A Happy Rangers Thanksgiving

Rick Nash

Mats Zuccarello is a Blueshirt every Rangers fan can be thankful for. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

If you were expecting a roasting about the Rangers getting the turkey and stuffing kicked out of them by the Canadiens, that’s not what this post is about. Rather than break down an ugly and rare 5-1 loss on home ice a night before Thanksgiving, I decided to pass. Especially with it being a game I missed most of.

Sometimes, you have to take a break from analyzing every shift. It’s not healthy to critique everything about a team you root for. I caught the highlights. I knew how bad it was from listening to MSG Radio’s Dave Maloney describe it with even Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti roasting the Blueshirts. These nights happen.

If you were to poll any true Blue fan, it would be a whopping majority who would take our team’s 16-4-2 start. Good for first in the Metro. Their 34 points in the first 22 games rank only behind the Habs who dominated the first two meetings outscoring them 8-1. That speaks for itself. Basically, Montreal is responsible for two of the Rangers’ four regulation losses. Both forgettable performances.

There’s not much to go over. Most knowledgeable Blueshirt fans knew this team was getting away with less than their best during a nine-game win streak and having won 10 of 11 entering play at MSG. It was bound to happen. Truth be told, the Canadiens are a team to be reckoned with. Boasting superior speed, skill and scoring depth, they’re a handful. Particularly for a Ranger team that hasn’t defended consistently.

Tonight’s outcome was predictable. Henrik Lundqvist can’t always bail out his D who have been often caught out of position. Ditto for the forwards who haven’t always back checked the way we’re accustomed to seeing. Coach Alain Vigneault will surely try to address the issues that are plaguing his team. Though I still can’t fathom his stubborn ways when it comes to sitting Emerson Etem and Dylan McIlrath.

That’s pretty much it. The Habs dominated by using their speed and forecheck to break down the Rangers D. They scored a couple of layups that the Garden is used to seeing from Kristaps Porzingis. The breakdowns came from just about every defenseman. So, there’s no point playing the blame game.

Bottom line. The Rangers weren’t prepared. That goes to the coaching staff as much as the players. Maybe they had their turkey and cranberry sauce early.

As for the title of this post, it’s about a together team that’s gotten off to the start Vigneault desired. They can be thankful for Lundqvist, who has bailed out teammates in the first quarter with breathtaking saves and sensational goaltending. At age 33, he’s playing as well as he ever has. Unlike the home win over Nashville, he couldn’t duplicate a heroic effort. Yes. The Preds finally scored getting three on the Sabres in a road win.

What else can Blueshirt Nation be thankful for?

-An experienced team that knows how to win. More often than not, they close out opponents and protect leads after two periods better than anyone. A trend that started under John Tortorella.

-Rick Nash, who finally is reminding the ridiculous critics how supremely skilled he still is. Credited with his fifth goal over the last three on a Ryan McDonagh shot that went off his body, Nash is finally back to being the player we love.

-Mats Zuccarello, who has been amazing. It’s hard to believe the man known as “Zuuuuuuccc” almost sustained a career ending injury against the Penguins when a McDonagh shot hit him in the helmet causing a brain contusion and hairline fracture in his skull. All he’s done is been their best forward and most consistent skater pacing the club in scoring with a team best 10 goals and 21 points. That included his first career hat trick and four three-point efforts.

-Oscar Lindberg, who remains a key contributor on the club’s third line. Yes, the 24-year old freshman has hit a wall as far as goal scoring following a hot start. But he’s continued to be an asset earning time on the second power play unit.

-After a tough start, McDonagh has bounced back with more steady and heady play. Up to three goals and nine points, for the most part his defensive game has picked up. However, he was victimized along with partner Dan Girardi on one of the Habs’ goals. As for Girardi, his play has gotten better after Vigneault called him out regaining his top pair status.

-Kevin Klein, who has been AV’s most indispensable defenseman. Hard to believe that when former architect Glen Sather dealt Michael Del Zotto for Klein, it would turn into one of his smartest moves. The rock solid stay at home righty D has been a perfect fit under Vigneault even adding offense. AV has wisely used Klein with McDonagh, Marc Staal and Keith Yandle. Good thing Klein is still here and not on another roster as so many “experts” wanted.

