By Steve Silverman
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The New York Rangers are not there yet, but they are getting there.
Remember the team that started the season like they were the worst team in the NHL when they suffered back-to-back 9-2 and 6-0 defeats to the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks? That team is gone and the Rangers are now creating a new identity under Alain Vigneault.
The panic is over and the Rangers have reached the .500 mark. The 5-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night was nice because it showed the Rangers could compete with the elite teams in the Eastern Conference if they had all parts of their game working, but their Thursday night triumph over the Columbus Blue Jackets may prove to be more vital over the long haul.
You don’t get pumped up to go to Columbus for a mid-week game, particularly after taking the Penguins apart. The fact that the Rangers could win this game without anything more than a normal effort bodes well for the rest of the season.
It means that Vigneault has a pretty good system for his team that allows them to play well even after they are coming off an emotional game with no time off.
The Rangers are playing better for a lot of reasons. One is the team’s defensive effort.
That may be a bit hard to swallow at first glance, because one look at the standings reveals that the 8-8-0 Rangers have scored 35 goals and given up 43.
That means they are giving up an average of 2.69 goals per game, a figure that ranks 17th in the league. In the previous regime, the Rangers blocked shots and had Henrik Lundqvist at the top of his game in net. That meant they were normally one of the top three defensive teams in the league.
After a miserable start in the goals-against department, the Rangers have righted the ship. They have given up 14 goals in the last nine games, an average of 1.55 goals per game. The Rangers have gone 6-3-0 in that span.
Vigneault is not as dependent on shot blocking and Lundqvist as predecessor John Tortorella was. Vigneault wants to use backup goalie Cam Talbot a lot more than the Rangers used their No. 2 goalie in the past.
That makes nothing but sense. If you got a good look at Lundqvist in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils or against the Boston Bruins in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinal, you saw a goalie who was quite fatigued and nowhere near his best.
Vigneault has come to the proper conclusion that playing Lundqvist an average of nearly 70 games per season over the last six non-lockout years was not a good thing.
He wants Talbot to take a sizable number of games so that his Lundqvist is fresh for the playoffs.
He also wants his skaters to play a complete game and not make shot blocking their top priority.
It takes time for the message to take effect. Vigneault’s words have been heard since the start of training camp, but with the echo of Tortorella still looming large, it has been difficult to make the adjustment.
But the message is now getting through. Brad Richards is starting to get it and so is Derek Stepan. Richards is the team’s leading scorer with 13 points, while Stepan has 12. It should just be a game or two more before Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan join them in double digits.
The Rangers have turned their miserable start around, but they must keep hitting the accelerator hard.
If they do, their win over the Penguins will not be a fluke. It will be the jumping off point of a team that is going to be in contention for the Eastern Conference title for the remainder of the season.
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