Last night, the Rangers defeated Washington, one of the best teams in hockey, by a score of 4-1. The score looked more lopsided than the actual play, as the Caps rang the puck off the crossbar and post four times. But, the fact is, the Blueshirts kept up with a top team, were opportunistic (making their power plays count), and stayed out of the penalty box. All very good signs, especially when the beaten team had not lost on the road for nine games.
So why is the team beating playoff-bound opponents and losing terribly on the next? Beside just writing it off as what happens with a rebuild, there is the matter of the emergence of Kaapo Kakko. Kakko was back from the flu last night and played a significant role in the scoring (once again). Before Kakko was out of action for two games (including last week’s 9-3 drubbing in Tampa Bay), he was becoming more and more of a factor on the ice. In the game against Pittsburgh last week, the one before he took ill, Kakko had two goals; last night he had two primary assists, both on Artemi Panarin’s power play goals, including the game winner. Although these assists were with the extra man, Kakko’s goals in the Pittsburgh game were at even strength, while playing wing on the right side of the third line. He has become a threat at all times on the ice, which gives the Rangers three lines that can score. It completely changes how New York’s opponents have to play against this team.
Add to this the return of Mika Zibanejad, which appears to be imminent. According to Head Coach David Quinn, a decision on whether Mika will be along for the two-game trip to Canada will be made today. Absent a setback, this team will soon have some very enviable decisions. It seems to me that breaking up Ryan Strome and Panarin, who have been very effective, would be risky. Because Mika and Pavel Buchnevich have had some very good chemistry in the past, maybe having Mika centering the second line works better than having Filip Chytil and Chris Kreider alternate taking faceoffs. Then Chytil could move to the wing on the third line, with Brett Howden (who had one of his best games of the season last night) in the center. Brendan Lemieux could move down to the left side of the fourth line, which leaves question marks as to who would center that line. It could be Lias Andersson (if he gets recalled), but it also could be Boo Nieves, who has taken some leaps forward in his development in Hartford this season. Boo takes the most defensive draws for the number one AHL team and plays excellent defensive hockey. He has size and could play alongside Greg McKegg and Jesper Fast. Brendan Smith could then go back to his natural position—defense.
By the way, speaking of size, 6’6” Tim Gettinger did a good job in his 2019-20 NHL season debut last night. He only had 6:55 of time on the ice, but used it well. He had a team-leading four hits and a block shot in 12 shifts. The 21-year old is likely to go back to Hartford once Mika is ready to play, but was impressive in his role last night.
The most touching moment of the night occurred when a young boy, Luke, thought he was participating in a timed “list the sports movie” contest against Adam Fox (which the kid killed—he made everyone laugh when he said “Rocky 1 through 5” to get credit for five movies). The touching part was when he was to be given his reward (a Rangers tee shirt). Down came his father, in full uniform, who had been serving in Afghanistan for a year. The look of surprise and pure joy on Luke’s face was priceless and there was not a dry eye in the house. Good on the Rangers for doing that for Luke and his family, and for reminding us of the sacrifice families are making all over this country. Thanks also to the team for giving us in the press box some unexpected swag last night too. A good night all around.