Game #33 Pirri benched, Puempel returns as Rangers visit Nashville


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The Rangers visit James Neal and the Predators tonight in Music City. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy PredsNHL.

Following the chaos that came out of Thursday’s 2-0 win over Dallas with Cody Eakin justifiably suspended four games for hitting Henrik Lundqvist up high after he played the puck, the Rangers are back at it tonight when they visit Nashville.

The story for this game is Brandon Pirri is finally benched. Coach Alain Vigneault wants to get Matt Puempel back in the lineup and see what he can do. He missed the last five games with a concussion sustained in last Tuesday’s 4-2 loss at the Islanders on a Brock Nelson high stick.

It’s no secret that the 25-year old Pirri has slumped badly following a quick start. In the first seven games, he scored four times with two assists. Since that point, he has just two goals and four helpers over the last 25. That included a stretch where he went without a point in 12 straight before netting a power play goal and power play assist in the Rangers’ 5-0 win over the Devils last Sunday.

With Vigneault unsatisfied with Pirri’s play five-on-five, it was only a matter of time before he found himself a healthy scratch. He is basically a power play specialist with four of his six markers coming via the man-advantage. So have half his dozen points. In truth, he hasn’t been bad considering the Rangers signed him for one year. Pirri won a job with an impressive camp and centered the fourth line while being a factor on the power play. But his play has tailed off. The coach doesn’t fully trust him.

How far has Pirri sunk? Consider that Marek Hrivik took a couple of shifts in the third period against the Stars while Pirri sat. Hrivik is more defensively responsible and a better forechecker. He’s done well for himself since his recall from Hartford, carving out a fourth line role. It would be nice to see him get rewarded for his effort.

Puempel is two years younger than Pirri. The 23-year old former Ottawa first round pick scored in his Rangers debut. A 3-2 win over the Flyers. That was their last defeat. Dallas is closing in on beating them leading 2-1 late in the third period. Philadelphia has won 10 straight. Columbus just won their eight in a row last night. This is the division that doesn’t lose. So if the Flyers lose, it’ll be a rare double double with the Penguins going down to defeat last night to the Kings 1-0 in overtime. The Caps have been winning regularly and are right there as well.

There’s not much separating first from fifth in the Metro. You can go from a top three seed to a wildcard in the blink of an eye. Three total points separates the Pens and Rangers from the Caps and Flyers. Columbus has 42 points. Pittsburgh has 44 and is in first by a point over the Blueshirts. Updating that game, the Flyers finally lost 3-1 to the Stars.

As for Puempel, he gets another look. A good skater with a shoot first mentality who is a right shot, it’s probably why Vigneault wants to see him again. Besides the fact the Rangers claimed him off waivers. The concussion side tracked him. He wasn’t getting a ton of ice-time. We’ll see what the plan is.

The Rangers still have some players slumping. J.T. Miller has one goal over his last 12. Kevin Hayes has one goal in the last 10. Both do many things well. Vigneault has expanded their roles using them together on the penalty kill where they have been dangerous combining for three of the team’s five shorthanded goals. Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, who scored the other as the game-winner the other night, have the other two.

After a slow start, Stepan has come on. He’s quietly put up seven points (1-6-7) in the last eight. His point total of 21 (5-16-21) is right behind co-leaders Hayes and Miller- each with 22. It would be nice if the number one center finished more. He is without goal over six and only has five thus far. He never has become the goalscorer he could’ve been. In his first six years, he has gone over 20 goals twice. The first coming in his rookie season of ’10-11 when he had 21. The second in ’15-16 when he notched a career best 22 in 72 games.

Some would argue that it’s not his natural instinct to think shoot first. Stepan is a very unselfish player who Vigneault trusts in all situations including power play and penalty kill. If he was bit more selfish particularly on the power play, he could score more goals. But it’s not who he is. In some aspect, he’s similar to Mats Zuccarello. The heady Norwegian who is more playmaker than finisher. The difference being Zuccarello is a better skater with more creativity. He also did start well scoring five times in his first 10 contests.

In fact, Zuccarello’s first seven markers came in the team’s first 17 games. He then went 14 straight without one until he was able to send a backhand from outside the blue line into an empty net to seal the win over Dallas. His 20 points and 8-12-20 line are identical to Chris Kreider, who missed six games due to neck spasms. Kreider has always been a streaky scorer getting four goals in five contests between 12/3-11. He’s been more active this season on the cycle, also using his big 6-3, 228 pound frame to screen goalies on the power play. That net presence has been essential to the club’s improvement. They click at 21.9 percent entering tied for seventh with St. Louis.

The biggest story was Lundqvist, who after sitting out four in a row, was brilliant in making 27 saves for a combined shutout with Antti Raanta. Raanta came in for Lundqvist due to the league concussion protocol for five minutes and never faced a shot. Too bad the Rangers didn’t make the Stars pay on an extended man-advantage with Eakin kicked out for a charging major. He left his feet which is why the shoulder made contact with Lundqvist’s head. Try explaining that to other observers who still think it’s the 80’s and 90’s.

The best part for Lundqvist is he came back and looked great. He was more steady and didn’t overreact. When he is patient and letting the play come to him, he is more relaxed and able to make saves without taking himself out of position. A bad habit he fell into which led to the longest benching of his 12-year career. Unlike the New York Post trolls, I never panicked. Everyone with good knowledge knows Lundqvist is the man. He’s back in for a second consecutive start. What Vigneault decides for tomorrow’s home rematch against New Jersey remains to be seen. Both teams are playing the first of back-to-backs tonight with the Devils in Ottawa.

Ryan McDonagh also returned after missing Tuesday with the flu. The number one defenseman took 32 shifts logging a game high 24:50 with two minor penalties and six attempts. His 16 helpers are tied with Stepan for the team lead. McDonagh’s 17 points pace a blue line which has gotten good contributions out of Nick Holden (4-10-14) and Brady Skjei (1-13-14). Skjei will wear a full face shield against the Predators.

Marc Staal remains a consistent force. He’s played in every game so far and been much better in his end. It’s been nice to see. He was plus-two in 18:44 the other night. For the season, the 29-year old alternate captain has three goals and three assists with a plus-nine rating. Holden mostly works with him as they’ve formed a reliable second pair.

With Skjei remaining with Kevin Klein, who returns to the city where his NHL career began, that leaves Dan Girardi with McDonagh on the top pair. He was solid in Thursday’s win getting 31 shifts (23:29) including 4:52 shorthanded where he blocked four shots. With him, it’s more effort than skating. As we know, he’s not the best skater. So, he remains a frequent target for the Corsi contingent. But he hasn’t been the black hole he was in an injury riddled ’15-16.

If anything, I still would like to see Vigneault give Girardi the occasional game off and play Adam Clendening. The veteran doesn’t have play every night. Tomorrow is the perfect opportunity to rest Girardi. They’re facing a struggling Devil team that seems on the verge of falling out of the race completely. While Clendening has limitations, his skating and possession along with the ability to play the left point on the power play are pluses. Does Vigneault trust him? All indications are no.

I would like to see Clendening sub for Girardi or Klein some nights. Even spell Staal. That way the veteran defensemen are kept fresh. It still says in this space that the Rangers are a top four right D shy of being a serious contender. Whether it’s acquiring a Jacob Trouba or Dougie Hamilton, they definitely can use an upgrade. We’ll delve more into that another time.

The other storyline tonight is Jimmy Vesey, who returns to Nashville for the first time after refusing to sign with them. Taken by them in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft, the 23-year old from Harvard decided to forego signing by opting for free agency. The Predators at least moved him to Buffalo for a third round pick.

After careful consideration, Vesey chose the Rangers over other potential suitors that included Buffalo, New Jersey and Toronto. They were right about him. He’s a good player who has impressed with 10 goals and seven assists in 31 games. Even though he didn’t find the net in the last two, he has been pleased with his game. Against Chicago, Vigneault double shifted him in the third. Vesey had seven shots and was denied by Scott Darling several times.

Pointing out the obvious, he’ll be booed by the Nashville fans. But he also is used to it with Sabre fans letting him know they didn’t like him for not choosing their team. So far, so good for Vesey and the Rangers. It’s been a good fit. He has a nose for the net and a scorer’s mentality. I definitely believe he is capable of scoring 30 goals. It won’t happen this season. But the potential is there.

The Rangers enter 21-10-1 with 43 points one behind the Pens who picked up an overtime point on Friday. The Predators are a disappointing 13-12-4 with 30 points ranking sixth in the Central Division. They’ve dropped three of four including a 5-2 home loss to the Wild on Thursday. Only their third regulation defeat on home ice. They’re a much better team at home winning 10 of their 13 games at Bridgestone Arena. They bring a 10-3-2 record into tonight’s match.

Nashville has totaled 53 goals and allowed 33 for a plus-20 differential at home. The Rangers differential away from MSG is plus-16 with 47 goals and 31 allowed. With the win at Dallas, it brought their road mark to 10-5-0. They’re 11-5-1 at MSG. So, they are capable of winning on the road. The Predators do have one of the better home atmospheres with an enthusiastic crowd that brings plenty of energy. So, it should be entertaining.

The Preds are similar to the Rangers in terms of scoring balance. They don’t boast one big superstar who can carry them. P.K. Subban is probably that guy but he’s been up and down so far since coming over from Montreal in the summer blockbuster for Shea Weber. His seven goals pace a balanced D corps that features Roman Josi. Both are tied in points (17) and each log over 25 minutes a night. Ryan Ellis (4-6-10) and Mattias Ekholm (8 assists) round out the top four. Subban is paired with Ekholm while Ellis pairs with Josi giving Nashville a left-right balance on the top two. Matt Irwin and former Hab Yannick Weber are the third pair.

Unlike the Blueshirts who boast four players with double digit goals, the Preds only have one led by James Neal’s 12. The former Pen still plays with the same edge mixing it up while possessing a lethal shot. His 18 points in 25 games speak to his importance. A good finisher who hangs in the slot, the Rangers must key on him.

Former Blue Jacket Ryan Johansen leads the Predators in scoring with 21 points (6-15-21). He’s been better lately with four points (1-3-4) in his last three. The right-shooting center should have more than six goals. He’s only registered 67 shots. By comparison, second scorer Viktor Arvidson has nine goals on 95 shots with 20 points.

Nashville does it with balance. They have 11 players with 10 points or more. That includes Mike Ribeiro, who is tied with Johansen for the team lead in assists (15). Mike Fisher does a bit of everything for Peter Laviolette. The ex-Sen is just a really complete center who remains overlooked. Throughout his career, he’s delivered clutch goals. Whether at even strength, the power play or shorthanded, Fisher only knows one way to play. You better believe he’ll be parked in front of Lundqvist.

Filip Forsberg has had a confusing start. A very talented player, he only has three goals but 14 helpers for 17 points. He’s a much better scorer than that. In the second half of last year, he went on a tear and finished with 33 goals. Keep an eye on him. Craig Smith has also been fairly quiet with six goals and five assists. He’s always a threat with a good right shot. Colin Wilson is more playmaker than finisher with 10 helpers and 15 points.

In many ways, this is a dangerous game for the Rangers. They’re facing an underachieving team that should be higher in the standings. A lot more is expected of the Preds than being out of a wildcard right now in a mediocre West. If they can string a few games together, they’ll be back in play. They’re too good to be this bad.

It looks like it’ll be Juuse Saros in net over Pekka Rinne. In three starts, he’s 1-2-0 having allowed five goals on 84 shots (.940 save percentage, 1.70 GAA).

Here are Nashville’s projected lines:

Forsberg-Johansen-Neal

Kevin Fiala-Ribeiro-Arvidsson

Wilson-Fisher-Smith

Colton Sissons-Calle Jarnkrok-Austin Watson

Josi-Ellis

Ekholm-Subban

Irwin-Weber

Juuse Saros

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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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