When the Rangers (6-3-0) host the Blues (5-2-2) tonight at MSG, they’ll get Chris Kreider back. In his fourth full season, the 25-year old power forward was off to his best start when neck spasms kept him out of the lineup for four games. He found instant chemistry with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich scoring three goals and four assists in his first five contests.
Carrying over his impressive play during preseason, the imposing 6-3, 226-pound former Boston College product has looked even bigger, faster and stronger. He has a rare combination which can make him a dangerous player for opponents to defend. It’s a shame that an injury prevented Kreider from continuing his fast start. However, health is key. With the team’s improved depth helping them go 3-1-0 without him, he took the positive out of the missed time.
The best aspect is other players stepped up in his absence. Michael Grabner’s hat trick was the latest example in a 6-1 rout of the Lightning. The new third line with Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller combined for four goals and nine points. Most encouraging is Hayes’ improvement in the face-off circle. So far, he’s 50.0 percent going 51-and-51. He worked hard in the off-season to get faster and stronger. In his third year, he’s determined to put ’15-16 behind him. Good efforts like the three assist game against a quality team definitely help.
With Kreider coming back, someone has to move down. It’ll be Buchnevich. He moves down to the fourth line with Brandon Pirri and Jesper Fast. The 21-year old Russian rookie has done nothing wrong. In four games, he has two assists picking up one in his return Friday at Carolina on a Mats Zuccarello power play tally. However, it makes sense to keep Zuccarello with Zibanejad and Kreider. They could become an even more potent line.
Coach Alain Vigneault has done a good job with the lines. Jimmy Vesey continues to impress with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. His five markers are second behind 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews (6) and second overall pick Patrik Laine (6). With Nash up to four goals and three assists, Stepan remains without a goal in nine. He has five helpers but it would be nice to see the top center get one.
With Hayes, Miller and Grabner staying intact, it forces Buchnevich down to the fourth line. However, Vigneault sees it as a positive given the improved scoring and depth.
“Right now I look at our four lines and I see balance,” Vigneault told Matt Calamia in a feature that appeared on NYRangers.com. “I see a good skill level. I see on every line I see guys that can make plays and use their speed.”
“This is the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve had a [fourth] line with that makeup,” he added. “I think balance right now is the word for me that comes to mind. Figure out the different matchups that you can have. We’ll see how it unfolds during the game. Tonight against a real strong team is a good time to see what we have.”
There’s really nothing to disagree on. When have the Rangers ever had this much balance? In ’13-14, the fourth line which featured Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore, Daniel Carcillo/Derek Dorsett was a key factor in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. But none had the skill level or talent of Buchnevich and Pirri with Fast more suited as the smart two-way checking forward.
As predicted, Oscar Lindberg comes out of the lineup. Right now, he’s the odd man out. With just four games under his belt this season and coming off surgery, it’s all about timing for the second-year center who’s won 59.4 percent of his face-offs (19-and-13). He didn’t play enough to gauge where he is, averaging 10:14. It was exclusively at even strength.
It’s uncertain what his future is. Vigneault indicated that it wasn’t about Lindberg’s play. He has more options. With Pirri sticking and Grabner performing well, it’s a numbers game. Fast stays in because he’s that solid defensive forward Vigneault likes to use on the penalty kill. He also is a wing. If Pirri falters, Lindberg will get back in.
Given that they are high on Cristoval Nieves, who’s in Hartford, it looks like Lindberg could be traded. Maybe at some point, he’s part of a package with Dylan McIlrath and a top prospect for a defenseman. However, his value can’t be great at the moment. We’ll see.
With the schedule picking up this month, Vigneault did indicate that Adam Clendening should be getting back in the lineup. How much is anyone’s guess.
All-time, the Rangers are 78-43-16-1 against the Blues including 46-13-6-1 at MSG. Last year, they swept the season series. This time, it’s St. Louis going for a sweep after winning 3-2 at home on Oct. 15. Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny and Alex Pietrangelo got the goals. Kreider and Zibanejad tallied for the Blueshirts who were unable to beat Hutton, who made 33 saves as the game’s number one star.
Tarasenko leads the Blues in scoring with nine points (4-5-9) followed by Stastny (3-4-7) and Alex Steen (2-5-7). In his walk year, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is off to a good start with three goals and three assists. The Rangers had interest in acquiring the 27-year old from New Rochelle, New York.
With Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, St. Louis boasts one of the game’s best blue lines. So, it should pose a good challenge.
Secondary scoring has been tough to come by. New acquisitions David Perron and Nail Yakupov each have four points. Key scorer Jaden Schwartz has struggled since returning with a goal and assist in five games. Believe me, I know because I benched him for tonight in fantasy hockey. Watch him go off. Patrik Berglund also has four points. He’s never really fulfilled expectations but plays on the third line with Yakupov.
Robby Fabbri is off to a slow start with no goals and three assists. Yakupov’s former Oiler teammate Magnus Paajarvi was waived. He cleared and went down to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. He once was a first round pick of Edmonton going 10th overall in 2009. Funny. But McIlrath also went number 10 in 2010. They both were placed on waivers the same day and cleared. Odd.
St. Louis also has tough guy Ryan Reaves. He’s played in all nine games. Interestingly, the enforcer has no points and zero penalty minutes. He only averages 6:25 a night. Veteran Scottie Upshall also remains. He still possesses good speed and is capable of getting scoring chances. Just saying. Jori Lehtera has one assist in five games. He’ll center Schwartz and Tarasenko.
The Blues are a very good team. With Allen one of the game’s best young netminders entering play with four wins, a 1.83 goals-against-average and .923 save percentage, it should be interesting.
A couple of players are set for milestones. The Blues’ Bouwmeester is expected to play in his 1,000th career game. He’ll become the 17th active member to reach 1,000. Which got me thinking? Who are the other 16? I can only think of Jagr. Ryan McDonagh will play in his 400th game. He has a seven-game assist streak. Stepan needs one assist for 200. Nash is a hat trick away from 400.