With five wins in a row, Rangers righting the ship despite imperfections


They’ve now won five in a row. After a dreadful beginning that put Alain Vigneault’s job in jeopardy, the Rangers have suddenly caught fire with the current longest winning streak in the league.

It started with a superb performance in a 2-1 overtime win in Tampa. Even though they rallied to beat Vegas prior to beating the Lightning, that was the game that signaled the turnaround. They were sloppy in the home win over the Golden Knights. Facing the league’s best featuring lethal tandem Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, they were air tight while outplaying the Bolts. They got the reward in OT on J.T. Miller’s highlight reel goal.

It remains their most complete effort. They were able to make it three straight in a chaotic contest that also needed three on three before Kevin Shattenkirk won it over the Panthers 5-4. See the great patience and saucer pass from Rick Nash.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wZGSLjJ3s5o

The fourth consecutive victory came at home 5-3 over the Blue Jackets. Another quality opponent who entered with just four regulation losses. They’re one of the teams the Blueshirts will be competing against in a deeper Metro Division for the playoffs. That was decided in the third period by special teams. The Rangers scored three power play goals with Shattenkirk, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich scoring to drive former coach John Tortorella cuckoo. Michael Grabner tallied twice including off a brilliant feed from Miller.

Last night’s 4-2 win over the Bruins on Rivalry Night wasn’t perfect. They played a very good first period scoring three times to build a 3-1 lead. Buchnevich was at it again scoring a wonderful goal off a beautiful deke from a great angle around Zdeno Chara top shelf. He then was involved in the first of two goals from Jimmy Vesey, who got both his tallies from in front within a 29-second span.

He became the first Ranger to score two in a row that quickly since this memorable third period come from behind win post-lockout by legendary number 68. A great rivalry game to be at. Hard to believe that was that long ago. Here’s Jaromir Jagr still playing and he scored his first goal and assisted on another for Vegas last night. Ageless.

The game has changed since then. It’s so much more a puck possession style emphasizing skating and playmaking. That’s why players are more selective with their shots on a sustained forecheck. It further explains the Rangers’ current style under Vigneault. They love to skate into space and use the boards to chip pucks behind the net. It forces defenses to do more work. At the start of the season, they weren’t able to cycle the puck consistently. There wasn’t enough support. During the win streak, that’s changed.

A player who exemplifies this style is Buchnevich. Only 22, the second-year Russian has improved dramatically. A back injury limited him to eight goals and 12 assists in 41 games in ‘16-17. He room part in five postseason games tallying a assist. A stronger player this year with the bad back behind him, he’s been a constant. Gaining more confidence, Buchnevich has turned it on lately. After starting on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider, he spent some time on the fourth line to everyone’s protests. He did well enough during the losses for Vigneault to return him to the KZB line.

One thing overlooked by some NYR bloggers in the community is patience. In those first six games, that line only scored once at even strength. They produced mostly on the power play where Vigneault kept Buchnevich on the top unit. That part was forgotten. The Rangers want to control five on five. The KZB line wasn’t and had been victimized by the opposition. That’s why it got broken up.

With the team continuing to struggle with three wins in the first dozen games, Vigneault’s job status was uncertain. The rumors had started that he needed to win the home game against Vegas to survive. In fairness, key players such as Kreider, Miller and Nash weren’t performing. Neither was Grabner, Shattenkirk, McDonagh or Lundqvist. If your best players aren’t your best, you’re going to have a hard time winning games.

That’s changed entering today’s matinee against Edmonton. Vigneault reconstructed the lines with his best move putting KZB back intact. They’ve since taken off with Buchnevich in particular, the catalyst. A electrifying player with superb speed and plenty in his arsenal, he’s thinking shot more and getting rewarded. He’s scored some big goals including the pretty one against Boston where he emulated Alexei Kovalev by faking Chara out completely and then going high cheese on Tuukka Rask.

He’s been a consistent force. With seven goals and seven helpers for 14 points, the former 2013 third round pick taken 75th overall has made a quantum leap. Fourth in team scoring, he’s driven possession and been a x-factor on the improved power play. Half his production has come on it.

Shattenkirk has also finally adjusted settling into a nice pair with Brady Skjei. He’s been instrumental with his 16 points placing second behind team leader Zibanejad (8-10-18). Eight of Shattenkirk’s 16 have come on the power play. Incredibly, it’s even higher for Zibanejad, who has managed 10 of his 18 on the man-advantage including  club best five PPG’s. Kreider’s been hot lately scoring five times in the last seven contests. Not surprisingly, three have been on the power play with most of the work in front. When he hasn’t finished, he’s been busy screening goalies for big goals. That is one of the biggest differences along with the Shattenkirk addition. Zibanejad is shooting more and hitting the target while Buchnevich continues to excel on the first unit.

