Happy Turkey Day! Rangers Thankful For Stuffing Their Way Back Into Division Race


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Jesper Fast celebrates one of his two goals with a pumped up bench in a 6-1 win over the Hurricanes. The Rangers have won eight of ten to get back in a competitive division. They have plenty to be thankful for. AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy SNY.TV 

Happy Turkey 🦃 Day everyone! We hope you’re enjoying your Thanksgiving with loved ones. It truly is a day to be thankful for what we have because not everyone is so fortunate. I’m thankful for my family, friends and a job I love. I’m also thankful for the hockey we got on Turkey Eve.

The Rangers should be thankful they’ve been able to recover from a bad start to get back in the division race. They reeled off six in a row before dropping two in succession which made us skeptical. But have since won two straight to make it eight of the last ten.

What could’ve been a disastrous start hasn’t been due to their resolve. Just when it looked like the end for Alain Vigneault, his team showed the tremendous character and resiliency the Garden Faithful have come to love. With a 6-1 trouncing of the Hurricanes in Raleigh last night before many Ranger fans, they improved to 11-9-2 through 22 games.

With 24 points, they still sit sixth in the Metro but are only five behind first place Columbus. The Devils follow with 28. Then the explosive Islanders with 26, followed by the struggling Pens and Caps. Each tied with 25. With the Canes at 22 and the Flyers at 21, eight total points separate the whole division.

It speaks to how competitive it is. With Pittsburgh and Washington not as good, it’s allowed the rest of the pack to catch up. Maybe the Pens go on a run but they’re clearly weaker at center and at backup goalie as well as defensively. Have you seen Sidney Crosby’s plus/minus rating lately? Hard to fathom. The Caps could get hot but they’re not as consistent.

Indeed, it’s wide open. The Blue Jackets just went ahead of the Devils due to yet another shutout from Sergei Bobrovsky. The best goalie in the league. If only they scored more consistently. The Devils are hanging in there with resiliency as shown in last night’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Bruins. Plus the overtime win over Minnesota with Mr. Overtime, John Moore scoring the winner. They score at a high rate and rely on Cory Schneider and the kids along with underdog story Brian Gibbons. You have the Islanders scoring tons thanks to Calder hopeful Mathew Barzal added to John Tavares and Josh Bailey. The D and goalies are still a question.

Basically, it’s anyone’s guess as to who the top three teams will be at just past the quarter mark. The Rangers have to feel good about where they are. They’ve made up a lot of ground. Full credit to the players and coaches for sticking with it. So what changed?

1.They’re scoring more. With 72 goals, they rank seventh averaging 3.27 goals-per-game. With offense up league wide, that favors high tempo transition offenses like the Blueshirts.

2.The power play is a weapon. With the key addition of Kevin Shattenkirk, the Rangers no longer put fans to sleep on the man-advantage. At any moment, they can strike. Shattenkirk runs the power play with precision passing and accurate shots that make him the most lethal right point since Sergei Zubov. It’s turned Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich into top threats. Along with Chris Kreider, who combines blazing speed with net presence, the power play is fifth clicking at 23.4 percent. That boost has offset inconsistent five on five play.

3.Mika’s A Number 1C. When they traded Derek Stepan to Arizona, it was for two reasons. To free up space to sign Shattenkirk and to invest in Zibanejad. So far, so good. The new top center is a point-per-game thanks to this gift 🎁 from Scott Darling with 22 points in 22 games.

My only reaction is Darling lost his concentration and had a look of bewilderment. I felt bad for him. But Zibanejad and #NYR will take it. He’s raised his level by leading the team in goals (11), points (22), power play goals (5) and power play points (11).

4.The King Is Back. In a year without a legit backup, they need Henrik Lundqvist much more than in years past when they had Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta. When Jeff Gorton signed Ondrej Pavelec, we knew he wouldn’t play much. So far, the schedule has allowed Vigneault to start Lundqvist most nights. He’s made 19 thus far and finally begun to find a rhythm. He’s back to making the electrifying save which has defined a brilliant career. King Henrik is up to a .914 save percentage with his goals-against-average down to 2.71 and 10 victories including a shutout at home over Ottawa. He’s only allowed three goals in the last three starts. Hank has 10 of the team’s 11 wins.

