After enduring an emotional 48 hours and playing their most impressive third period of the season to lock down their 3-1 win Monday over the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s reasonable to ask whether the Rangers — with the Tony DeAngelo saga behind them — could now be poised to turn their sluggish start around.
"We got five out of six points in the last three games [2-0-1], so we’re starting to get things going in the right direction,’’ coach David Quinn said Monday after the game. "Guys felt really good about the win tonight. There was a good feel in the locker room before the game, and there was a great feeling after the game. And we’ve got to carry it over.’’
The team got the day off Tuesday and will return to practice Wednesday to prepare to face the Washington Capitals for the first time this season on Thursday at the Garden. Their scheduled away game in Newark Saturday against the Devils has been postponed, because the Devils have 14 players currently on their COVID-19 list. That means the Rangers (3-4-2) are in the midst of a seven-game homestand.
Despite all his offensive capabilities, cutting ties with DeAngelo after he reportedly got into a fight with goaltender Alexandar Georgiev following the 5-4 overtime loss to the Penguins Saturday could actually improve the team on the ice. Regardless of whether his presence in the locker room had become a distraction, his on-ice performance had clearly been a liability for the Rangers.
To be fair, DeAngelo’s partners on the third defense pair — either Jack Johnson or Brendan Smith — had not played well, either. But DeAngelo wasn’t exactly lifting his partners with his own play. He was a team-worst minus-6, having been on for three Rangers goals during five-on-five play, versus nine goals against. And while he was never known as a defensive stalwart, his offensive abilities generally covered up for his defensive liabilities. But in his six games this season, he had just one assist, that on a power play.
Without him, the Rangers turned to Island Park native Anthony Bitetto to step in on the third pair. And despite losing his partner, Smith — he left the game late in the first period after a collision with Pittsburgh’s Brandon Tanev — Bitetto acquitted himself just fine in his Rangers debut. He had four hits, two blocked shots, one minor penalty, one takeaway and no giveaways in 14:51 of ice time.
"I thought Bitetto played well,’’ Quinn said. "Listen, you go down to five ‘D’ that early in the game, it’s not easy. And especially for a guy who hasn’t played in a long time. I thought he did a good job. I really did. I thought our ‘D’ all . . . responded under difficult circumstances.’’
The biggest turnaround, though, was how they played in the third period. Tied 1-1 entering the third, the Rangers got the winner on a power-play tip-in by Chris Kreider, off Adam Fox’s shot, at 11:10 of the third. And then, after having blown third-period leads in four of their previous five games, they held on to this one. Artemi Panarin added an empty-net goal at the buzzer for the final score.
"I think we just played smart and we were able to play in their end a little bit,’’ Fox said when asked what the difference was. "And then, you’ve got to do things like blocking shots. ‘Key’ [K’Andre Miller] had a big block there that saved a goal. And I just think that we were able to play a little smarter, [and] not give them as many chances as we did, especially the last game.’’