McDonagh quietly has turned it around with 11 assists. He is more assertive since being paired with Nick Holden. There are still moments where the captain gets caught napping like on two Boston goals the other night. But his play has picked up. He had a dominant shift with the team protecting a one goal lead which resulted in a Grabner empty netter. On that shift, he was out mostly with Marc Staal, who’s been more positive so far. Vigneault has managed him better using him on the third pair with Steven Kampfer while giving the vet penalty killing shifts and key ones like with McDonagh late the past two wins. The work load isn’t as challenging for the prideful alternate captain.

Speaking of Grabner, he’s up to seven goals while playing on the fourth line with Jesper Fast and rookie Boo Nieves, who returns today after missing two games due to the flu.

There are many positives for the 8-7-2 record. Fast is one of them with his extra effort resulting in big goals and crucial penalty kills. He wins those board battles that don’t go in the stat sheet or on charts. He’s so undervalued. There isn’t a defensive situation you can’t plug Jesper in. He usually comes on late with Grabner to protect leads. Another smart move by Vigneault, who didn’t look like he’d survive the start of November.

Lundqvist has also been better during the win streak making timely stops including some huge ones Wednesday when the Bruins made a strong push the final two periods. He does still allow the odd goal at times but his play is coming around. They don’t beat the Bruins without the Swedish King.

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Miller is another player who’s been impactful. His playmaking continues to improve. The best passing forward on the team leads with 12 assists including a couple of dazzling ones that set up goals. The one handed pass to Grabner from the ice remains the best so far. He’s not turning over the puck as much, playing a more complete game. Miller is 3-12-15 with most of his success at even strength. Ten of his 15 points are five on five. This while playing on the wing and sometimes at center.

They haven’t gotten enough from Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. Zuccarello remains a fan favorite due to his penchant for mixing it up with much bigger foes. He’s also led the team in scoring the past two seasons scoring and mostly setting up big goals. He’s easy to root for. Usually, his heart and hustle is prominent. But his play has been disjointed so far with three goals and eight assists for 11 points thus far. Not what’s expected from a team leader.

It doesn’t help that the slumping Hayes is his center. With just one goal and six points, is there a more puzzling player? Praised for his strong skating and puck possession, he’s failing in the second line role. Though his defense has improved, the Rangers need more offense from the lanky pass first Hayes. That he has as many goals as helpers speaks volumes. He’s playing with Zuccarello and Nash. Two very skilled players who should make it easier for Hayes to succeed. The second line can’t be a zero.

When you have guys like Grabner and Fast doing more in reduced roles, it’s not a good sign. Even the recently demoted David Desharnais has more points (8) than Hayes. Hayes plays penalty kill and has done a solid job there. But he must pick it up along with Zuccarello. It can’t always be the KZB line or the same guys every night.

Nash has played better but remains at four goals and three assists. He gets chances every game. He has to start burying them. I still have faith in the guy with the tremendous character to score 25 goals. He can get hot.

Vesey got a big part within 29 seconds against Boston to double his total to four markers. It’s just about staying with it and keeping good work habits. Vigneault likes what he brings. But he must continue to work hard in all facets or he’ll see his ice time reduced. He’s a restricted free agent next summer. So there’s plenty of incentive.

Looking at the current roster, they still can use another center. Oscar Lindberg is missed. He’s done well so far in Vegas. Derek Stepan is also a big void as long as Hayes doesn’t perform consistently. Zibanejad has more than filled Stepan’s shoes as the top center. But it’s what’a behind him that is a concern.

Jeff Gorton is in the market for a trade. But trading in the salary cap era remains very difficult. He can also use another defenseman until Brendan Smith gets his ass in shape. It’s hard to see their play being sustainable when they’re relying on Holden for big minutes and Kampfer in a third pair role. Both have been solid but for how long?

So there are imperfections that can be fixed. It’s not all roses as the team skates for a sixth straight win against the dangerous Oilers duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with former Blueshirt Cam Talbot in net against Lundqvist. Do they watch Ryan Nugent-Hopkins closely? The Oilers aren’t scoring much after the top line. Nugent-Hopkins has been a bright spot.

At some point, the Rangers will make a move. Don’t expect it to be Filip Chytil or Neal Pionk/Ryan Graves from Hartford. They’ll remain patient and let them develop. Vinny Lettieri could be a option but it’s his first pro year. Nieves has done well so far with three helpers coming in a impressive season debut. He brings something to the table. That strong work ethic that allows Vigneault to roll four lines. He doesn’t trust Paul Carey.

We’ll see where this month goes as Thanksgiving approaches.

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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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2 Responses to With five wins in a row, Rangers righting the ship despite imperfections

  1. hasan4978 says:

    Hah I remember that Jagr game as the beginning of the end for Claude Julien with Devils fans, since he made a rookie mistake by not putting the Madden-Pandolfo line on the ice against him for either goal.

    Like

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