The New York Rangers ended 2022 on a down note, dropping a hard-fought game against the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1. Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin were brilliant in net, stopping a combined 84 of 86 shots through regulation and the five-minute overtime period. In the end, Artemi Panarin was the only Ranger to score in the six shootout rounds, and the Rangers dropped their second straight game after the holiday break.
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Mika Zibanejad opened the scoring with his 16th of the season, blasting a slapshot through Vasilevskiy in the first period. The Rangers held onto that lead until 5:32 of the third period, when Brayden Point banked in a backdoor feed for his 20th of the year, knotting the game at one.
Despite a Rangers power play in overtime, the game remained deadlocked. Point and Panarin scored in the shootout before Alex Killorn beat Shesterkin in the sixth round for the game-winner. Head coach Gerard Gallant made waves before the game, scratching Alexis Lafrenière and mixing up the lines again.
The move was eerily reminiscent of when Kaapo Kakko was scratched in Game 6 of last season’s Eastern Conference Final, the last time the Rangers were in Tampa Bay, also a 2-1 loss. If there is one thing the Rangers hope to leave behind in 2022, it’s their lack of finishing that has dropped them to sixth in the Metropolitan Division, outside of the playoff picture.
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Here are three takeaways from the loss in Tampa Bay.
1. Shesterkin and Vasilevskiy Lived Up to the Hype
This was another edition of Shesterkin vs. Vasilevskiy, a battle between two of the best goaltenders in the game. Shesterkin took the season’s first edition on opening night, and Vasilevskiy stole the show on Thursday night, stopping 45 shots en route to the win.
Early on, Shesterkin was up to the task, saving high-quality chances and allowing the Rangers to take a 1-0 lead. It wasn’t until a blown coverage in front that the Lightning found a way to beat him, and he deserved a better fate than a loss. He made 39 saves in that game, standing tall as well.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers had an expected goals average of 4.32, while the Lightning had 3.93. It was a masterclass in goaltending, and each team likely felt snakebitten after 65 minutes of play.
Shesterkin has allowed just one goal in both games against the Lightning. He must remember that postseason loss and brings his A-game when facing the team that ousted him from the playoffs. Not to mention playing against his fellow countryman, who is widely considered to be the best in the league, also brings out the competitive spirit.
2. Rangers’ Power Play Has Been Anything But Special
The Rangers’ power play has been atrocious lately, going 1-for-17 since the loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins that snapped their seven-game win streak on Dec. 20. They had several chances to score a crucial goal on the man advantage, with Panarin ringing the post on the game’s first power play, and Zibanejad missing a wide-open net on their overtime power play.
They rank 18th in the league, averaging a 21.37% success rate on the power play, and have struggled to get big goals from their special teams this season. During their improbable 2021-22 run, their power play was lethal, turning the tides of a game. This season, that killer instinct is gone, and they have lost games because of it.
What used to be a shoot-first, then hit-the-seam mentality has switched to a perimeter group. Chris Kreider, one of the best net-front presences in the sport, only has four tallies on the man advantage this season. Last year, he led the team with 26, and they utilized him to perfection.
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When the Rangers’ power play clicks, they use Kreider as the first option, forcing teams to collapse toward the net, opening up the one-timer for Zibanejad. Now, they look solely to get shots from Zibanejad and Panarin, almost negating the most dangerous weapon on the unit, Kreider’s deflection.
If the season’s outlook is going to change in 2023, they need the power play to start functioning like a top unit again.
3. Lack of Finishing Comes Back to Haunt the Rangers Again
The Rangers are 20th in the league in shooting percentage at just 9.57%. Over the two games since the holiday break, they have attempted 72 shots and mustered one goal for an abysmal 1.39% shooting percentage. They have generated chances all year but have not been able to score at the rate they should be.
In the 2-1 loss to the Lightning, the Rangers had 82 total shot attempts, 17 of those were blocked, and another 19 missed the mark. Several times the Blueshirts found themselves with a high-quality chance in the slot and misfired, a tendency that has become prevalent in every Rangers’ defeat this year.
Yes, Vasilevskiy played great, but any player on the Rangers will tell you if any of those shots that went wide had hit the net, the result would have been different (from ‘Rangers fall to rival Lightning in shootout,’ NY Post, 12/29/22). Unfortunately, Gallant’s group has missed the net at an alarming rate this year and has shot themselves in the foot numerous times when doing so.
In the first period, Sammy Blais missed the net high on a 2-on-1 rush that nearly resulted in his first of the season. In the third period, Vincent Trocheck missed high from the slot. In overtime, it was Zibanejad and Panarin teeing off on a power play that resulted in glorious chances hitting the glass behind the Lightning goal.
The Rangers were the better team, again in defeat, but the moral victories don’t give them points in the standings, and the inability of the forwards and defense to finish this season has been noticeable.
The Rangers open the New Year on the road against the Florida Panthers on Sunday, Jan. 1. It’s a game the Rangers need to win if they want to start 2023 on the right foot and get back into the postseason picture.