The dilemma facing the Rangers


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Dan Girardi speaks to MSG’s John Giannone between periods after scoring a shorthanded goal in the Rangers’ latest win. A 3-2 victory at Columbus. This year’s team is deeper and won’t be a pushover even if they draw a tough opponent in the first round. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy NYRangers.

Last night, the Rangers won over Columbus 3-2 on rookie Jimmy Vesey’s wonderful game-winner. In winning for the sixth straight time, they now find themselves in a three-way tie in points (75) with the Penguins and Blue Jackets. Pittsburgh remains second by virtue of two fewer games played. They make up one tonight. Columbus is still third having played one less game than the Rangers. But they’ve been inconsistent since their 16-game winning streak.

Here are the Rangers playing very good hockey. Henrik Lundqvist finally got a night off after reaching 400 wins. Antti Raanta filled in admirably making 30 saves in his first start since getting hurt on Jan. 14 at Montreal. He went a long time between starts but it didn’t have any affect. It speaks to how good the valuable backup is and why Las Vegas should be zeroing in on him for expansion.

Dan Girardi returned and scored a shorthanded goal. Repeat. Dan Girardi returned and scored a shorthanded goal. Let that sink in. Girardi wasn’t overused playing just over 16 minutes. That’s a plus. Alain Vigneault has managed Girardi, Kevin Klein and Marc Staal better. None came close to 20 minutes yesterday. Both Ryan McDonagh and Nick Holden each were the workhorses with over 23. Brady Skjei received 16-plus.

I’ll say this and it might strike a nerve with some fans. Holden has been a better fit than Keith Yandle. While a superb offensive skating defenseman who had 47 points last season, he never was as complete as Holden, who is a year younger and a whole lot cheaper. Holden can be used in a shutdown role and still contribute offensively. His eight goals lead all Rangers blue liners and 26 points rank behind only McDonagh. Skjei has done well with 25 despite Vigneault managing his shifts.

At the moment, as much complaints as there are about the defense, it’s settled in. They’ve played better during this stretch. Players are coming back and protecting the house. There haven’t been as many breakdowns. Adam Clendening is a serviceable seventh defenseman who has filled in admirably. But the idea he should start over Girardi or Klein is silly. Over time, we’ve seen positives and negatives with him. They should continue to use Clendening as an extra D who can spot guys when necessary.

So much of why this team is successful is the brilliant play of Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner. Hayes had a strong game scoring a beauty after stripping David Savard at center while deking Sergei Bobrovsky and going forehand. He and Miller also set up Girardi’s shorthanded goal. When it comes down to it, Hayes and Miller have been in the middle of everything. Their maturity and development is the biggest reason Vigneault got extended. Grabner remains the team’s leading goal scorer. A dangerous speedster who has rediscovered the magic he had with the Islanders, who are the Rangers’ next opponent in Brooklyn on Thursday. Considering how well they’ve played under Doug Weight, that should be quite the game.

The thing about where the Rangers find themselves in the standings could be the one drawback. They’re in position to overtake the fading Blue Jackets and wind up in the ultra tough 2 vs 3 first round match-up in the Metropolitan Division. Last year, they weren’t equipped to face a much deeper Pens team who dismantled them in five. As it turned out, the Pens with the addition of Carl Hagelin won the Stanley Cup.

If they do wind up facing the Pens for a third consecutive year in the first round, it’ll be a tall order. Pittsburgh does have players hurt. Evgeni Malkin may finally return tonight. Conor Sheary is on the shelf for about another month. There’s also the issue of Marc-Andre Fleury, who could finally be moved at the March 1 deadline. He has struggled in a backup role behind clear number one Matt Murray. The same goalie the Rangers could’ve solve last year.

With the Caps running away with the division, it looks like the old Patrick rivals are headed for another early showdown in the playoffs. If you go back to 2014 when the Rangers stunned the Pens in the second round by rallying from a 3-1 deficit for the first time in franchise history, they’ve met Pittsburgh the last three years. It’s looking like it’ll be year number four.

The one thing I can conclude is that the 2016-17 Rangers aren’t last year’s team. They’re deeper. They can roll four lines. Chris Kreider is having his best season with 22 goals and 39 points. Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan continue to be team leaders. Face-off leader Mika Zibanejad has fit in well replacing Derick Brassard. His scoring has been down since he returned. It would be nice to see the former Senator heat up. Make no mistake. His lethal right-handed shot is a weapon on the power play. Lately, they’ve struggled. It wouldn’t be the Rangers otherwise.

