NHL Winter Classic 2018: Kevin Shattenkirk's progress good work for Rangers

Sporting News

​NEW YORK β€” As Kevin Shattenkirk released a wrist shot with time winding down in overtime, it didn't quite come off his stick with the exit velocity of a Mike Piazza home run, but the New Rochelle native soon drew that same kind of ovation reserved for the former slugger in the confines of the New York Mets' stadium.

The Rangers defeated the Sabres 3-2 in overtime in the 2018 Winter Classic on Monday when Shattenkirk's shot from the point on the power play was stopped by Robin Lehner, but J.T. Miller pounced on the rebound for the game-winning goal.

Piazza always had Robin Ventura to bat behind him and see some better pitches. On Monday, Shattenkirk had Miller, and it produced the latest chapter in this the first season of his homecoming.

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"I saw the lane open, and J.T. was standing really by himself at the net-front," Shattenkirk said. "It was really just a way to get a puck into a good area."

Clutch hitters always seem to just find that opening on the defense to drive the ball ... er ... puck into.

When Shattenkirk signed with the Rangers this offseason, taking a discount to play for the team he grew up watching, New York was adding a top-flight defenseman, one they hoped would come up for them in moments like he did Monday.

But it hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows for Shattenkirk, who joked on Sunday he thought his return home would be sunshine and rainbows. In early December, Shattenkirk's former coach Barry Trotz said he wasn't a top-pair defenseman. Just on Sunday after Winter Classic practice, Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault called Shattenkirk a work in progress.

He may be from New York, but there has still been an adjustment period for Shattenkirk, getting acquainted to a new system and a new way of playing.

"When you know that sticking to the gameplan works I think it makes it a lot easier for you to simplify things and do things the right way, not try to make pretty plays through the neutral zone," he said. "When you know that it works that's when you can go back to that and use it as your foundation."

Monday was about much more for Shattenkirk than two points, though the victory did see the Rangers jump into third place in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division.

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As a child, Shattenkirk watched the Mets from Shea Stadium, demolished and replaced by Citi Field, its resting place now the latter's parking lot.

Players absolutely love participating in these events, and Shattenkirk was no exception.

"We have the most fun out of everyone here, and that's saying a lot," he said. "But being at home and playing in this area was just an added bonus for me, and I know there are a lot of people here who were watching me who definitely enjoyed that one."

While the Rangers coughed up a 2-0 lead against the last place team in the Eastern Conference, needing a power play in overtime to finally improve their record to 4-0-0 all-time in outdoor games, it did provide a sweet moment for Shattenkirk.

Though the NHL switched to its current three-on-three overtime format in 2015-16, this was the first Winter Classic to go beyond regulation (the NHL's Centennial Classic on New Year's Day 2017 was also decided in overtime). In that extra hockey, when the sides were shrunk and the ice expanded, Shattenkirk truly felt like a kid at home.

"That's the closest you'll get to it in this league, and then obviously when you add being outside, it really felt like we were playing the Buffalo Sabres on a pond," he said.

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His assist was his 18th of the season, tying him for Ryan McDonagh for the team-lead among defensemen, and 10th on the power play, more than any other Rangers skater.

"We knew we wanted to be patient with it, and we had plenty of time, and also take a good shot," Shattenkirk said.

Likewise, the Rangers are trying to practice patience with their new defenseman. In sequences like the one that puncuated the Winter Classic, it's easy to see why Shattenkirk was so highly coveted this offseason. In others, he's shown growing pains in trying to recalibrate his hockey brain from long-time St. Louis Blue to Broadway Blueshirt.

But Shattenkirk has had thick skin through it all, taking the criticisms, when warranted and unwarranted, in stride, and biting back when necessary (after all, he is a New Yorker).

On Monday, he said he felt like he was one with the people, playing in front of an audience that could watch him and think 'I've been there.'

"Everyone grew up doing it. The same thing I was doing as a kid skating outside, the fan that came to watch skated outside as kids, and everybody who plays hockey at some point or another played outside on a pond or a lake," Shattenkirk said. "That connection is something that everyone shares and loves about the hockey game."

And with Shattenkirk, it's possible they really may have stood shoulder-to-shoulder at one point or another.

"Coming home, and being able to play in front of the same fans that I probably shared a few hockey games myself and some baseball games, we all really took it in and enjoyed it as much as we could," he said.

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Of course, Shattenkirk also could have been picturing himself as Piazza as he zipped his point shot through traffic that in short order sent many of the 41,821 in attendance home happy. Piazza had many a clutch hit during his tenure as a New York Met. Shattenkirk can only hope that there will be more big moments like the one that presented itself on Monday, and he'll again see the pitch and hit it out of the park.

"Really any time (Piazza) hit a home run β€” and there were a lot of them β€” were my greatest Mets moments," Shattenkirk said.

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