The Rangers getting blanked 4-0 by the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday in their first game back following a four-day holiday break reminded me of the drowsiness kids have on their first day back from school following intercession.
The team, sans Igor Shesterkin, was a step slow and couldn’t compete with the high-flying Caps. As coach Gerard Gallant put it, “Let’s face it: One team showed up ready to win and wanted to win a hockey game, and the other team didn’t; we played like garbage.” The victory saw the Caps jump the Rangers for fourth place in the Metropolitan division.
Despite the stinker, there’s still a lot to digest, so let’s get into it. Here are my takeaways from the game.
SPECIAL TEAMS NOT SO SPECIAL: The wheels started falling off about eight minutes into the contest when the Rangers took two quick penalties in the forms of Ryan Lindgren and Chris Kreider being boxed for holding. It gave Washington a five-on-three advantage, which they pounced on when Jacob Trouba inadvertently pushed the puck past Shesterkin, with the goal being credited to Marcus Johansson.
The Rangers had an abundance of chances throughout the night to break the dry spell but went zero for five on the power play. The Capitals used the 1-3-1 at even strength to clog up the neutral zone, and although the Blueshirts have had previous success in finding ways to beat that this season, they didn’t have the legs in this one. “That wasn’t us said captain Jacob Trouba”
“One game coming off the break or not, you’re going to have games like that throughout the season. Just address it, understand it, don’t let it snowball, and get back to the game we know how to play.” It seems as if the team’s preference for Mika Zibanejad, rifles from the left dot, has become too predictable.
One possible solution is mixing it up in terms of who’s on the first unit; maybe giving the second centerman Filip Chytil, a shot for a try or two would provide the men, who are now 1 for their last 11 and have dropped to 17th in the league, a jolt.
“You try to make more of a high-risk play to get through and get something going. We got a little stale,” Zibanejad said.
THE SHESTERKIN SHOW:
Don’t let the score fool you; he was fantastic, which was the only positive thing Gallant had to say in a fiery postgame presser where he lit into the refs and, even more so, his team. “The goalie was outstanding, but we were far from good enough, even worse than the refs were tonight.” “The goalie was outstanding, but we were far from good enough, even worse than the refs were tonight.”
Before being victimized by the situation room late in the second period, Shesterkin picked up right where he left off before the break and single handily kept his team alive. He stopped Anthony Mantha on a breakaway and Sonny Milano on the follow-up opportunity, and then sandwiched in between the Caps’ second goal was his stretch save on Johansson, who was looking for his second of the game.
The backbreaker came late in the second period when Washington scored twice to triple their advantage. The first was on an odd-man rush where Erik Gustafsson pounced on Vincent Trocheck, getting hit with a puck and slowing limping off the ice, and attacked the net front with Connor Sheary(Who later closed out the contest with an empty netter), who appeared to make contact with Shesterkin in the crease.
Still, despite a Gallant challenge following the goal, it wasn’t called. “I mean, he went in the crease,” Gallant said. “We didn’t put him in the crease. He made contact. There wasn’t much contact, but enough contact for me.”
There was also Julien Gauthier getting tripped up in front of the net earlier in the period, which wasn’t called, and the refs missing a blatant icing call against Washington in the first period, which bewildered Trochcek.
Despite not capitalizing on the ensuing power play following the delay of game penalty for the failed review request, Lars Eller would score shortly after that to make it 3-0. Igor finished the night with 26 saves on 29 shots and +0.81 goals above expected.
But he was outdone on the other end by Washington’s offseason acquisition and reigning Stanley Cup champion Darcey Kuemper, who backstopped his boys by pitching a 32-save shutout to the tune of +2.66 goals saved above expected en route to the win.
As he often does when his team is struggling, Gallant blended his lines again.
Vitali Kravtsov began the game on the top line with Artemi Panarin and Zibanejad but was demoted late in the second period among a slew of changes. Mika played with Chris Kreider and Barclay Goodrow. Panarin was downgraded to play with Trocheck and Kappo Kakko, while Alexis Lafreniere was dropped to line three with Chytil and Jimmy Vesey.
Kravtsov, meanwhile, was shipped back to the fourth line with Johnny Brodzinski and Gauthier. “I scrambled the lines; I didn’t know what to do,” said Gallant, and it seemed as if he was still indecisive at Wednesday’s hard-nosed practice when he dropped Lafreniere to the fourth line while Goodrow moved into the top six.
“I want him to be better,” Gallant lamented about #13. “He’s got some chances to play with good people, and he’s played well at times, but it’s the inconsistency.” That last word is Laffy’s season in a nutshell and is a message to the 21-year-old that 17 points(five goals, 12 assists) in 36 games won’t cut it.
“I was rusty last night,” Lafreniere said. “I didn’t play my best game. I’ll try to be better in the future.” You can call it improper development all you want in the comments section down below, but Gallant will have none of that. “My job is to win games. We’re not developing right now. We develop in practice, but we want to win games. We’re a good hockey team.”
That statement will be tested when the Rangers head down south to Tampa Bay for an Eastern Conference finals rematch with the Lightning(20-11-1) on Thursday before they square off against the reigning Presidents Trophy-winning Florida Panthers(15-16-4) on Sunday.