Vigneault changes lines for four game road trip


The Rangers take to the ice for the morning skate at Calgary. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

After a three day break, the Rangers are back in action tonight when they visit Calgary. It’s the first of a four game road trip which includes a back-to-back at Edmonton on Sunday. They’ll play the first three over four nights with a return match at Vancouver Tuesday. Then get a break before concluding the swing at Columbus next Friday.

Coach Alain Vigneault has decided to change the lines. Having seen his team’s play slip, he has made a few tweaks. Even when they swept four points last weekend, it wasn’t their best effort. So, the 5-3 loss to the Canucks on Tuesday was coming. It didn’t matter how badly Vancouver had struggled. They were hungrier despite it being a back-to-back. The end result was predictable.

As for hot topics, one is the difference in opinion between Vigneault and pupil Chris Kreider. Kreider was displeased about being benched twice in third periods of recent games. That included missing some shifts in the third against the Canucks before being moved to a different line. One he’s familiar with. Vigneault reunited Kreider with Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. A combo that will stay intact for now.

“I think a couple of games I’ve been fine and a couple of games I haven’t been, and that’s just not good enough,” Kreider told New York Post columnist Larry Brooks.

“But I think that when you’re working hard and doing the correct things in the defensive zone, but maybe the flow isn’t quite there offensively, it would be nice to be able to get the opportunity to work through that.”

He has a point. Since returning from neck spasms, Kreider has struggled to find the back of the net. He hasn’t been as consistent. Since lighting the lamp in each of the team’s first three games, Kreider is without a goal in his last seven. In his first game back, he tallied two assists in a 5-0 blowout win over St. Louis. But only has one point (assist) since in three of the last four.

In the past, Vigneault and Kreider haven’t always seen eye to eye. So, this isn’t surprising. However, in this instance Kreider is right. He needs to play his way out of it. The work habits are still there. Maybe sticking him with Nash, who’s playing some of his best hockey, will get snap him out of it.

One further point with the coach. He will make examples of younger players while remaining loyal to vets. There isn’t much of an age difference between Kreider and Stepan. But Stepan rarely misses any shifts. His 1-9-10 line isn’t bad. But his defensive play has slipped with a few blown coverages including on a goal against versus the Canucks. More is expected from the number one pivot who earns $6.5 million. His shorthanded play remains terrific. But his face-offs again have leveled off. He’s 109-and-136. He can do better than one goal in the first 14. He’s a notorious slow starter. So, there’s that.

Vigneault also sat rookie Jimmy Vesey for most of the third last time out. He only saw one shift. The 23-year old Harvard product has been as advertised scoring six goals with four assists. He has a nose for the net and good instincts. But he is still a first-year player. So, he’ll find himself on the third line with Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. With both Hayes and Miller tied for the club lead with 13 points, it should be a good fit.

After a good start, Mika Zibanejad hasn’t been as effective. Though he did get his third goal in garbage time on Tuesday, his line will have a different look. Red hot rookie Pavel Buchnevich returns along with constant Mats Zuccarello. Buchnevich has scored in three straight and is coming off a career high three point game (1-2-3). The 21-year old Russian is getting it. His confidence grows with each shift. He and Zibanejad had chemistry at the beginning of the season. So, he gets moved up from the fourth line.

“That same chemistry [between Kreider and Zibanejad] that was there at the start of the year hasn’t been there lately,” Vigneault admitted. “I don’t think it’s all on Chris; Mika has not been at the top of his game. They’re both working extremely hard, watching a lot of video, in trying to get to the level we need. I’m not sure I’m going to split them up, but it’s definitely in the back of my mind.”

One positive with the changes is that Vigneault can’t go wrong. There are so many skilled players that they are interchangeable. The fourth line will be Brandon Pirri with Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast. A cohesive checking unit that started together at the beginning.

The only question is what to do with Oscar Lindberg. He’s gotten into four games and had no points basically only being used at even strength. Will Vigneault eventually insert him to get him some time? That remains to be seen.

Vigneault also has moved emerging rookie defenseman Brady Skjei up to the second pair with Marc Staal. Skjei will shift to the right side. A place he played in Hartford last year. Vigneault is hoping the fast skating former 2012 first round pick can adjust well and form a solid shutdown tandem with Staal. He provides better skating than either Nick Holden or Kevin Klein. Skjei is tied with anchor Ryan McDonagh in points by a Ranger defenseman with nine. All assists for each.

