In a week that began with the banishment of defenseman Tony DeAngelo following his reported fight with goaltender Alexandar Georgiev after a 5-4 overtime loss to Pittsburgh Jan. 30, the Rangers may have found a little stability in its third pair defense.
Island Park native Anthony Bitetto stepped into the lineup Monday against Pittsburgh in DeAngelo’s place. Libor Hajek, on his 23rd birthday, entered the lineup Thursday against Washington, replacing Brendan Smith, who was injured in Monday’s game. Both played well, and Bitetto scored his first goal as a Ranger and first in more than three years in Thursday’s 4-2 win.
The third defense pair has been a headache all season, with Jack Johnson and Smith taking turns partnering with DeAngelo on it. None of the three were having good years. But Bitetto and Hajek played well together Thursday, albeit in limited ice time (Bitetto played 9:30, Hajek 9:29). And with Johnson (groin) and Smith (upper body) both still unavailable Monday for the Islanders game, Bitetto and Hajek figure to get an extended look in an effort to nail down regular spots in the lineup.
Bitetto, at 30, the oldest player in the lineup, especially seems to have fit in well, according to coach David Quinn.
"He's got a way about him,’’ Quinn said. "He's just a guy that our players really enjoy. He competes, brings a life to our bench, and he played well for the two games. I really, really liked his game.’’
Bitetto’s friends and neighbors liked it, too. Sacred Heart R.C. Church in Island Park raised a Rangers flag Friday in honor of Bitetto’s first goal as a Ranger. The church usually raises its Rangers flag during the playoffs.