If Billy Crystal were to make a movie about this week’s Rangers-Devils series, here’s what the title would or should be:
Because let’s face it, though it got scary and hairy for much of the third period of Sunday afternoon’s finale in Newark just as it did on Saturday, the Blueshirts’ four-game sweep was accomplished against a glorified AHL outfit that did not hold the lead for so much as a second of the 240 minutes of competition.
Does this truth subtract from the eight points the Rangers earned this week to keep them alive in the playoff chase? No, it does not. See: right there under the points column, Rangers with 52. Standings are not calculated on a curve. Every team’s schedule has featured pandemic-related anomalies to be exploited.
But sometimes they are not, such as on Feb. 16, when our heroes faced a Devils team that had not played a game in 16 days and had one practice to prepare, and were humiliated 5-2 at the Garden. It is never as easy as simply throwing your sticks out onto the ice.
And indeed, the task of defeating the same club four times within six days is not easy. The stripped-for-parts Devils never quit, and indeed were in control for a 10 minute-stretch after coming all the way back from 3-0 down to tie this one 5:30 into the third period.
But Alexandar Georgiev made a handful of sparkling saves that permitted his team to regain its equilibrium and flip the world back onto its axis by getting a power-play goal from Mika Zibanejad and an awarded empty-netter from Ryan Strome to secure the 5-3 victory.
Give the Rangers — who have won four straight in regulation for the first time in more than five years, since the 2015-16 team took five in a row to cap a six-game winning streak — credit for jumping on their foes early and taking first-period leads at 7:02, 0:47, 7:26 and 6:31, respectively. Give them credit for big-time goaltending and for being opportunistic at the other end.
But recognize this series as a mini-bubble unto itself that may not produce meaningful momentum as the club steps up in class beginning Tuesday with the first of three remaining — not consecutively — against the Islanders. Yes, 8-1-2 in the Blueshirts’ last 11, but … *
You know, it’s funny, but not ha-ha funny. If the three young amigos on the Kid Line — names of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko, if you forgot — had come up so fallow and middling as they did individually and collectively a month ago as through this series, a crisis would have been manufactured.
But now, well, it is just as Birthday Boy Mika Zibanejad said after his power-play snapper from the slot broke the 3-3 draw at 17:00: “All I care about right now is the two points we got. All we care about is taking care of business.”
Lafreniere did score the 3-0 goal at 5:17 of the second period by beating Mackenzie Blackwood with a backhand from in close off a two-on-one feed from Chytil, before he was blasted into the netminder by New Jersey defenseman Matt Tennyson. That was the line’s only goal of the series.
More of note was that Chytil and Lafreniere accounted for two of the four Rangers — Jacob Trouba and Anthony Bitetto were the others — who somehow lost a puck battle to neophyte Nolan Foote to trigger the sequence on which Nico Hischier scored. Chytil and Lafreniere sat for the next 10 minutes until sent on for an offensive-zone draw with 4:21 remaining in regulation. That was the shift on which Kakko drew a high-sticking penalty that sent the Blueshirts onto the power play on which Zibanejad scored the winner.
“I think that when you get ahead in a game, sometimes young players change their mindset,” Quinn said. “And I just think against a team like that tests your competitiveness, your speed, and [ability] to play fast, I thought they were a little bit inconsistent in those areas.
“All of a sudden you’re out there and you take your foot off the pedal against that team, you’re going to get exposed and spend time in your own end, and I thought that’s what happened.”
The counterpoint, of course, is that the Big Boys produced a deluge. Artemi Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich each scored four goals, while Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Chris Kreider scored two apiece. Hence, 14 of the 16 goals scored by forwards — the other, Vitali Kravtsov’s first NHL goal on Sunday — by the Elites.
Quinn leaned back on an idiom invented back before Howie Morenz laced up his skates. “You’re not going anywhere without your top players pulling their weight,” said the coach, who might also have said, “The fourth one is always the toughest.”
Onto the Island.
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