-Vigneault, who for the most part continues to do a good job managing the roster. Yes, he does have his faults like the loyalty to old vet Dan Boyle, whose play has picked up since returning to the lineup. AV has also had a good pulse proving why he runs the bench by making a line switch in the Panthers win that netted positive results with Kevin Hayes contributing a goal and assist and J.T. Miller setting up Viktor Stalberg. I don’t always agree with him on roster decisions but AV has done a great job guiding the team to two Final Four appearances, a President’s Trophy and first place at the quarter mark in Year 3.

-The leadership in the room. Let’s face it. With proven vets Lundqvist, Girardi, Staal plus a young nucleus featuring captain McDonagh, Derek Stepan, Nash, Derick Brassard, Zuccarello and even Chris Kreider, this is a team that never panics. They are professional and get it. It’s a group that’s never satisfied. They know what the goal is.

-Dominic Moore, who is one of the most inspirational athletes. A man who lost his wife Katie to liver cancer sacrificing a year away from hockey because family always comes first before career. Moore returned to the team who drafted him out of Harvard and became the same hard working, dedicated and committed checking center the Blueshirts could count on for key face-offs, penalty killing and even tough defensive assignments like shadowing and frustrating Sidney Crosby in two consecutive series wins. Moore also had the storybook series clinching goal against the Canadiens that clinched the Eastern Conference Championship sending the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. He remains a smart player the coaching staff can count on. He’s also since remarried and found peace and happiness. Is there a more inspirational player to wear the Blueshirt? Only class act Adam Graves is in the conversation with King Henrik a honorable mention.

-Stepan who remains one of the team’s best components. He hasn’t gotten the start he would’ve liked in the first year of a new contract. But when push comes to shove, D-Step will pick it up and be there when games count. It would be nice to see him and USA sidekick Kreider put together a stretch. That would go a long way.

-Marc Staal, who remains under appreciated despite his leadership and intangibles. Let’s be honest. It looked like his career was in jeopardy following a serious eye injury. Don’t forget the concussion elder brother Eric caused keeping him out a long time. Staal isn’t what he once was losing mobility. But his toughness and mean streak is still noticeable. He’s even contributed some offense with seven helpers.

-Like Staal, Girardi doesn’t get much love. He’s been taking blame ever since that giveaway that lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. So much for it being a team sport. Danny G isn’t a great skater and never will be. Nor will he ever be a puck possession Corsi magnet. That’s not in his job description. No defenseman lays it more on the line than No.5 in the Blueshirt sacrificing his body in harm’s way. He’s recovered nicely from a dreadful start. This is the Rangers’ Iron Man. A prideful undrafted player who is one of Slats’ best ever signings. Someone who will do whatever it takes to help the team win. If he ever missed significant time, only then would the cynics realize it.

-Antti Raanta, who has come in and made fans forget about Cam Talbot, who sadly has lost the starting job in Edmonton to Isles castaway Anders Nilsson. The one constant in the Rangers revival post-lockout is goalie coach Benoit Allaire who has been so valuable to the franchise. Look no further than Lundqvist who has become a superstar netminder whose No. 30 will one day hang from the rafters on the Chase Bridge. His work with lesser talent (Steve Valiquette) can’t be understated. Now, it’s Raanta playing the role of Talbot. Allaire is the best at his job.

-Kevin Hayes who even with his skill set and possession remind of Alexei Kovalev. Yes, Hayes has great talent. A tremendous skater, he can skate around defenses and create for teammates. A very unselfish player, it’s okay for Purple Hayes to be a little selfish and shoot more. In many aspects, he is like Kovalev. Hopefully, Hayes will have a longer stay and develop more consistently. Kovalev haunted his former team starring for the Pens and Habs.

-There’s so much to be thankful for. Many fans would gladly trade places with our team. One that has had three Final Four appearances in the last four years and one Stanley Cup Final. The final hurdle has proven to be as difficult as one would expect. But know this. It’s still there for the taking.

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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