Game 9: Hayes,Fast, Vesey dominate in big Rangers 4-2 win over Predators


Brendan Smith is down in front of Henrik Lundqvist during the Rangers’ 4-2 win over the Predators to snap a five game winless streak on Kids Day at MSG. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy Newsday

The losing streak is officially over. After coming close the past two games in getting points, the Rangers finally earned their second win of the season by defeating the Predators 4-2. Their first victory since a 2-0 shutout of the Canadiens on Oct. 8.

They previously had dropped five in a row going 0-3-2. Many observers had Alain Vigneault on the hot seat. One win doesn’t change that but it buys him some time to get the ship righted. In defeating a quality opponent who were the Stanley Cup runner up, they should feel good about themselves.

Now, the focus is on San Jose Monday. Win that and they can set themselves up for a .500 homestand. Arizona visits Thursday. They’ve yet to win a game. It’ll mark the return of Derek Stepan and possibly Antti Raanta if he returns from injury. Win the next two and that’s a winning streak. Cue my favorite reference from Major League 2.

I’ll never get tired of that. Hopefully, our Blueshirts don’t either. Just seeing the look of relief on Henrik Lundqvist’s face when the buzzer sounded said it all. It’s been a struggle for this team. They’re only 2-5-2 in nine games but have earned four points in the last three (1-0-2). That’s a positive.

If they waited too long against the Islanders, the guys in the classic blue and red jerseys were ready from the drop of the puck at 12:30 PM on Kids Day. A day that started nicely with MSG recognizing junior kids who got to be on the Garden ice for the national anthem next to some of their heroes. A moment they won’t forget. There are a lot of things I dislike about The Garden. But when it comes to their community work for kids and the Garden of Dreams, they’re second to none. Nobody does it better.

Facing a very good Nashville team that entered Saturday’s match 4-2-1, the Rangers didn’t mess around. In sharp contrast to most of the season, they were sharp from the outset. Going against a skilled opponent who features Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, Roman Josi and P.K. Subban, they had to be.

Right away, a more aggressive Blueshirts got in on the Predators and forechecked. They forced Juuse Saros to come up with some early saves in a good first period. If there was one bugaboo, they took too many penalties. Of their five power plays, Nashville had three in the opening stanza. However, the NHL’s 30th ranked penalty kill was superb in killing off every single one. The difference was a more aggressive four man unit that was in sync. Able to pressure the Preds into mistakes for easy clears, they did a great job.

Of the 25 shots, Lundqvist only saw five on the five Nashville power plays. He made some crucial stops on the final one which wasn’t a penalty. More on that later. The Swedish King was stellar finishing with a more manageable 23 saves including nine in the third to pick up his 407th career win. That tied Glenn Hall for ninth all-time.

For the third time so far, Vigneault went with the odd alignment of 11 forwards and 7 defensemen. After being benched for the third period the other night, Adam Cracknell was a healthy scratch. Nick Holden dressed as the seventh defenseman. The D pairs were Ryan McDonagh-Brendan Smith, Marc Staal-Kevin Shattenkirk and Brady Skjei-Tony DeAngelo. Vigneault and defensive assistant Lindy Ruff worked in Holden for more shifts than DeAngelo, who only played 5:20 (5 shifts). How he’s been handled is perplexing. Holden took 19 shifts (16:36) while Skjei only received 13:18 in 18 shifts. I can’t understand why.

At least the lines were consistent. In particular, the cohesive trio of Jimmy Vesey, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast. They were easily the best unit. Playing together again, they continued to find chemistry. The third line factored in on three of the club’s four goals. Fast got his first of the season when he put home a rebound of a strong Hayes rush at 14:58.

One of the key players who’s been missing is Chris Kreider. He finally got off the snide with a power play goal off a wonderful set up from J.T. Miller at 19:34. David Desharnais earned the secondary assist. Aside from a silly penalty in the offensive zone, he continues to fit in with Kreider and Miller. He’s a crafty center but I wonder how long he can last on the second line.

After outshooting the Preds 11-9, the remainder of the contest was far different. Nashville is a tight checking group who can stifle transition. The Rangers were bottled up in a lopsided second that saw the Predators dictate play with strong neutral zone work and diligent checking. They outshot the Rangers 9-4.

