These New York Rangers entered the weekend looking to scrub their issues of allowing goals off the rush in their home -home against the Washington Capitals. Unfortunately, despite the split, those bad habits, which saw them get blasted by Rick Tocchet's Vancouver Canucks 6-3, and the Jordan Kyrou-led St Louis Blues 5-2 last week, stuck around.
On Saturday, just when they were on the edge of grabbing their first win in over a week, they got burned again with two goals off the rush in less than two minutes, losing 3-2 in the national Capital, with the hosts Alex Ovechkin-less. The loss wasted a two-goal night from defenseman Adam Fox. Yet on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, they rebounded with a 2-1 win on the back of Igor Shesterkin's 24 saves.
The Blueshirts were struggling to find offense from those, not on their burgeoning trio, but the cool part was that they tightened up their defense in their Sunday matinee with Washington – an encouraging sign.
They managed to limit the Caps to just one goal from T.J. Oshie on 25 shots. They also reduced transition chances and held their ground, allowing zero high-danger scoring chances in a solid first period. Things were looking up until the middle frame, as the deficiencies returned before the team buckled down enough in the third period to secure the victory.
There was also the return of Kaapo Kakko, who played after missing 21 games due to injury. He didn't have to do much, but having him back made the Rangers feel complete. They're crossing their fingers that this win helps their Vezina-winning goalie, who's had a tough stretch lately, allowing four or more goals in three of the last four games.
Talking about goalies, Shesterkin stepped up big time on Sunday. Despite the game feeling closer than it should've been, he made some crucial saves, especially after Oshie's tally brought the Caps within 2-1 in the second. Shesterkin shut the door, denying an Oshie deflection and pulling off a spectacular left pad save through traffic, as he finished with a 1.31 goals saved above expected. It wasn't perfect, but the Rangers needed that victory to snap their four-game skid. Shesterkin was the bedrock they leaned on, and he delivered in style.
Bottom Six Blues: Rangers Seek Solutions Amidst Scoring Droughts:
In the future, the Rangers will need more from their bottom six. Blake Wheeler's been on an 11-game dry spell, Nick Bonino's stuck at 23 games without a goal, Barclay Goodrow's drought is at 25, Jonny Brodzinski's at 15, Will Cuylle's been goalless for eight straight, Jimmy Vesey's got just one goal in the last 13.
Amidst all this, the Artemi Panarin-Vincent Trocheck-Alexis Lafrenière line has provided a beacon of hope. The trio have been consistent in the past month, scoring both Rangers' goals in Sunday's first period and outshot Washington 8-2 when on the ice. Panarin kicked things off with a slick one-timer 50 seconds into the contest off a feed from Trocheck, and the snake-bitten Lafrenière broke an eight-game goal drought with a last-minute beauty.
He received help from Braden Schneider, who recovered the puck near the offensive blue line. Lafrenière did his thing, forcing goaltender Charlie Lindgren to make a save before following up for the finish. The kid's been getting chances, with at least three shots on goal in the last seven games.
However, the other three lines weren't as fortunate on Sunday. Outshot 11-3, they struggled, especially the trio of Cuylle, Bonino, and Wheeler, who were outshot 6-0. By the third period, head coach Peter Laviolette had to shake things up, swapping Bonino with Brodzinski. The cry for reinforcing that bottom six is getting louder with each passing game. The trade deadline is looming, but that'll be addressed on March 8.
Sunday brought a surprise re-acquisition in the form of Kaapo Kakko. Fans were worried when he twisted his left knee in November, but he returned relatively quickly. Laviolette wasted no time, thrusting him into the top six alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
Kakko had a golden opportunity on a first-period power play, but Lindgren made a point-blank save after a slick pass from Lafrenière. However, Kakko's line with Kreider and Zibanejad didn't register a shot when it came to even-strength play.
The Finnish winger wrapped up the game with 16:04 seconds of ice time, firing two shots on goal out of four attempts and throwing in a couple of hits for good measure. Most importantly, his first game back resulted in a victory, precisely what the Rangers needed.