‘Smells like teen spirit’: Rangers' youth core continues to shine


The rebuild has arrived well ahead of schedule for the New York Rangers. The young core is firing on all cylinders, the goaltending has been tremendous and the team is winning more consistently. Head coach David Quinn is leading the Blueshirts in the right direction after a disastrous start to the season. Much of that is due to increased contributions from both the young core and the veterans with higher expectations heading into the season. New York has found themselves in the thick of the Metropolitan Division race and in the hunt for a postseason berth.

Having won seven of their past nine games, including a five-game home winning streak, they looked to ride that momentum into four matchups this week, three of which were against division foes.

Kicking off the week, the Blueshirts welcomed the Dallas Stars to Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19. The Stars missed the postseason last year and looked to flip the switch with an improved core, led by superstar forwards Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn and young bona fide defensemen John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen.

Dallas’ top line of Seguin, Benn and Alexander Radulov combined for nine points — with three goals and six assists — in their last game against the New York Islanders, so keeping them in check was a must.

New York’s defense stood tall early on, as the Stars had just seven shots on goal and very few scoring chances, giving Henrik Lundqvist an easy first period.

But in the second period, Dallas broke the ice with a power play goal from Seguin 2:17 into the frame. Seguin converted on a wrist shot from the right slot with Benn screening Lundqvist in front.

But the Rangers had a response at 9:38 of the period, and it was one for the highlight reels. Jimmy Vesey tied the game with a no-look backhander while falling onto the ice. It was a huge goal for the Rangers, as they barely had any offensive pressure up until that point. Stars goaltender Ben Bishop didn’t face much until that Vesey equalizer. However, Bishop left the game after the second period with a lower-body injury. Anton Khudobin came in to replace him in net.

The Rangers turned up the tempo in the third period and cashed in 4:32 into that frame. Filip Chytil, who scored in the past three games, continued his torrid scoring stretch.

The young Czech forward picked up the loose puck in the neutral zone and skated up the ice, firing a wristshot past Khudobin to give the Rangers the lead.

The Blueshirts’ defense held the Stars to just four shots in that period and 17 for the game, leading them to a 2-1 victory, their eighth in the past 10 games.

Up next was a showdown between crosstown rivals on Nov. 21, as the Rangers and Islanders squared off for the second time in a week, this time on the Blueshirts’ home rink. The Isles took the first matchup 7-5 last week at Barclays Center, the Rangers’ only regulation loss in this scorching stretch of games.

The Blueshirts had revenge on their mind and made their statement just 29 seconds in. On a 2-on-1 rush, Chytil attempted a pass to Chris Kreider, only to have the puck deflect off Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock back to his stick. Chytil seized the opportunity and beat netminder Robin Lehner with a quick shot, making it his fifth straight game with a goal.

Rangers fourth-liner Michael McLeod doubled the lead at 3:30 as he deflected Tony DeAngelo's long shot from the right point past Lehner. It was McLeod’s first goal as a Ranger since joining the team last year. Ryan Strome recorded an assist on the goal, his first point as a Ranger since being acquired from the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, Nov. 16, in exchange for Ryan Spooner.

Defenseman Neal Pionk made it 3-0 on the power play at 8:04, firing a one-timer from center point that beat a screened Lehner on the blocker side for his fourth tally of the season. It gave Pionk five points in his last five games.

After their dominant first period, the Rangers had limited chances in the second. They were able to hold the Islanders in check, however, keeping them off the scoreboard.

But with 2:43 left in the frame, Kevin Hayes beat Lehner with a slick backhand in front of the net to increase the Rangers’ lead to 4-0.

Kreider capped off the scoring with 3:41 remaining in the third period on a shot from the left circle off a rush.

Alexandar Georgiev stood tall in net, making 29 saves for his first NHL shutout. It was his fourth straight win and snapped the Blueshirts’ eight-game losing streak against the Islanders. It was also the first time since April 13, 2013, that the Rangers shut out the Isles, a 1-0 overtime win at the Nassau Coliseum.

The 5-0 win gave the Blueshirts their ninth victory in 11 games, a seven-game home winning streak and second place in the Metropolitan Division.

They sought to continue their hot stretch into a back-to-back against two more division opponents.

New York was back on the road on Nov. 23 against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers came into the contest with a four-game losing streak, poor goaltending, lackluster offense and a porous defense. They were still very dangerous, led by captain Claude Giroux.

Philadelphia started Calvin Pickard in goal, due to lower body injuries that sidelined starter Brian Elliott and backup Michal Neuvirth. Lundqvist started in net for the Rangers after serving as the backup against the Islanders.

After giving up the first goal in each game during their four-game skid, the Flyers outshot the Rangers 15-8 in the first period, going ahead on Travis Konecny's unusual goal with 6:39 left in the opening frame. He sent the puck toward the net from the side boards, looking for Sean Couturier, and the puck deflected off Lundqvist, Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei and a post before crossing the goal line.

Both teams played stout defense and the goaltending was spectacular after that goal. Lundqvist and Pickard stopped every shot the opposition threw at them, keeping the score at 1-0.

The game remained 1-0 until the final five and a half minutes of the third period. After Rangers defenseman DeAngelo hit the left post with a shot from the point and a terrific pad save from Pickard on forward Lias Andersson, the Flyers capitalized.

Couturier scored with 5:21 remaining with a wrist shot from the slot, sending the puck under Lundqvist's right arm after a pass from Konecny.

Jordan Weal extended Philadelphia’s lead to 3-0 with an empty-netter, while Couturier scored his second of the game with 1:37 remaining.

Despite 42 saves from Lundqvist, the Rangers offense fell flat. Pickard made 31 saves for the Flyers, en route to a 4-0 shutout. New York suffered just a second regulation loss in their last 12 games.

Less than 24 hours later, the Rangers were back in action at home to face the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Washington Capitals.

Georgiev started for the Rangers, while Pheonix Copley started for the Caps in place of Braden Holtby.

Just 9:12 into the first period, Vesey opened the scoring for the Rangers. Hayes brought the puck up the left side on a 2-on-1 rush, cut toward the net and dropped the puck back to Jesper Fast, who tapped it to the right, and a trailing Vesey put it under a sprawled Copley's left pad.

Near the midpoint of the second period, Skjei scored on a rebound of Brendan Smith's shot that came off the end boards and right to him on the outside edge of the left circle at 9:39 to make it 2-0.

But the Caps turned up the intensity in that middle frame, scoring three consecutive goals. Just 31 seconds after Skjei doubled the Rangers' lead, Nic Dowd tipped Carlson's shot to pull the Capitals back within one. Jakub Vrana then tied it as he beat Georgiev with a backhander with 3:33 left. Alex Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead, tipping John Carlson's pass from the right side with 30 seconds left.

Strome tied the game at three on a wraparound at 5:30 of the third period, his first goal as a Ranger. But with 6:24 remaining, Brett Connolly gave Washington the lead back, scoring the tiebreaking goal on a one-timer from the left circle. Tom Wilson added an empty-netter to seal a 5-3 victory for the Capitals.

The Rangers lost their second straight game in regulation, pushing them a point out of playoff position.

They are still playing great hockey and are competing at a very high level, especially with a predominantly young core.

SportsFelix MalamudComment