Much overlooked defenseman Mattias Ekholm got Nashville on the board when he took a Filip Forsberg feed at the point and whistled a wrist shot past Lundqvist top shelf through traffic at 1:44. Forsberg outworked Smith and Mika Zibanejad to a loose puck to set it up.

Kreider still takes some very undisciplined penalties. He got a lazy holding minor in the offensive zone which gave the Preds a chance to tie it. But the Rangers’ penalty kill got it done again. Kreider then nearly scored out of the penalty box but was slashed by Ekholm leading to a power play. But they were unable to cash in.

Lundqvist was called upon to make some timely saves. His teammates didn’t muster much except for a brilliant end to end rush by Hayes with the skilled big center scoring a highlight reel goal. Off some good defensive work, Skjei got the puck to Vesey, who passed to Hayes. He flew through the neutral zone and abused the Nashville D going around Matt Irwin before beating Saros upstairs for a 3-1 lead at 12:46.

However, Nashville struck back 2:44 later. It was a bit unlucky for the Rangers. A Josi shot caromed off Skjei and Forsberg and in past Lundqvist to make it a one goal game with 4:30 remaining in the second. Johansen picked up a helper. Originally, it was credited to Josi. But they reviewed it between periods and determined that it was Forsberg’s goal.

Considering how the Preds started the third, it was gonna be up to Lundqvist. He made a couple of big stops to deny Johansen on the Preds’ fifth power play. A hideous call on Smith for delay of game. He was checked from behind into the net forcing it off its moorings. The sad aspect is anyone could tell live it wasn’t a penalty. That’s what made the call so bad.

It was the one Nashville power play that kept the Rangers penalty kill pinned in. They attempted at least six shots with Lundqvist having to make three huge saves. He came up big stopping nine of nine in a busy third.

The Rangers didn’t do much. Aside from some splendid defensive shifts from the Hayes line with Vesey doing some splendid work late along with Fast, they only forced Saros to make three saves.

Fittingly, it was Vesey who fired down into a empty net from his own zone for a well deserved goal. His first of the year to seal a much needed win with 39 seconds left. It was nice to see a hardworking player get rewarded. There’s a reason Vigneault trusts him. Rick Carpiniello sees it.

Joe Fortunato doesn’t like Vesey for some reason. Maybe it’s due to the expectations. Vesey was signed out of college as a free agent after not signing with Nashville. He went 16-11-27 in his rookie year and had a goal with four assists in the playoffs. The 24-year old former Harvard Crimson is becoming a complete two-way player who plays 200 feet. He is used on the penalty kill and does the little things that help you win. Hence my response to Fortunato of Blueshirt Banter.

Vesey should become a 20-25 goalscorer. If he does, I doubt anyone will complain. He  has gotten chances but ran into some bad luck. Similar to Rick Nash. I like what he brings and loved that Vigneault stuck Vesey with his workout buddy Hayes and Mr. Hustle, Fast. See. Not everything the coach does is wrong.

Of course, I also understand Fortunato’s frustration. Vigneault still doesn’t play the gifted Pavel Buchnevich enough. He was again on a make shift fourth line with Michael Grabner. However, the 22-year old Russian still gets key power play time on the first unit. He isn’t as polished defensively. I’ve had my own qualms with how he’s used, wondering why Buchnevich didn’t get an overtime shift versus the Islanders.

Right now, the Rangers are a work in progress. Today was a step in the right direction. Let’s enjoy what was a good win. Onto that other New York team tonight that I have a keen interest in. I’ll just come out and say it. Let’s Go Yankees!

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Henrik Lundqvist 23 saves including 9/9 in 3rd, 2nd win in 8 starts-407th career win ties Glenn Hall for 9th all-time

2nd Star-Jimmy Vesey ENG-1st of season, assist, 2 blocked shots, +2 in 21 shifts-16:30 including 2:08 shorthanded

1st Star-Kevin “Purple” Hayes breakaway goal-3rd, assist, 2 takeaways, +3 in 24 shifts-16:55 including 2:51 SH

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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