Sports

Alexis Lafreniere makes good on promotion as Rangers handle Captials

And in our latest episode of … tick, tick, tick … 60 Minutes … tick, tick, tick … we present the Rangers’ 4-1 victory in Washington on Saturday afternoon.

This was about as complete a performance as you’re likely to get from the Blueshirts, whose collective commitment to the 200-foot game made the Capitals appear like a team on the verge of relegation in this one that was juiced with goal-scoring from the top six.

This just in: Mika Zibanejad broke his 12-game drought with an empty-netter. Breaking news: Chris Kreider ended his six-game famine with a power-play goal that opened the scoring at 14:57 of the first period. Update: Ryan Strome feathered one through at 18:43 of the second period to end his five-game slump for a 3-0 lead just 59 seconds after — Bulletin! — Alexis Lafreniere finished off a beauty on a backhand in front to end his eight-game scoreless streak with first five-on-five goal (and point) of his NHL career.

“If you’re in those positions, you get paid to score goals, right, and unfortunately when the team has been losing and the lack of offense has been a bit of our issue, you feel that pressure a little bit,” Strome said. “More or less, I think we just stuck with it.

“We can’t force it too much or overthink it too much. We kind of simplified it, pretty simple goals trying to get to the net and making things happen and we got rewarded. I think it’s just a matter of sticking with our structure where pucks will start to go in and guys will start to get hot.”

Rangers
Igor Shesterkin (l.) and Alexis Lafrenière celebrate the Rangers win on Saturday.
AP

This was a buttoned-down affair that featured maybe a smidgen of open ice. The Rangers suppressed the Capitals all over the ice and eliminated Alex Ovechkin as a factor at both even-strength and on the power play, while Igor Shesterkin was pinpoint at those rare moments when he faced danger.

“Obviously when the team starts winning and getting back on the right track, everyone feels more confidence,” Shesterkin, who’d lost his last three starts despite an aggregate .927 save percentage, said after the club’s second straight victory following the debacle against the Devils. “So do I.”

Artemi Panarin put on another inspirational performance that hearkened back to his Hart-finalist work of a year ago while on the left of a remade top unit featuring Zibanejad in the middle and Lafreniere on the right. Strome skated between Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich on the second line with Kaapo Kakko unavailable after being placed on the COVID-protocol list.

“We’d just been inept offensively,” coach David Quinn said. “I’d always been a big believer in putting your best players together to form a line, but the way it evolved last year and the balance we had with two lines made us a unique team offensively. This year, it just hasn’t happened.

“I probably stayed with it too long, Maybe I should have put [Panarin and Zibanejad] together sooner. I did like the look of the balance of our lines today. And listen, if you don’t change things, things stay the same.”

There has been no more dramatic change in the Rangers’ game than the club’s defensive-zone structure and play away from the puck. It has been a staple that has permitted them to come away from this little two-game sweep of the Flyers and Capitals with a record as good as 6-7-3, despite ongoing offensive woes.

“We’ve just come so far this season from a defensive standpoint and a structural standpoint,” Quinn said. “Our first two years here was a fire drill so many times in our own end. There’s just a much more structured, calm look to us from a defensive standpoint, and it gives you a chance.”

K’Andre Miller returned after being sidelined for two games and skated with Brendan Smith on the second defensive pair that was on most of the time against the Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie unit. The Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren tandem was stout as just about always while the Anthony Bitetto and Libor Hajek unit was fine. Critically, though, the defense was supported by forwards who came back hard and with a purpose while being responsible in all three zones.

“I know we don’t want to refer to last year too much, but last year we relied on a ton of goals and a ton of great goaltending,” Strome said. “This year I think we’ve played pretty solid defense most of the time.

“I don’t think we did anything too special, but we were dialed in, paid attention to detail and everyone played our system.”

For this one, not special was special enough


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