5.The D-Fence Has Been Better. It’s no secret the blueline remains sketchy. However, it’s made strides. The Brady Skjei-Shattenkirk partnership has been a great move by Vigneault and Lindy Ruff. One I suggested. Skjei has the skating and defensive awareness to help offset Shattenkirk’s one flaw. They work well off each other. Ryan McDonagh remains the backbone. He isn’t as consistent due to the workload and wear and tear. But the 12 assists show that he’s still able to contribute offense while taking on the toughest assignments. It hasn’t been easy rotating from partner to partner. But Nick Holden has surprised many with his strong play at even strength, going from healthy scratch to top pair. Marc Staal is perfectly suited for the third pair and remains a penalty killing asset. He no longer has to be overworked. When he struggled, Brendan Smith sat in favor of Steven Kampfer, who gives a honest effort. Smith has been better since returning and had his best game Wednesday getting a primary assist on Kreider’s goal a minute in and finishing plus-four. It’ll be interesting to see how long McDonagh’s out with a abdominal strain. He will not play tomorrow and is doubtful for Sunday.

6.Buchnevich Emergence. Entering his second season, Pavel Buchnevich needed to get stronger to hold up over a full 82. His back was a issue last year. The talent was there but he couldn’t be relied on. A more mature and better player has emerged. He’s easily one of the team’s best forwards five on five using his dynamic speed and playmaking to create problems for opponents. Even when he was demoted to the fourth line, he didn’t let it affect him. Buchnevich reminds me of Alexei Kovalev. A comparison I made last year. The skating and style is similar. Kovy was a beast. Buchnevich has the potential to be. His eight goals and eight helpers are proof that he’s a different player. Watch how he moves to open spots without the puck. Everything is better. Will he remain consistent? He’s on the top line and first PP unit for a reason.

7.The Supporting Cast. While the team still has a glaring weakness at center, the supporting cast remains strong. Vigneault deserves full credit for Kevin Hayes’ evolvement into a two-way center. His offense suffered early and he still does have the occasional brain cramp. But he’s being challenged and excelling in a role Stepan once had. The offense is coming. How about that pass he made on the Jesper Fast goal? No wonder Mats Zuccarello was practicing his dance moves before the third period explosion.

Speaking of which, Zuccarello is up to 17 points. He still has to do better than three goals. But his play is picking up. Vigneault has moved him around. Zucc currently is with J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner. With David Desharnais not working out, AV’s had to shift Miller around. So, he’s back at center for the time being. He’s more effective on the wing due to his forecheck. But remains a good playmaker with great vision. His 13 assists rank second behind Zuccarello (14). He needs to finish more. Three goals won’t cut it. That means shooting more. He is starting to. I can’t say enough complementary things about Grabner and Fast. They’re terrific five on five and splendid on the PK. Grabner is up to nine goals and Fast recorded his first career two-goal game. No more deserving player. Rick Nash is a constant on the forecheck and overall. But he still has only seven goals and two assists. It’s nice to see Kreider use all his tools scoring twice to get up to seven markers. What if he did it more often? Jimmy Vesey works hard enough but needs some breaks. He won’t produce on the fourth line.

8.The Coach. Sure. He makes mistakes that can really get on our nerves. But there’s not much panic from him. When they were losing, you saw a bit more edge from AV. He knew they had to turn it around or he may have been gone. The one thing I see is better adjustments. He’s not afraid to shorten the bench and double shift his best guys. Something Torts did effectively. I do think he can loosen up and play Boo Nieves more in the third. He’s responsible defensively and looks like a classic 4C. I did critique him over demoting Buchnevich in a loss and him not seeing the ice until the final minute was insane. It’s okay to put McDonagh and Shattenkirk together when it’s needed if they’re trailing by a goal in crunch time. But overall, I don’t have many complaints. Especially given the roster which will need upgrades.

Not quite 10 reasons. But all things considered, the eight I came up with are all positive developments. It’s up to the roster to continue to build on the recent improvement. With a winnable game at home against Detroit on Black Friday and then the surprising Canucks visiting Sunday, they can keep a six-game home winning streak alive. Come to think of it, that’s a good sign. Building a home ice advantage is important. The 6-1 rout of the Canes was only their third win away from MSG. An area they have to get better at. After Florida visits Tuesday, they’ll have played 17 home games compared with just eight on the road. So, it’s imperative to keep winning at The Garden.

Making the playoffs won’t be easy. Winning the games they’re supposed to win can help the cause.

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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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