When Rangers general manager Glen Sather pulled the trigger on a blockbuster deal for Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle at the trade deadline, he took a calculated gamble on the 28-year old from Boston. In parting with top prospect Anthony Duclair, defenseman John Moore, a 2015 second round pick and a 2016 first round pick for Yandle, defenseman Chris Summers and a 2016 fourth round pick, Sather felt it was a chance to strengthen the Rangers’ blueline.
After adjusting to coach Alain Vigneault’s up tempo system that allows skilled defensemen to pinch aggressively on the forecheck, Yandle has had his ups and downs during the playoffs. As part of the team’s third pair with Kevin Klein and at times Dan Boyle, he struggled defensively. When he coughed up pucks and had some unfortunate luck in Game 3 of the second round with Jay Beagle’s wraparound going in off his stick, Yandle took heavy criticism. Especially when the power play struggled against the Caps.
Brought in to aid the power play, it hasn’t come easy. At one point, Vigneault had Yandle teamed with Ryan McDonagh on the top unit. With it ineffective, the Rangers’ second-year coach switched it up moving Yandle and McDonagh to the second unit with Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. He has stuck with Derick Brassard and Boyle running the points on the top unit with Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Martin St. Louis up front. That magic formula is working with the club responding by scoring twice in each of the last three games converting 6-of-13 against the Lightning. In Friday’s big 5-1 win in Game 4 that evened the series, they went 2-for-4 including power play goals from St. Louis and Nash who both got off the snide.
With McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal occupied with neutralizing Triplets Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov plus Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn, Yandle has stood out the last two games tallying a goal and four assists. His imprints were all over last night’s win that sent the Eastern Conference Final back to MSG for tomorrow’s pivotal Game 5 all even.
It was Yandle who helped set up Chris Kreider’s game-winner with 4:44 left in the second. His feed allowed partner Klein to get a tough low shot on Ben Bishop, who leaked out a rebound which Kreider finished for his team-leading seventh of the postseason. Less than a couple of minutes later, this time Klein passed for Yandle at an open point where the offensive defenseman let go of a shot that took a lucky bounce off Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman past Bishop for a big insurance marker.
Yandle has shown more confidence offensively making smart decisions with the puck. Following St. Louis’ first of the playoffs which also came on the power play from Brassard and Boyle, Yandle made a good shot pass for a Hayes deflection that Bishop couldn’t quite cover. That allowed Nash to poke the puck in for his second of the game putting the final exclamation point on a 5-1 victory.
Without Yandle’s contributions, the Rangers probably don’t return to The Garden with the series tied at 2-2. At times, he can be a bit too unselfish deferring to teammates. What they got from him yesterday was more instinctive decisions. He wasn’t as hesitant. That was also the case in their wild 6-5 Game 3 overtime defeat. His offense has come at a perfect time. Ditto for Boyle who’ll bring a three-game point streak (1-4-5) into Sunday night. Klein also has three helpers over the last two.
With McDonagh, Girardi and Staal struggling with the Bolts’ lethal combination of speed and skill, it’s been the play of the bottom half of the D that’s performed. Yandle and Klein have stepped up. Boyle is providing offense but remains an adventure. Of course, it can be argued that that also applies to Yandle. But when Sather took the risk, he knew what he was getting. In this round, his big acquisition is finally fitting in.