The Rangers got a real treat to end 2016. They had great New Year’s hosts in Colorado. The Avalanche are one of the league’s biggest disappointments. Without top defenseman Erik Johnson and without any defense, they have hung out goalie tandem Semyon Varlamov and Calvin Pickard out to dry.
Patrick Roy knew it. He picked up and left a mess that continues in Denver. Once home to Stanley Cups, they are now an NHL laughingstock. So, it wasn’t a surprise that the Rangers did whatever they wanted in a 6-2 victory on New Year’s Eve to make it two for two against the league’s two worst teams. The other being hapless Arizona who are so bad, Matt Puempel recorded his first career hat trick in an ugly 6-3 win I didn’t bother with since I didn’t see it. Puempel did have a nice redirect for the third goal. At least Anthony Duclair scored his third for the Coyotes.
Tonight was all about the renaissance of Chris Kreider. In his fourth season, the 25-year old former 2009 first round pick is finally developing into the kind of dominant power forward many believed. I was always one of his biggest supporters despite some harsh critiques in this space and on my Twitter account New York Puck. Maybe we were a bit impatient due to Kreider’s amazing run during the 2012 playoffs when he came directly from Boston College winning an NCAA Division I title to the NHL postseason scoring five times in helping the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Final.
After a disappointing abbreviated ’12-13 where he only had two goals in 23 games before John Tortorella sent him back to Connecticut, he came back and got a goal and assist in eight postseason contests which included a great overtime winner to force a fifth game before losing to Boston in the second round. Following the step back, Tortorella was replaced by Alain Vigneault. They traded places. Ironically, Kreider’s best moment in his true rookie year came at the expense of Tortorella’s Canucks when he recorded his first hat trick in a 5-2 home win on Nov. 30, 2013.
As a 23-year old, Kreider followed up a good rookie season of 17 goals and 20 assists with a big postseason. His five goals and eight assists for 13 points helped the Rangers reach their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994. He was arguably their best forward in a crushing five-game loss to the Kings. I still remember watching him on a breakaway in sudden death thinking he would win it and force Game 6 only to see Jonathan Quick deny him. It didn’t end long after. A long night spent at the bar watching your team lose the Cup 20 years after they won one when I was a senior in high school.
With Kreider, he’s always had the talent. Combining size, strength, speed and skill, it’s all about putting it together. Consistency has always been an issue. However, that clearly isn’t the case in Year 4. He got off to a great start before the neck spasms sidelined him twice. Then went through a stretch where he didn’t score for a while. But since he broke it, he’s playing the best hockey of his young career.
The end result was a nice reward with Kreider notching his second hat trick in the four-goal win which also happened to be Henrik Lundqvist’s 390th career win- allowing him to pass Dominik Hasek for the most NHL victories by a European born goalie. Two of the three goals went off Kreider. The other was in but had to be reviewed with the refs unaware it went in until it was confirmed for a 2-1 lead.
Afterwards, he called it a weird hat trick during a interview with MSG’s John Giannone. He’s been on a tear this month. After scoring four goals during the first two months, he’s exploded with 11 in December. Along with five assists, that gives him 16 points (11-5-16) in 15 games. By far the most consistent he’s been.
That it’s come after signing a long-term contract worth an average of $4.625 million through 2020 is fitting. So many wondered if he would ever figure it out. I never stopped believing because of the player I saw as early as 2010 combining with future Ranger teammate Derek Stepan to help USA win the Under 20 World Junior Championship. It sometimes takes power forwards a little longer. With now a team-leading 15 goals and 14 assists giving him 29 points in 33 games, he’s tied for second with line mate Mats Zuccarello (8-21-29) in scoring. Only one behind team leader Stepan (9-21-30).
Since Vigneault put them together, they have carried the team offensively. Over the last six games, they’ve combined for a impressive 27 points. After back-to-back losses in which they gave up a seven spot to the Pens and Wild before Christmas, the Rangers have won three in a row. The most impressive was the 4-3 comeback win over the Senators on home ice. One in which an irate Stepan got on his teammates at the bench when they quickly behind by two. He then scored twice including the tying goal before Nick Holden’s game-winner in the third. Mark 12/27/16 as an important date if the team doesn’t look back. It was a night they finally stood up for themselves and showed true character.
