Game Preview: Boyle in, McIlrath out against Canes


The Rangers enter tonight’s game against the Hurricanes on a three-game losing streak. After getting outclassed by the Habs on Turkey Eve, they fell apart at Boston on Black Friday and were brutal against the Flyers Saturday.

With Derek Stepan out four to six weeks with broken ribs stemming from Matt Beleskey’s late hit that of course wasn’t punished by a hypocritical league, the Rangers finally face some adversity. We’ll see if they can “man up,” as coach Alain Vigneault pointedly said following the Flyers loss.

One player who must do that is Chris Kreider. Following Saturday’s disappointment, the slumping third-year left wing admitted to New York Post scribe Larry Brooks that he’s been terrible.

“I go into every game with a clean mind but sometimes there’s little stuff that happens and I start to second-guess myself,” Kreider said of a poor start that’s seen him score just three goals in 24 games. “I should just be more instinctual.”

“To me, it’s harder because you know you’re not contributing to the wins and you’re not a part of everyone else’s success,” he noted when asked about the team’s hot start prior to the recent slump. “It’s bad either way. When you underperform the way I have, it hurts.

“Up until now, I don’t think things could have gone any more poorly.”

While Kreider tries to figure it out playing on a new line with Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast, Vigneault has decided to reinsert veteran defenseman Dan Boyle back in the lineup for rookie Dylan McIlrath. While most of the blueline struggled in the last two losses, McIlrath didn’t. He dropped the gloves twice showing that mean streak standing in for Stepan by pummeling Beleskey. On Saturday, a huge hit injured Flyers defenseman Nick Schultz which resulted in Luke Schenn taking up for his fallen teammate. McIlrath dominated their fight.

Aside from the successful bouts, McIlrath was fine in his end while making good reads jumping in offensively. He continues to improve. It makes on wonder what if injuries hadn’t held him back the past two years. Be that as it may, Vigneault will continue to give McIlrath spot starts. Citing the power play, AV wants to get Boyle back in. He’ll pair up with Marc Staal.

Vigneault changed all his D pairs. Back on the top pair is Kevin Klein who replaces Dan Girardi. Girardi moves down to the third pair where he’ll work with Keith Yandle. A pair we suggested during Girardi’s struggles at season’s start. They paired up last month. Ryan McDonagh teams with Klein who at this point is the team’s most consistent righty D. Though he is coming off his worst game with two neutral zone turnovers causing Flyers goals.

As we’ve seen, the defense has been a sore spot. Given all the game play and minutes Girardi, Staal and McDonagh have seen the past few years, it’s understandable. The wear and tear is showing. Particularly with Girardi and Staal, who have had some shaky moments. Their minutes must be managed.

Here’s a question for Vigneault. One he doesn’t want to face. At what point does he consider resting Girardi or Staal for McIlrath? The 82-game schedule is long and taxing. Keeping them fresh is more critical than starting them every night. Even McDonagh could use a blow. But that’s not something you’re gonna see any time soon.

I wonder if Vigneault would fear the media overreaction to sitting one of his core D. It’s not an easy answer. Right now, he’s trying to get the team back on track. With the Canes in tonight and then the Rangers’ first visit to Barclays Center for Rivalry Night against the Islanders Wednesday, it’s important for the team to respond.

The forward combinations remain mixed up. With the exception of the top line, here is what it looks like:

Nash-Brassard-Zuccarello

Kreider-Lindberg-Fast

Miller-Hayes-Stalberg

Moore-Stoll-Etem

Henrik Lundqvist gets the start against Cam Ward.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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