The Rangers continue to roll at the start of the season. Even after learning they would be without forwards Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, they were able to Grab two points against the Oilers in a 3-1 win at brand new Rogers Place in Edmonton. With an upper body injury sidelining Kreider and back spasms silencing Buchnevich, coach Alain Vigneault went with 11 forwards and technically seven defensemen. More on that later.
They won thanks to another big game out of Michael Grabner. The NHL’s biggest surprise continued his amazing start by scoring twice to hike his total to a team best 10 goals. Amazingly, he’s tied for second in goals trailing only Winnipeg hotshot rookie Patrik Laine (11).
When GM Jeff Gorton signed him in the off-season, I didn’t think too much of it other than a solid addition due to Grabner’s speed and penalty killing. Along with key late addition Brandon Pirri, they solidified the fourth line. However, Vigneault hasn’t been shy about moving Grabner up when the opportunity presents itself. For example, he recorded a hat trick when he was on the third line with Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller.
Tonight, Grabner got the chance to replace Kreider on a line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash. It didn’t take long for the 29-year old Austrian to take advantage scoring 1:20 in on a rebound of a Kevin Klein shot. Nash set it up to continue his good run.
The first period was a track meet on a great sheet of ice in a beautiful new arena. Let’s face it. Edmonton did a great job putting up the new stadium which was full for the 7:40 start local time. Boasting Connor McDavid certainly helps. The 19-year old captain assisted on the Oilers’ only goal of the night giving him 19 points (5-14-19) in his first 16 games. He’s third in scoring trailing Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and the Stars’ Tyler Seguin.
Edmonton is still in the learning stages of becoming a winning hockey club. Despite a good start, they’ve cooled off considerably losing their last three (0-2-1). That included a stinging 4-3 loss to defending champion Pittsburgh which saw them blow a two-goal lead. They lost for the second time in over a week to the Rangers, who also prevailed 5-3 on Nov. 3.
In this one, they got plenty of shots (39) and quality chances on backup Antti Raanta. The affable 27-year old Finn was equal to the challenge making 38 saves to earn the game’s second star. He faced plenty of pressure throughout turning aside 12 of 13 shots in the first along with 14 of 14 in the second and the final dozen in the third. A tremendous job by a goalie who can be counted on to give Henrik Lundqvist a rest.
Even though the Oilers got their looks, it was the Rangers who made them count. That included scoring on a delayed penalty. Kevin Hayes centered a pass off Dan Girardi with the puck accidentally banking off his leg for a 2-0 lead at 13:18 of the first. The always visible J.T. Miller picked up a secondary assist to give him a team high 15 points (5-10-15). All he does is perform well. That included a big shift at even strength with Hayes when they needed one during a hectic third where they mostly sat back.
There’s a reason Miller, Hayes and Grabner are a combined plus-42. They are dominant players five-on-five. All 10 of Grabner’s goals have come at even strength which leads the league. Hayes and Miller are used more shorthanded than on the power play. Hayes has really bounced back from last year. He dropped 25 pounds. It’s noticeable with Vigneault able to rely on him defensively. A welcome change.
The only Oilers’ goal came from Andrej Sekera, who scored for the first time in 46 games. Catching the Ranger forwards in a change, the smooth skating left defenseman pinched in and one-timed a perfect McDavid pass by Raanta to cut it to 2-1 with 1:15 left in the period. Patrick Maroon drew the secondary helper.
Despite getting outshot 14-7 and outplayed, the Rangers got the lone goal in the second. Once again, it was thanks to Grabner, who made a great defensive play before breaking in and beating Cam Talbot unassisted at 14:35 for a 3-1 lead.
If there was one issue that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, it was Vigneault’s reluctancy to play Adam Clendening. Reinserted into the lineup as a seventh defenseman with Oscar Lindberg filling in up front, Clendening never saw the ice once. It was mystifying. In a back-to-back situation, you’re telling me Vigneault couldn’t give the solid skating right defenseman one shift in his return to Edmonton where he played last year.
Granted. The Ranger starting six on the blue line were solid throughout. Even though Raanta was forced to make 38 saves, the D did a good job taking away the middle and keeping most of the shots outside. Girardi had another strong game delivering three hits and blocking four of the team’s 22 shots in 32 shifts (22:47). He and Ryan McDonagh were workhorses with the Ranger captain receiving 31 shifts for 22:59. Klein had a second consecutive good outing assisting on Grabner’s first while finishing plus-two in 20:41.
New partner Nick Holden was also strong also going plus-two in 19:56 with three shot attempts, two takeaways and two blocks. He’s been much steadier after a shaky start. Full credit to the former Av. Brady Skjei and Marc Staal weren’t used as much but continued to look good since being put together with Skjei showing good poise on the right side.
Stepan also had a second straight solid night making solid defensive plays while going plus-two in 17:24. Oddly, Vigneault hardly used Lindberg and Pirri. Granted. They were caught on for the goal against. But that was more on Mika Zibanejad’s line which made a slow change.
Sometimes, Vigneault just goes with his guys. So, he shortened up going mostly with nine forwards. I just don’t agree with not playing Clendening or giving Lindberg or Pirri more time. It’s mystifying. It looks like Clendening is the new Dylan McIlrath. It’s peculiar.
The bottom line is they won. It wasn’t a Picasso. But it didn’t have to be. They definitely need to cut down on shots allowed which have been climbing. The next game is at Vancouver Tuesday. We’ll see if they can pay back the Canucks.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Andrej Sekera, Edm (goal-1st in 46 games, 8 attempts in 23 shifts-21:43)
2nd Star-Antti Raanta, NYR (38 saves)
1st Star-Michael Grabner, NYR (2 goals-league leading 10 even strength goals, 4 shots, +2 in 31 shifts-16:03)
Notes: Talbot allowed three goals on 27 shots. He has given up three or more a lot lately. But this was not on him. His team still isn’t great at defending. … Edmonton went 0 for 2 on the power play while the Rangers didn’t draw a single one. Not a habit they want to get into. … Key Stat: Blocked shots NYR 22 (Girardi 4) EDM 10 (McDavid 2). … Faceoffs went to Edmonton 32-28 led by Leon Draisaitl (7-and-5) with McDavid going .500 (10-and-10). Zibanejad led the Blueshirts going 8-and-7 while Hayes went .500 (8-and-8).