Rangers need more from Stepan and Kreider

Derek Stepan

Despite a great start, the Rangers need more consistency from Derek Stepan and line mate Chris Kreider. AP Photo by Kathy Willens/Getty Images

A 14-3-2 start is exactly the kind of start coach Alain Vigneault wanted. Entering tonight’s game at Florida, the Rangers sit in first place with 30 points leading the Metropolitan Division. Only the Canadiens have more in the East. They’re five clear of the Caps and six up on the Pens.

After having their nine-game winning streak snapped by Tampa Bay, they look to start a new one later. The results have been very positive with leading scorer Mats Zuccarello emerging into a star with a team best nine goals and 18 points. He’s been the offensive catalyst with line mate Rick Nash (2 goals) struggling to finish.

A big plus is the emergence of rookie Oscar Lindberg whose 12 points (7-5-12) are tied for fourth among rookies. However, he’s slumped lately with two assists and no goals over the last six. Lindberg has meshed well with Kevin Hayes who also has a dozen points. Both are superb skaters who are strong on the fore check.

Viktor Stalberg has been as advertised supplying energy with his 43 hits topping all Ranger forwards. However, he’s also been turnover prone and has just five points. It’s probably not sustainable for him to stay on the third line. At some point, Vigneault must make a tough decision and see what Emerson Etem can add. He’s played only seven games with two assists.

Jarret Stoll has been a dependable face-off specialist going 88-and-64 so far. He and Dominic Moore (85-and-78) have split duty with each supplying diligent checking on the fourth line and on the penalty kill. Aside from a few shaky turnovers, Jesper Fast has fit in well.

That leaves us with the second line. To be honest, they haven’t been good at all. The problem is consistency. In particular, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider who have each been disappointments. In 19 games, each has 10 points. Stepan with five goals and five assists. Kreider with three goals and seven assists.

In the first year of a new contract, Stepan has under performed. Aside from a drop in production, he’s made uncharacteristic turnovers that have led to goals against like the shorthanded tally Valtteri Filppula scored the other night. He also continues to struggle on face-offs (108-and-140). For his career, he’s 44.0 percent. It would be refreshing if he ever improved. That way Vigneault can trust him. In the third period against Toronto, a clean face-off loss led to a tying goal from Dion Phaneuf. The Rangers still prevailed. But that’s not the point.

Stepan is a smart two-way center. He just hasn’t played up to his usual high standard. There have been more leaks. His penalty killing is still standout with Nash. Neither have scored shorthanded with the team still without one. Stepan hasn’t been as consistent. At some point, that must change.

After a poor start, Kreider has shown signs. He’s getting chances but has been unable to bury them consistently. In the loss to Tampa, Stepan led him on a breakaway which led to a penalty shot. But Kreider failed to convert shooting into Ben Bishop. He was looking five-hole but found nothing.

At 24, he is still learning. The former BC star stood up for Stepan following a dirty hit from Ottawa’s Zack Smith pounding him into submission. It was commendable. Kreider earned a instigator and misconduct. Puzzling considering the circumstance. For doing the right thing, he was punished. This is what you get with the silly instigator and programmed refs that don’t get it.

Despite only three goals, Kreider is second on the club in shots-on-goal with his 44 trailing only Nash (47). The remarkable aspect is those two have combined for five goals. The team has continued to win due to the brilliance of Henrik Lundqvist. He’s off to a sensational start with 10 wins, a 1.71 goals-against-average and .946 save percentage. He’ll surely be in to likely face Roberto Luongo in a great goalie match-up later.

The Blueshirts have been successful because they have taken advantage of opponents’ mistakes. They rank in the top five with a 10.7 shooting percentage. That includes a ridiculous 23.7 clip from Zuccarello and 21.2 from Lindberg. As a team, they average a shade over 28 shots-per-game. So, that’s not a issue.

If there is something that’s worrisome, it’s their lack of consistency on the fore check. If you go off Corsi/Fenwick, they have struggled with offensive zone attack time. Their most consistent forwards are Hayes, Kreider and Nash. All of who are strong puck possession players. Zuccarello is under 50.0 percent but is a superb skater who is dangerous in transition.

What does it mean? Just that there have been instances where they haven’t had the puck a whole lot. In home wins over the Caps and Blues, there were long stretches where they were pinned in their end. The Rangers are an experienced enough group to be able to limit chances and shots against while relying on Lundqvist. It remains to be seen if that’s sustainable in the postseason. Goaltending can be a strong equalizer.

At this point, there’s not much to complain about. While the statistics could be better in some areas, the one that counts is the won-loss record. The Blueshirts are in good position. A strong start should aid them in a tough division. With a favorite holiday approaching, Ranger fans have plenty to be thankful for.

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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