After a quiet Deadline, pressure increases on Rangers

As expected yesterday, the Rangers stayed the course at a quiet Trade Deadline that lacked the pizzazz of past years. While GM Jeff Gorton acknowledged that they explored the market for Brendan Smith, it wasn’t worth it to move him. Even with the team signing defense prospect Zac Jones out of UMass following him winning a national championship, they like what Smith has brought.

The only other name mentioned on Monday was exiled defenseman Tony DeAngelo. Despite DeAngelo’s camp approaching the Rangers with contract termination through irrevocable waivers, it depended on DeAngelo reaching agreement with a new team on a contract. Even though TSN insider Darren Dreger reported the Canadiens were interested, NY Post columnist Larry Brooks had a source that indicated it never got that far. So, DeAngelo will wait for a buyout this summer before seeing if any suitors are interested.

With the Trade Deadline stuff out of the way, now it becomes about the final part of the season. With 15 games remaining, the Rangers trail the fourth place Bruins by four points. Boston has two games at hand. Both Original Six clubs are in action tonight. The Bruins take on the Sabres with Taylor Hall while the Rangers face off against the Devils in the first of a crazy four-game series this week.

While these games don’t carry the same significance for the Devils, they’d love nothing better than to play spoiler. Especially after unloading Kyle Palmieri, Travis Zajac, Dmitry Kulikov and getting rid of Nikita Gusev (Panthers) and Sami Vatanen (Stars). See Hasan’s review of the team moving on from the vets without the best returns.

New Jersey features Jack Hughes playing with rookies Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen on the first line. Miles Wood has been a good finisher around the net. They likely will be without leading scorer Pavel Zacha. Jesper Bratt is tied for the team lead. But it’s possible Nico Hischier could return. P.K. Subban and rookie Ty Smith lead the blue line along with Damon Severson and Ryan Murray, who didn’t move. Mackenzie Blackwood is the goalie who faces a lot of shots.

The one thing the Rangers cannot do is take these games for granted. The Devils will play hard. Mike McLeod and Nathan Bastian have been factors in previous games. Nick Merkley has been a solid contributor. Tyce Thompson is signed and playing. So, it’s not like the Devils are going to roll over.

“We certainly feel good about the way we’re playing and the direction we’re going, but we certainly know that teams in situations like the Devils are very dangerous,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “There’s not a lot of pressure on them, they made a lot of moves the last few days, and these teams are the dangerous teams.

“They’ve got nothing to lose and we’ve got to be ready. Regardless of who you’re playing we have to approach it the same way and play the same way regardless of whether we’re playing the Capitals or the Bruins or the Devils or the Sabres.”

If they are to make any sorta run at the playoffs, then the best players have to be the best players. It can’t be only about the young kids who continue to improve. That would be the evolving Kid Line featuring Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere. It also includes the poised Vitaly Kravtsov, who recorded his first NHL point when he helped set up a Smith goal the other night. Quinn has liked him enough to play Kravtsov with every line.

Chris Kreider, who’s in one of those scoring slumps, cannot be invisible during this crucial stretch. His 17 goals and nine power play goals lead the team. But he enters today’s match without a goal in seven straight. Kreider has no even strength goals over 15. That’s why Quinn demoted him for a few shifts to the fourth line. If he can’t produce, this team isn’t making it.

The top line that usually has Kreider with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich isn’t clicking lately. It’s interesting that both Zibanejad and Buchnevich looked elevated by the play of Kravtsov. He created Smith’s tying goal to earn the team a point in a tough 3-2 overtime loss at the Islanders. If things aren’t going well, Quinn can’t hesitate to go back to it.

The second scoring line featuring leading scorer Artemi Panarin with Ryan Strome and Colin Blackwell didn’t have much of a game on Sunday night. Panarin had no shots and Strome hit the net twice. Blackwell, who is noticeable, also didn’t register a shot. The top six must perform better. It’s trended down recently. That can’t continue.

The checking line is more effective with Kravtsov on it. Not surprising given his skating and creativity. Kevin Rooney and Brett Howden are hard workers who both are keys to the improved penalty kill. Due to the maturity of Kravtsov, who looks like a well rounded player, Quinn has not been shy about rolling all four lines. A welcome change. However, his top guns must step up.

That includes the bipolar top power play unit which is hit or miss. You can’t control the puck for as long as they do without more shots on goal and more power play goals. Adam Fox is without a point in two straight following his 12-game point streak which put him into the Norris conversation with Victor Hedman and Shea Theodore. Fox has had two subpar games in a row by his standards. Obviously, they’re going to need him down the stretch.

Fox and Ryan Lindgren remain the trusted top pair. They didn’t have a?great two games versus the Islanders. But they were aided by K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba, who had good games in the 4-1 win. Then it was Smith and Libor Hajek supplying both goals the other day in their best performance.

Undoubtedly, Quinn will lean heavily on his top four and starter Igor Shestyorkin, who held the Blueshirts in Sunday’s game with some huge saves during a bad first period. Shestyorkin will likely get three of the four games this week with the first three spaced out. You have tonight’s match in Newark. Then Thursday at Madison Square Garden. Saturday is a 12:30 afternoon matinee at MSG with Sunday’s final game at 3 PM in Newark.

These are the final four meetings between the Hudson rivals. The Rangers know they can’t afford to slip up. Winning three of the four is imperative. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment.

Quinn has hinted that he’d like to see what Morgan Barron can do. When is the question? At the moment, Julien Gauthier and Phil Di Giuseppe are the odd men out. I kinda feel for Gauthier, who played well aside from the penalties. It looks like he’s destined for Seattle.

With Jones signing, the Rangers are going to play him. They’re burning a year off his entry level contract. The interesting part will be when. Is it if they fall out of playoff contention? I have to think they’ll wait to see what happens before we see Jones and Barron.

Whatever happens, we’ll have a better idea of where the Rangers are in their rebuild by next week.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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