At 6-2-2, Rangers have room for improvement

Dan Girardi battles Michael Frolik during the Rangers 4-1 win over the Flames.  AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images

Dan Girardi battles Michael Frolik during the Rangers 4-1 win over the Flames.
AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith/Getty Images

Through the first 10 games, the Rangers are 6-2-2. Following Sunday’s 4-1 home win over the struggling Flames, they have a few days off to prepare for another NHL doormat the Maple Leafs this Friday.

With the Islanders winning again over those Flames 4-0, they’re 6-2-1. Meanwhile, the Caps have lost only once in their first seven boasting a 6-1-0 mark. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Division looks to be ultra competitive. While the Pens are still trying to figure it out, the Devils and Flyers are off to good starts. New Jersey having won four in a row under new coach John Hynes thanks to the scoring of Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak. Philadelphia’s winning despite no goals from Jake Voracek.

For the Blueshirts, they’re right where they want to be. Despite under performances from Rick Nash (1-2-3), Chris Kreider (1-4-5), Derick Brassard (3-2-5) and Ryan McDonagh (assist), they are in first place with 14 points. Even without consistency from their top players, they have found ways to win. A big time positive for a experienced team who knows how crucial a good start is.

It’s been the play of rookie Oscar Lindberg that’s sparked them. In Sunday’s win, he scored his team-leading fifth. The 23-year old forward has surpassed expectations by carrying over a strong preseason with steady and heady play on the third line. Second-year forward Kevin Hayes has moved back to anchor the line with Lindberg and solid complement J.T. Miller. Hayes has points in three straight and Miller paces all Blueshirt forwards with five helpers.

While third-year coach Alain Vigneault searches for the right combination to get Nash going, he has a dependable third line. He’s mixed up the top two lines keeping Nash and Mats Zuccarello with Derek Stepan while sliding Brassard between Kreider and Jesper Fast. Fast is playing a similar role to the one he played last postseason as a checking forward on a top line. Kreider has shown signs scoring a highlight reel goal in Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Coyotes. He needs to be better than one goal in the first 10. But so does Nash.

Stepan is Vigneault’s most trusted forward. A smart play-making two-way pivot who is an ace penalty killer with Nash forming a lethal shorthanded combo, the 25-year old is noticeable during most shifts. But I’m not sure he shouldn’t be reunited with sidekick Kreider. Maybe Vigneault will come back to it. Nash and Brassard were a great combo last year along with the always willing Zuccarello.

As for the fourth line, it’s Dominic Moore and Jarrett Stoll with Emerson Etem for now. Etem played his second game getting one great scoring chance and recording an assist with three hits. He’s in with Viktor Stalberg injured due to a dirty hit from Flyers defenseman Radko Gudas. Of course, his cheap head shot went unpunished. Typical for the NHL that still is lost when it comes to consistency on discipline.

With Dan Girardi struggling so far, Vigneault settled on Kevin Klein to play top pair with McDonagh. Klein has rewarded him with solid defensive play. He also scored his second goal Sunday. It seems whatever role he’s suited for. Girardi now works with Keith Yandle, who has gotten off quickly pacing all Rangers defensemen in points (6). That included a power play goal versus his former team. Yandle has been as advertised contributing offensively. Girardi had his best game scoring his first while recording three hits and four blocked shots.

”Our record is really good,” Girardi told reporters Sunday night after passing Mark Messier for 10th on the all-time Ranger list for games appeared in with his 769th. ”But at the same time, we know in here that maybe one or two games we played a 60-minute game really hard. I think you need to find a way to get that 60-minute game.”

Vigneault has kept Marc Staal with Dan Boyle. Both remain problematic in their end with sloppy turnovers resulting in goals against. Surprisingly, Staal has contributed more offense with four points (1-3-4) over his last four. Boyle has two assists with both coming on the power play. The 39-year old vet is basically an offensive player who must be utilized that way.

Speaking of the power play, even when it scores in three consecutive games there’s no consistency. They’re 4-for-25 overall ranking 21st. They don’t draw many to begin with which limits success rate. They’re 3-for-15 at home and 1-for-10 on the road. McDonagh and Boyle play the point on the second unit. McDonagh has looked lost while Boyle at times gets victimized. Yandle runs the first unit with Brassard, who has two power play goals. While Rangers assistant coach Scott Arniel prefers to use Kreider to screen the goalie in front, I fail to comprehend why Nash isn’t used as a shooter.

The biggest reason for their early success is the goalies. Henrik Lundqvist has never looked better. Moving quicker and reacting with his usual cat like reflexes, the 33-year old Swedish King looks primed for a big year. In eight starts, he’s 4-2-2 with a 1.97 goals-against-average and .941 save percentage. Already he’s made several highlight reel saves that will be replayed throughout the season. The only thing he hasn’t done is win the 3-on-3 derby or the shootout with a stinging loss to the Flyers. He’s covered up a lot of mistakes.

I’ll echo the same for new backup Antti Raanta. He’s 2-for-2 in starts having allowed only one goal on 45 shots. The Rangers played well in front of him in a 4-0 shutout of the Sharks. Raanta made 22 saves. His second start came the other night turning aside 22 of 23 Calgary shots. In each showing, Raanta made a few sparklers. Not a bad start to his Rangers career after coming over from Chicago.

Overall, there’s not much to complain about. It could be worse. Right? Look no further than the Ducks who were blanked again in a 1-0 Western Conference Final rematch at the Blackhawks in overtime. Bruce Boudreau could be the second coaching casualty. When you’re best players aren’t performing, others must step up. Thankfully, the Blueshirts have gotten it from their third line and the usual money in net from Hank.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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