Vigneault has rotated Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich around based on their performance. Vesey was moved back up to Stepan and Rick Nash in the third last night and he scored a wonderful goal with 6:32 left for the game decider. His 13th. He hasn’t scored much in the second half. But his play has picked up. Buchnevich has gone cold. But his skill level makes him a threat. It’s why he is on the power play. The gifted Russian has the ability to finish and set up teammates.

There’s a lot to like about this team. Vigneault can use energizer Jesper Fast on the fourth line now that the lineup is healthy. Fast can also take shifts with other lines due to his determination and hustle. Nobody works harder. He is defensively responsible and is appreciated by teammates. Oscar Lindberg is evolving into a similar player. With Vigneault now committed to him as the fourth line center, the two-way Swede has paid dividends assisting on two goals in a recent comeback win over the Avalanche. He doesn’t get a lot of minutes. But is a consistent worker at even strength who can be trusted on face-offs.

At the moment, Brandon Pirri and Matt Puempel find themselves the odd men out. Both are capable if called upon. Pirri more in an offensive role playing power play. Puempel has some scoring touch. He recorded his first career hat trick in a road win over the Coyotes at the end of December.

As long as Lundqvist continues his upswing, you can’t count this team out. Obviously, the soon to be 35-year old Swede needs to perform for the Rangers to have any chance in the postseason. Especially if it’s the dangerous Pens led by Hart candidate Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. The two teams have a pair of games remaining. But not for a while. The last two times, the Pens destroyed the Rangers with their speed and skill. We’ll have a better gauge in late March and early April.

So, the question becomes this. Is this what the Rangers want? Another hefty challenge trying to overcome potentially the Pens and Caps just to make the Conference Final. Most observers would say they’re better off in the first wildcard drawing the bumbling Canadiens. A team they still have problems with in Montreal. The question up north is will Michel Therrien survive. They’re in desperate need of a change. The Habs are no longer a lock to win the Atlantic. Ottawa and Boston are climbing fast. Both are within six. But it’s the Senators who hold five games in hand with the Canadiens getting the silly bye week.

On paper, the Atlantic looks like the easier path. The Islanders were able to get their first series win by edging the Panthers in six games last year. But they were no match for the Lightning. So, it’s not guaranteed if you draw the Atlantic, you’ll win the first two rounds. Tampa has fallen off dramatically. They badly miss Steven Stamkos and are getting putrid goaltending from Ben Bishop, who’s not playing as much these days. Their defense is inconsistent yet they remain only four behind the Maple Leafs.

The Red Wings are going to miss the playoffs for the first time since my Bar Mitzvah. The Sabres look like they’re a year away. They have good moments and bad ones. The Panthers don’t have the look of a playoff team. But have played only 54 games. With Aleksander Barkov back and leading scorer Vincent Trocheck on fire, anything is possible.

It really comes down to the Leafs, Islanders and Flyers for that final spot. Toronto boasts enough talent in Calder front runners Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews with William Nylander not far behind. It’s gonna depend on the defense and Frederik Andersen. With four 40-point scorers including James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri, they can score with anyone. Are they ready to lock down the playoffs in Mike Babcock’s second year?

It’s hard to take the Flyers seriously. They can’t seem to get out of their own way. But every now and then, Wayne Simmonds scores a clutch goal and Steve Mason has a big game. The mishandling of struggling sophomore Shayne Gostisbehere is inexplicable. Claude Giroux has under performed. Jakub Voracek has also cooled off. When you look at the plus/minuses of their top four scorers including Brayden Schenn, it borders on absurd. No team relies more on the power play than the Flyers. They’re also top heavy with not enough support.

The Islanders are looking much better since Weight took over. Ever since he declared that they’re a playoff team, they took off. It’s not just John Tavares anymore. Anders Lee leads them in goals with 21. Jason Chimera and Andrew Ladd are playing much better by scoring big goals. Even Ryan Strome is heating up. A player who never got along with Jack Capuano. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk have carried the blue line minus injured Travis Hamonic. They’re getting contributions from everyone unlike the first half. Thomas Greiss continues to play well as the starter. The best part is they have only played 54 games and have proven they can beat quality teams besting the Caps, Habs and Jackets. The only question is will they hit a rough patch. At the moment, they look like the favorite to grab the final wildcard.

As for the Devils and Hurricanes, neither team has shown enough consistency to merit being taken seriously. It’s definitely interesting with every team still alive. A win streak can go a long way. The Islanders played themselves from one of the biggest disappointments into the team we expected.

What does it all mean? Only time will tell. For the Rangers, they should continue to play better fundamental hockey. Even if it means risking another early exit due to the awfulness of the new playoff format which is already growing tiresome (hello NHL committee), they aren’t a pushover. Whoever they draw, expect it to be a closely fought competitive series. I’ll take my chances.

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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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