If they didn’t play well at Arizona, they can be excused. The Coyotes are as bad as it gets. They can only hope Dylan Strome and their other top prospects will help fix things. Maybe Steve Downie was right about how they’re run. They were getting humiliated by the Flames at last check down 4-0.
As for Colorado, they are pretty bad despite some of the game’s best young talents in Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, who has been a shell of himself this season. Why are they so bad? Look at the chaotic state of their blue line. As evidenced tonight, they simply cannot defend. Tyson Barrie is a good offensive defenseman. Defensively, he’s substandard. His careless turnover inside the Ranger blue line led directly to J.T. Miller’s game-winner at 9:30 of the second period. A slap shot rocket that squeaked past Pickard.
The Avs just don’t have enough quality depth. Subtract Johnson and they’re naked on the back end. When your biggest move during the summer is adding aging former Ranger Fedor Tyutin, you’re in trouble. Nothing against Toots. But he’s not the same player at 33 that he was earlier in his career when he once was a top pair guy with former partner and fading Dan Girardi. It’s ironic because they’re almost the same age. Girardi turns 33 on Apr. 29. Neither has ever been the best skater. They’ve gotten by on grit and will.
Colorado also doesn’t boast much scoring depth after their big three. It dramatically falls off with overlooked 19-year old Finn rookie Mikko Rantanen a bright spot with 16 points. Five more than Landeskog. Six better than ex-Bruin Carl Soderberg, who they have locked into a contract that pays him $4.75 million thru 2020. He has four goals and 10 points and makes more than Kreider. Talk about cap mismanagement.
Even former Sabres’ first rounder Mikhail Grigorenko remains a riddle with only 12 points (4-8-12) in 34 contests. He came over from Buffalo with Nikita Zadorov as part of a five-player deal that sent Ryan O’Reilly to the Sabres. Advantage Buffalo even if O’Reilly is severely overpaid for his production (18 points in 27 games). He banks $7.5 million AAV into the next decade.
As for the Blueshirts, they did what they had to sweeping these two games against NHL doormats. Neither win was perfect. Even on New Year’s Eve with the Avs getting the game’s first goal and Lundqvist killer Blake Comeau scoring his 13th career against the Swedish King to tie the game at two after a period.
Afterwards, the Rangers ran off four unanswered with Miller bombing one and Kreider having a Stepan shot go off his body on a power play for the hat trick. Then some hideous Colorado coverage allowed Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg to easily set up Miller, who had all night before burying his second (third in two games) past a helpless Pickard. If J.T. is coming out of it, that’s a great sign. He shouldn’t be buried for long. Finally, rookie Jimmy Vesey beat Pickard on a breakaway from Michael Grabner and Kevin Hayes.
All in all, a good end to a very good first part of ’16-17. The Rangers are tied with the first place Blue Jackets for most wins (26), most ROW (24) and rank third in the loaded Metro Division with 53 points. The division that boasts the league’s top three teams with Columbus at 56 after their 15th straight win (4-2 over Wild), Pittsburgh at 55 after a 4-3 overtime win (Malkin winner) over Montreal and the Blueshirts with 53 after the four-goal blowout of hapless Colorado.
There are fireworks going off here in New York City. Even though I have a sore throat and am stuck home for the first time in a while, wishing everyone a very Happy New Year!!!!! Can’t believe it’s officially 2017. Here’s to a great year. 🙂
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist, NYR (25 saves including last 17 final 2 periods-390 career wins most by European born goalie passes Hasek)
2nd Star-J.T. Miller, NYR (2 goals including game-winner-11, 12,
1st Star-Chris Kreider, NYR (2nd career hat trick-13, 14, 15, 6 shots, 8 attempts, +1 in 22 shifts-16:27)
Interview: Kreider on his weird hat trick.
Photo Gif: Lundqvist with the Broadway Hat
Video Gif: Kreider gets the hat trick: