Rangers facing the gauntlet against Golden Knights


When the puck drops tomorrow night at MSG, the Rangers are facing the gauntlet when they host the Golden Knights. Vegas had a seven game win streak snapped in a tough 6-3 loss at the Islanders. A game that saw them lose a third goalie with Oscar Dansk exiting with a leg injury. Replacement Maxime Lagace struggled allowing four goals on 11 shots.

While the Golden Knights deal with that, the Rangers are in search of wins. It starts with consistency. Better starts would certainly help. Their struggles have been well documented. It was a ghostly theme in Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the Canadiens. They were down three goals before you looked up, outshot 22-2 in the worst period of the season. There have been way too many with the team having won only three of its first 12 (3-7-2).

A loss on Tuesday and it could be the end for coach Alain Vigneault. Astonishing considering he signed a extension in January that would keep him here through 2020. The timing never made sense but GM Jeff Gorton didn’t want the veteran bench boss entering the final season of a five-year contract a lame duck. Understandable considering what he’d accomplished.

When it comes to coaches, their shelf lives usually run its course. Unless you’re Scotty Bowman or Mike Babcock, who both had great success in Detroit, most don’t last long. Vigneault has been the longest tenured coach in the Metropolitan Division since taking over for John Tortorella in 2013-14. He’s had a good run leading a experienced team to consecutive Conference Finals including the first two ever series comebacks from 3-1 deficits along with a Stanley Cup appearance and a President’s Trophy. They’ve never failed to qualify for the postseason and have gone over 100 points in three of his first four years.

Sometimes, the message gets stale. It seems to be happening in Year 5. Vigneault preaches strong puck possession and smart decisions. His players aren’t listening as evidenced by a league worst 199 giveaways. New acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk might be contributing offensively with nine points but he’s been shattered defensively with a league worst 27 giveaways. Ryan McDonagh hasn’t been much better with 21. Speaking volumes, five Blueshirts rank in the top 15 with forwards Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Mika Zibanejad all tied with 15. Holy moly.

When one wonders why this team has been awful, all you have to do is follow their shifts. Between the poor starts that have put them behind the eight ball, the brutal turnovers and lazy defensive habits, it’s easy to see why they’re one of the worst teams so far. It could mean Vigneault’s job if you believe New York Post columnist Larry Brooks. He’s clearly on the hot seat.

Even more daunting is that the Rangers had Glen Sather and other scouts in Ottawa to take in the Canadiens’ surprising 8-3 rout of the Senators. There’s no question they’re looking for another center that can improve a team weakness. The question is would they really trade Kreider for Alex Galchenyuk. It’s one that concerns me. Galchenyuk has come under criticism from the tough Montreal media. Of course, he scored his fourth goal in only 10:43 under Claude Julien. It would seem he needs a change of scenery.

Chris Kreider

In Happier Times: Chris Kreider jumps into the arms of Derek Stepan and teammates after scoring a clutch tying goal with 1:41 left in Game 5 of the second round in a unreal 3-1 series comeback against the Capitals. AP Photo by Julie Jacobson/Getty Images

Galchenyuk is 23. Three years younger than Kreider, who can be baffling. When he wants to, he can dominate shifts with his unique combination of size, strength and speed. He posted a career high 28 goals and 53 points last season. But he wasn’t the factor he was in past playoff runs leading to disappointment. It’s been a confusing start for the 26-year old. He has only two goals and three assists with 21 penalty minutes. Some which have been very undisciplined. Signed thru 2020 with a AAV of $4.625 million, he should be a bargain. Either the power forward stays and improves or he goes and figures it out elsewhere. Similar to number 27 Kovalev, Alexei.

Remarkably, Galchenyuk gets more on average receiving a $4.9 million AAV to hardly take regular shifts in Montreal. He has four goals and zero assists. The Habs still don’t know where to use him. At center or on the wing. This is a talented player who once scored 30 with 26 assists in ‘15-16. Injuries limited him to 61 games and 44 points (17-27-44) last season. A bad first round in which he totaled three assists in a six-game series loss to the Rangers aggravated Habs fans.

Both Kreider and Galchenyuk are signed thru 2020. Each is talented with untapped potential. If the Rangers give up on Kreider, will he come back to burn them. It depends on Miller, who can then play wing exclusively while Pavel Buchnevich moves into the top nine.

Nobody knows what to expect anymore. It’s why I’m not sure changing coaches will work. Sure. Lindy Ruff could be a temporary fix. He’ll yell at the players and make them more accountable. Vigneault is a different style coach who treats his players with respect and isn’t one to scream on the bench. Maybe this group needs that. Tough love like Tortorella gave them before they turned on him a year following a extension. Sound familiar?

Is it really all on the coach here? Absolutely not. McDonagh has been brutal. Mats Zuccarello very incomplete due to a lack of detail. He hasn’t always been engaged. Not what you expect from such a passionate player. Kreider has struggled and Miller has as well despite being tied for the team lead in scoring.

The other night was a huge step back for Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and Jesper Fast. Vesey didn’t even get eight minutes. Maybe Vigneault moves Buchnevich up and Vesey down or Fast. But it isn’t conducive to have Vesey or Buchnevich on the fourth line. Buchnevich is too skilled and has performed well with four goals and four helpers while holding down a key role on the top power play unit. Vesey would be wasted on the fourth line. Chalk up Saturday to a off night. He usually battles hard and goes to the dirty areas. Eventually, they’ll start going in. Rick Nash finally got rewarded.

Even worse is the defense. McDonagh has gone through five partners with Brendan Smith the latest. Shattenkirk didn’t work because he was a turnover machine. McDonagh similar. At some point, they might reexplore it with an emphasis on offensive zone starts. Brady Skjei has played better the last two but still needs to tighten up. He got to work with Shattenkirk on Saturday. Marc Staal had been the most consistent but struggled mightily after being reunited with Nick Holden. They cannot play together under any circumstance. It defeats the purpose.

After sitting out two straight games, Henrik Lundqvist will return to the net. It’s imperative for him to make the early saves and give his team momentum. That would also help what’s been a hostile environment at a strange Garden.

To turn it around, it’ll take a much better effort from everyone. If it doesn’t happen later, it could be bye bye Vigneault. What will be the excuse then? It’s up to the 18 skaters and goalie.






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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