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Hartnett: Vigneault Is Being Rewarded For Belief In Chris Kreider

Scary-Good Kreider-Stepan-Nash Line Has Potential To Ignite Rangers
Chris Kreider (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Chris Kreider (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

John Tortorella no longer paces angrily inside the Rangers’ locker room like a dark, threatening cloud ready to explode into a storm of obscenities and brutal, in-your-face honesty. Whether or not you appreciated Tortorella’s old-school coaching style, his legacy as former Rangers head coach is now locked far away in the past.

This team has separated itself entirely from any bitter aftertaste leftover from the Tortorella Era. His successor, Alain Vigneault immediately healed the wounds that Torts inflicted on this team. Vigneault declared that every player would be given a clean slate in training camp. T-shirts worn by the Blueshirts during A.V.’s inaugural training camp bore the motto: “Clean Slate — Grab It!”

One player in particular whom Tortorella did not extend a legitimate opportunity to was promising winger Chris Kreider. Whereas Tortorella refused to accept Kreider’s growing pains, Vigneault is nurturing the powerful 22-year-old’s remarkable array of offensive talents.

Vigneault has exercised patience and belief in Kreider after the winger forced himself into his plans after failing to crack the Rangers’ October 3 opening-night roster. Kreider has finally been given a consistent top-six forward role and he’s rarely missed a beat since his October 24 season debut in Philadelphia.

Through 20 games, Kreider has scored six goals and registered 10 assists for a total of 16 points. His blazing speed, dominant natural strength on the puck and assertive style of play is earning him significant attention in the Calder Trophy race.

KREIDER LIGHTS UP THE GARDEN WITH FIRST-CAREER HAT TRICK

It was fitting that Kreider, of all people, thrived when Tortorella and the Canucks entered Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Kreider was an ever-present force and marked the occasion with his first-career hat trick.

Kreider struck twice in the first period. The first was a wrist-shot and the second came through a redirected power-play goal. Kreider camped out in front of Canucks goaltender Eddie Lack, battling defenseman Kevin Bieska to secure the hat trick on a deflected effort with 10:22 remaining in the third period.

After demolishing the Canucks, 5-2, on Saturday, not one player in the Rangers’ locker room spoke of any extra meaning in spoiling Tortorella’s return to his former workplace.

Kreider cited an injury as a reason for his struggles last season. The winger labored through a bone chip in his ankle for much of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He also pointed out that he learned much under Torts.

“I would have struggled trusting me, too,” Kreider said. “I was playing through an injury. There’s no hard feelings. I learned a lot from him. At the end of the day, it’s two points and we’re happy to come away with the win.”

NASH ON KREIDER: ‘HE HAS ALL THE SKILLS TO BE AN ALL-STAR’

Star teammate Rick Nash spoke glowingly of Kreider after the 22-year-old’s sensational hat trick. Nash expects Kreider to continue these dominant performances as the season wears on.

“No matter who we’re playing, he should be playing like that every night,” Nash said. “He’s got all the skills to be an All-Star in this league.”

Nash was able to complete a three-point night, having assisted on two of Kreider’s goals and tipping in a goal of his own.

Vigneault has experimented and tinkered with his lines, trying to get the required jumpstart while the Rangers battled injuries throughout the season. Now that the Blueshirts are finally healthy, Vigneault should stick with his new line of Kreider-Derek Stepan-Nash that excelled on Saturday.

The head coach of the Rangers liked what he saw out of the line against Vancouver.

“You’ve got Kreider and Nash both capable of cycling the puck, protecting the puck,” Vigneault said. “Those are big bodies that are real tough on the opposition to get the puck back, and that’s what we showed today. You combine that with a smart player like ‘Step,’ and the way they played with the energy and the compete level that they did today — they’re really tough.”

DEL ZOTTO’S BELIEF RETURNS, ESCAPES HEAD INJURY

Defenseman Michael Del Zotto has been the subject of frequent trade rumors and has found himself struggling to maintain his place in Vigneault’s lineup. Vigneault gave Del Zotto a vital opportunity to prove his worth to the Rangers by scratching John Moore from Saturday’s lineup.

The 23-year-old blue liner took full advantage in his return by scoring a second-period blast on the power play.

“The goal was icing on the cake and, of course, the two points,” Del Zotto said. “There were so many little plays. You saw how excited some of the other guys got when I scored. It was such a great feeling for me. It shows how tight we are in here, and how close of a group we are.”

Del Zotto was fortunate not to suffer a serious injury when Canucks forward Tom Sestito targeted Del Zotto’s head with his shoulder in the third period.

“All I really felt was the side of my face, contact,” Del Zotto said. “I have to see the replay but (I was) kinda defenseless there, looking up in the air trying to play the puck, and it seems to be his M.O. It is what it is. I should have known he was on the ice, protect myself and played it differently.”

The incident went unpenalized, though “light heavyweight” 6-foot-0, 192-pound Derek Dorsett stood up for Del Zotto by dropping the gloves with the 6-foot-5, 228-pound Sestito at 12:36 in the third period.

Vigneault called Dorsett “an ultimate team guy” and “a true competitor.”

Both the Rangers and Del Zotto confirmed there weren’t any concussion symptoms as a result of the hit. Del Zotto’s face was bruised and he received stitches after the game. Sestito did not face a league hearing.

A.V. LEAVES EVERYONE GUESSING OVER MONDAY’S STARTING GOALIE

Following Saturday’s victory over the Canucks, Vigneault refused to announce Monday’s starting goaltender. Cam Talbot’s impressive 35-save effort against Vancouver in his Garden debut propelled his personal record to 6-1-0. His goals against average stands at an outstanding 1.49 and is coupled with a sparkling .944 save percentage.

Vigneault admitted that his mind was made up, though he isn’t ready to reveal his starter until Monday.

“I know who I’m going with,” Vigneault said. “I haven’t talked to my goaltenders yet, so everybody will know Monday.”

It would be a curious move if Vigneault opts to start Talbot between the pipes when the Rangers host the Winnipeg Jets on Monday night since Henrik Lundqvist’s body is fresh and rested.

Let’s be clear. Lundqvist does not sit out consecutive games when healthy.

Update: Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault announced after Monday’s practice that Cam Talbot will start against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday night at MSG.

A decision to start Talbot would prompt unwanted speculation about Vigneault’s faith in the 31-year-old unrestricted free-agent-to-be.

If Vigneault starts Talbot on Monday, he could be merely riding Talbot’s hot hand. Yet, it would send message boards and social media into a frenzy. Should Vigneault stick with Talbot against Winnipeg, he would most likely be using the emerging 26-year-old’s stellar play as an extra motivational tool to force Lundqvist to raise his game.

Lundqvist is 8-11-0 through 20 games played this season. His 2.51 goals against average is far higher than his lifetime GAA of 2.26, though Lundqvist’s .917 save percentage is right on track with his .920 career SV percentage.

The Swede’s desire to be the best goalie on the planet is undeniable. He does not require any extra fuel to push himself back into Vezina Trophy form. Vigneault would be wise to steer clear of the dramatic headlines by simply starting Lundqvist against the Jets.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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