The Rebuild is 2-0


Vesey Returns: Jimmy Vesey celebrates his game-winner with teammates Brady Skjei and Steven Kampfer in a second consecutive win for the rebuilding Rangers by a count of 3-1 at Winnipeg. AP Photo via Getty Images 

Since making the announcement that they were officially rebuilding last week following last Wednesday’s Boston Massacre, the Rangers are 2-0.

After Brendan Smith cleared waivers, Neal Pionk was recalled from Hartford along with John Gilmour due to captain Ryan McDonagh being injured. Both young defensemen have paired together to help provide a spark in wins over the Flames and Jets. Each are good skating, puck moving blueliners which helps team speed and transition. Areas coach Alain Vigneault emphasizes.

While it’s nice to see a couple of prospects rewarded under a coach who hasn’t always been patient with kids, the truth is the Blueshirts don’t win either game without improved play from Henrik Lundqvist. Prior to Friday’s 4-3 victory on home ice over Calgary, Vigneault critiqued his franchise goalie for the team’s slide. He made one comment indicating that the goaltending had to be better. When it has, they’ve been competitive.

He told the truth. However, it was utterly ridiculous to place the blame on Lundqvist for the team’s struggles. He had stood on his head to get them back in the playoff race before the team slumped with seven regulation losses in eight games to fall to last place in the Metro Division. Even backup Ondrej Pavelec had been stellar stealing a few games.

The reason for that is how bad the defense had played. Between the forwards and D, there was a lack of communication that led to odd-man breaks and goals against. A goalie can only bail you out so many times. With a decrease in scoring since Chris Kreider went down along with Kevin Shattenkirk, it put more pressure on Lundqvist primarily to be near perfect. When he admitted following the 6-1 Bruins loss that  allowing two goals in the first period affected his confidence, he acknowledged that he became too passive on the ne r two goals in the second leading to Pavelec replacing him.

Mental affects physical. So much of sports is mental. When things aren’t going right, athletes tend to overthink leading to prolonged slumps. This is especially true in baseball. When a hitter goes cold, they fall out of their comfort zone and try different things. It usually is mechanical. The same for basketball when a good shooter goes cold from the outside. Sometimes, just a slight adjustment or a mental break can fix it.

Garden Faithful have been blessed to have such a great athlete over the past decade. Lundqvist is a perfectionist. Most goalies are. Well, the special ones especially. There’s a reason this franchise has only missed the playoffs once since the Swede took over the number one reigns from Kevin Weekes his rookie year in ‘05-06. He is a extremely focused player who makes no excuses. Win or lose, he’s at his locker answering questions.

In the close wins over the Flames and at Winnipeg yesterday with Michael Grabner adding a empty net goal for a 3-1 win over  one of the West’s best in a very tough building to win, Lundqvist showed up off his best stuff.

The 4-3 victory over Calgary was a come from behind at MSG. Rick Nash scored the tying goal on a rebound for his eighth goal since the new calendar year. That gave him 17 continuing to boost his trade value. J.T. Miller made a brilliant pass across for a Mika Zibanejad power play goal that proved to be the winner. It was a gutsy comeback. But not without Lundqvist saving their bacon with a remarkable sliding save on a dive across to deny a two-on-one. In relief of a injured Pavelec (out 2-3 weeks), he stopped 28 of 30 shots to pick up the victory.

It was a similar story on Sunday. Only 24 seconds in, Winnipeg thought they scored the game’s first goal on a Tyler Myers blast. But a offside challenge proved it was offside with a skate in the air instead of on the blueline. It was close but the right call.

Undeterred, the Jets came right back on a legal goal from Nikolaj Ehlers on a open one-timer at 1:06 past Lundqvist for a 1-0 lead. Winnipeg took it to the Rangers early outshooting them 11-6 in the first period. But Lundqvist never allowed anything else to get by him legally.

The Rangers responded well. A Ehlers giveaway allowed Mats Zuccarello to break a long scoring slump when he was able to sneak a wrist shot past Connor Hellebuyck late in the first. It was a momentum turning goal. His team was much better in the second getting 18 shots on Hellebuyck, who kept the game tied.

With the game still tied at one with under four minutes to go, Jimmy Vesey picked a good time to score his 11th in his first game back after missing the past three due to a concussion sustained on a dirty Filip Forsberg elbow. On the winning play, David Desharnais got the puck to Brady Skjei at the point. His long shot was headed wide until Vesey got a piece of it for a big goal at 16:07. It was a nice moment for a player who too often has found himself outside the top nine.

Lundqvist came up big again with under two minutes remaining when he slid across to rob Mark Scheifele on a one-timer. Just a great read by a laser focused goalie whose competitive fire remains intact following the team’s plans. The thing is he can steal games. With the Metro the way it is, the last place Rangers sit only two out of the final wildcard due to the recent Devils’ struggles and the unpredictable Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Islanders.

In the win, Lundqvist finished with 36 saves. So, after replacing Pavelec, he’s turned aside 65 of 68 shots recording two wins. That included 17 of 17 in the third period with the ice tilted. Winnipeg had another goal taken away due to a high stick. The correct call by the refs which video review confirmed.

So, the Rangers find themselves in a odd position. Still very much alive in the wildcard chase with 59 points in 56 games, they know a few players will be relocating in the next two weeks. Nash is the most likely candidate with at least a dozen teams interested. Grabner could also go along with Nick Holden.

So too could McDonagh with the Lightning involved. The Rangers reportedly want 19-year old rookie Mikhail Sergachev. Highly unlikely. Tampa is rumored to be offering 2017 first round pick Cal Foote, a first round pick and another piece. The Bruins and Wild are also interested. If they really can get a top prospect, a first and either a second prospect or second round pick, I would do it. McDonagh has been a very good Ranger who has been a big reason for the deep runs in ‘12, ‘14 and ‘15. But he’s signed through 2019 and will command upwards of $7 million. That makes him likely a goner.

The Rangers have to do what’s best for the team moving forward. They must build towards the future. Whatever happens these final 26 games of the regular season, so be it.

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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