-back.  Of course given the way last night’s game went the Hawks had to respond at least once and they did in what could have been devastating fashion with a Brian Boyle penalty leading to Patrick Kane’s power play goal with just seconds remaining in the period.

Yet once again the Devils showed their character and instead of being devastated by this last turn of momentum they came out of the locker room again shot out of a cannon in the third, controlling play for a good chunk of the period – especially early when they swarmed the Hawks and previously inconsistent fourth-liner Wood completed his career night with the hat trick early in the third period (capping a FOUR-point night).  This time, the insurance wasn’t needed as the Devils played the third period with a lead the way they seldom have this season, agressively and competently.  Even when the Hawks emptied the net early the Devils allowed few quality chances and eventually put away a 7-5 win that evoked images of the 1980’s.  If I didn’t know better I’d swear it was Chico Resch and Darren Pang in net in Chicago Stadium.  I don’t normally recap individual games anymore, but last night’s ridonkulous game deserved one.  Of course I could have just gone full emoji like Kinkaid.

Bonus points if you can figure out 90% of the emojis and who/what they’re referring to without looking them up.  I know I can’t.

With no other games until their second trip into Toronto already this season on Thursday, the Devils have at least given themselves and their fans something to be pumped up about in the interim.  One game has (at least temporarily) brought back the good feelings from the team that hit the ice in October and further strengthened their tenous hold on first place.

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Devils remain in first after skittish homestand

This latest homestand for the Devils – especially the last two games – is a classic glass half full or half empty study.  Do you as a fan harp on the fact that hey the Devils are 10-4-2, are still exceeding the modest expectations for the season and got the (bare minimum) three points they needed out of these last two games on the homestand?  Or do you harp on the fact they blew another yet late lead against the Oilers on Wednesday and then had to rely on a great performance from Cory Schneider and a lucky bounce on Damon Severson’s first period goal to scratch out a horribly tough 2-1 win against a bad Panther team who really dominated the Devils at times last night, especially outshooting us 17-4 in the third period of a back-to-back on the road for them?!

I guess you can tell which side I’m leaning judging by the tone of the lead, despite getting a much-needed win last night, the last few games have still been very troubling for the Devils.  Sure shot signs of a mediocre (at best) team are when you play down to the level of competition – see last night – and when you never seem to click in all three phases of the game at once.  When the offense was doing better earlier in the season, the goaltending and defense struggled, frequently both in the same game.  When the goaltending did well last night, the team struggled both offensively and defensively.  And the team’s struggled to establish any kind of home-ice advantage in Newark, although the home record of 5-3-1 is just okay, the games themselves have all been a struggle except for Opening Night, even games against the lowly Coyotes and Panthers went down to the death.

One of the few Devils not struggling is Brian Boyle, who scored the opening goal Wednesday and had an unusually emotional reaction (see YT above) although not surprising given everything involved – it was Boyle’s first goal since his leukemia diagnosis, not to mention his first goal with a new team at home.  Yet the end of last night’s game proved to be just as important for him and the team in many ways, when Boyle won two key faceoffs in the defensive end during the final, tense moments.  Before the final faceoff with 1.5 seconds to go I had visions of the astonishing Bruins/Kings OT finish from earlier in the season dancing in my head but then calmed myself with the knowledge that it’s Boyle in the dot, and he’ll know what to do.  Sure enough he won the faceoff away from traffic and the final buzzer mercifully sounded.

Speaking of faceoff-winning centers, perhaps the best Devils news all week is that Travis Zajac was cleared to play and is just days away from a return to the lineup after it was once thought he’d be out through December.  His return can’t come too soon given the concussion to Marcus Johansson and the slump/benching of Pavel Zacha pushing the Devils back down to a two-line team with two fourth lines.  Really a one and a half line team since after a good first few games to start the season Adam Henrique is once again on the back of a milk carton.  If you could just combine Blake Coleman’s grit and brains with Henrique’s talent you’d have an even better version of Kyle Palmieri.  But it’s not a good thing when an 18-year old kid who’s done well enough in general (but scored his only two goals in one game this season) is your #1 center.

And while I do blame Henrique and Zacha for not playing well enough to take some pressure of Hischier, in the case of Zacha it seems to me as if his recent two-game benching was excessive and unneccesarily put the team in peril in games they flat needed to do well in.  If you’re going to bench Zacha two games for not being assertive enough or whatever fine, then bench John Moore for the utter stupidity he showed last night unneccesarily playing a hand pass that led to the Panthers’ goal, and whiffing on a puck that forced a Cory attempt to clear it himself to prevent a breakaway, predictably leading to near disaster.  The argument they need Moore in the lineup doesn’t wash when they’ve also sat Damon Severson and Mirco Mueller, plus this current team needs Zacha in the lineup too.  Playing the likes of Jimmy Hayes and Stefan Noesen over Zacha is further hamstringing an already injury-weakened lineup and turning one of the strengths of the team early (team speed) into a weakness.

You also wonder what happens with the lineup once Zajac comes back now that Zacha’s in the doghouse.  The natural solution would be to shift Zacha or Henrique to LW then perhaps move Brian Gibbons over to RW.  Will Zacha play over Hayes and Noesen once Zajac gets back (or even tonight in Chicago for that matter)?  If not they’d just better send him to Albany Binghamton right now and let him play big minutes and hopefully learn the way they want him to play.  Defensively they played the six guys you generally want them to play last night although like I said I’d sit Moore a game for being a dumb schlep, and it’s not like the best six or most ideal six man configuration was all that great against the Panthers last night, with the exception of Steven Santini who’s basically taken on the Adam Larsson role of a couple seasons ago, being on the shutdown pairing with Andy Greene.  But none of Larsson’s thirteen ‘hits’ in the game against us at Edmonton last week were anywhere near as eye-popping as Santini’s ice-clearing takeout of Alexander Barkov last night.

That hit fired up the home crowd so much they not only gave Santini an ovation for that, but again afterward when the Jumbotron merely showed a shot of him on the bench.  Other than Santini evoking the memory of Scott Stevens and Palmieri’s laser of a power play one-timer goal in the second period, there was really very little memorable about last night’s game other than a few of Cory’s saves including one astonishing leg stretch to keep a loose puck in the crease out when Mueller coughed up the puck with a lousy turnover late in the second period.  And though the win might give the team some temporary relief they go right from the frying pan into the oven facing the Blackhawks in Chicago on a short turnaround tonight.  Granted the Hawks haven’t been playing well either but they still have more than enough talent to roll us with another ‘effort’ like last night.

Yes the team’s still in good position to begin this road trip, remarkably still in first place though more tenously by the day.  However, the problems of the last two weeks need to get ironed out soon or things will get a lot worse before they get better.

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