Later tonight, the Rangers visit the Lightning in the final game of 2015. Having dropped eight straight away from MSG (0-6-2), they will face the team that beat them in a emotionally draining Eastern Conference Final. It still hurts. That said, that team was different. They were more consistent in all phases of the game despite injuries to our top three defensemen.
With the Islanders pulling back ahead for second and the Devils suddenly three points behind with the Flyers creeping up, the time is now for the Blueshirts to start turning things around. The playoffs are no longer a lock. Not with how they’ve played. The lackadaisical coverage, lazy turnovers and undisciplined penalties have caught up. They’re also not getting the big saves from Henrik Lundqvist, who’s been in a funk. If that continues, then the postseason is in jeopardy.
Kevin Hayes has played himself out of the lineup. His response to Alain Vigneault’s criticism is worrisome. If he won’t change, then the second half could be empty. Hopefully, logic will prevail and he’ll respond to the challenge.
With him out, Vigneault has again altered the lines. J.T. Miller moves up to the top line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. Rick Nash will start with Derek Stepan and Jesper Fast. Chris Kreider is on the third line with Oscar Lindberg and Emerson Etem. I guess this is Etem’s chance to prove himself. He’s playing with better talent. We’ll see if it works.
That leaves Dominic Moore anchoring Tanner Glass and Viktor Stalberg. A grind line that should supply energy. If Stalberg can stay away from the bad neutral zone turnovers, it should be okay. Glass has continued to bring a lunch pail work ethic. You can tell how much this second chance means to him. If only more skilled under performing players played with that urgency.
More is needed from Kreider who remains puzzling. He did record two assists in the loss to the Predators. During that comeback attempt, his strong work on the forecheck resulted in a Miller goal that cut it to 5-3. Vigneault got that line back out and Kreider nearly deflected a shot past Pekka Rinne forcing him into a difficult save. What I don’t get is why Vigneault changed that line. Kreider works best with Stepan. Miller is playing his best hockey. So much for patience.
Nash has also disappointed with 11 goals. Sure. He scored a gimme the other night on a Rinne giveaway. But 11 goals from their best finisher is not enough production. He just hasn’t performed well. Nash finds himself with Stepan and Fast, who is miscast as a second liner. I get it. He brings energy and scored on a deflection of a Dan Girardi shot. But the idea that he’s in the top six is absurd. That he has the same amount of goals (6) as Kreider and Hayes sums it up.
As for the blueline, it’s not even worth discussing. Girardi went back in and had a decent first game with Ryan McDonagh. How long will the trademark top pair last before Vigneault switches to McDonagh and Kevin Klein? Klein is with Keith Yandle, whose game has slipped. When he’s not contributing offensively, Yandle is mistake prone and can be exploited. That’s why Klein is with him.
Marc Staal has struggled with consistency. Like Girardi, he doesn’t have the foot speed and can be attacked by fast skaters. Facing the Lightning who boast Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat could be dicey. Jonathan Drouin is expected to return. The Bolts have gotten good play from Jonathan Marchessault. A former Ranger property who lit it up in Hartford, he has seven points over his last seven contests. Does he come out for Drouin or does Jon Cooper scratch someone else?
Given that the Bolts also boast lethal shutdown tandem Victor Hedman and former buddy Anton Stralman, this match-up is troublesome. I neglected to mention Steven Stamkos and Ranger killer Alex Killorn (somewhat appropriate). Plus you know Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan will be up for this game.
There’s also the matter of Ben Bishop, who’s never lost to the Rangers in nine regular season games. He’s 9-0-0 with a 1.43 goals-against-average, .947 save percentage and two shutouts against them. He also beat Lundqvist last Spring which still stings. Bishop played hurt and still shut our team out in Games 5 and 7.
All these factors along with the Blueshirts’ road woes point to a Lightning victory. Hopefully, the boys will respond well and send 2015 off on a happier note.