Since being moved to the second unit on the power play, Skjei has been good helping set up two power play goals while making several good keeps that allowed them to keep possession. The more responsibility he takes on, the better he plays.

Henrik Lundqvist gets the start. He’ll try to be better than the two goals on six shots he allowed in an emergency relief outing due to Antti Raanta being forced out of the last game. Raanta took a shot to the head. The new NHL safety rule requires a player who takes head contact to get checked out in the locker room. Fortunately, he was okay.

The Rangers enter play leading the Metropolitan Division with a 10-4-0 record. Their 20 points are tied with the Penguins. But they are in first due to one more ROW (regulation/overtime win). The Capitals are right behind with 19 points and the Devils have 17 entering the second of a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They won their third straight Friday night on captain Andy Greene’s penalty shot goal in overtime. Worth a second look. See Hasan’s post.

The Flames are losers of three straight. Their 5-9-1 record is second to last in the Pacific Division. The Coyotes are a point behind having played two less games. For Calgary, what it comes down to is their offense hasn’t performed up to par and the defense and goaltending have been dreadful. Their goal differential is a minus-15.

They’re hoping a two-goal performance from Johnny Gaudreau in a 4-2 loss to Dallas will get them on the right track. Johnny Hockey had struggled mightily with just two goals in his first 14 contests. So, the two goals he had couldn’t come at a better time. He’s still tied with Michael Frolik for the team lead in points with 10. Frolik leads in goals (5).

Gaudreau is on the top line with sidekick Sean Monahan (4-2-6). The issue is they’re each a minus-10. Not what you’d expect from two of hockey’s bright young stars who played for Team North America in the World Cup. Alex Chiasson joins them.

Frolik has performed much better in Year 2 after signing a big contract in the summer of 2015. He’s been the team’s most consistent player with 5-5-10 including a team high two shorthanded goals. While he never quite reached the potential some predicted after going 10th overall to the Panthers in the 2006 Draft, he’s always been a solid contributor who can be counted on in a secondary scoring role while being responsible defensively.

Frolik plays on the second scoring unit with Mikael Backlund (1-6-7) and Michael Ferland. Ferland plays physical but his role is different. He has only five penalty minutes while going 2-4-6.

Keep an eye on Sam Bennett. A second-year pivot who anchors the third line. The talent is there for the former 2014 fourth overall pick. It’s just about consistency. A dangerous skater with good skill, he must be watched. So far, he has three goals and four assists. Troy Brouwer rides shotgun. The proven power wing who is always a pest in front of the net due to his size. He’s been fine with four goals and three helpers. Hunter Shinkaruk gets a chance on the third line due to top pick Matthew Tkachuk missing a second consecutive game with a hand injury. He’s day-to-day.

Mark Giordano anchors the blue line. The Calgary captain is off to a slow start with one goal and four assists with a minus-three rating. Partner T.J. Brodie has had a nightmare beginning going minus-11 with just two assists. He’s a huge minutes logger who the Flames are counting on along with Giordano, who can be lethal on the power play due to his heavy shot.

Dougie Hamilton leads Flames’ defensemen with six points (2-4-6). But has under performed since they acquired him from the Bruins prior to last year. Only 23, more is expected of the right skating offensive D. Hamilton pairs with vet Dennis Wideman, who’s 2-2-4 in eight contests. Like Giordano, he can bring it. A word of advice for the Blueshirts. Don’t put the Flames on the power play. Throw out that they come in ranked dead last going a pathetic 4-for-50 (8.0 percent) with one shorthanded goal allowed. There’s enough skill for that to turn around.

Astonishingly, Deryk Engelland has been their best D going 1-3-4 with a plus-nine and 14 penalty minutes.Brett Kulak (3 assists) pairs up with him.

The Flames need better from Brian Elliott. The ex-Blue has found life in Calgary difficult. He’s only won three of his first 10 starts with a 3.30 goals-against-average and .885 save percentage. In case you’re wondering, that’s 33 goals allowed on 286 shots.That is a far cry from how good he was with a more defensive oriented St. Louis team. He will oppose Lundqvist. Chad Johnson is the backup.

Without consistent goaltending or improved D, it could be a long year for the Flames. What the Rangers want to do is create doubt by getting to Elliott early. If they can build an early lead, that would be favorable.

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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