‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers buried their struggles in 2013 and are gelling together in the new year.
There was a time in mid-December when this team was dogged by significant questions about a lack of scoring punch, Henrik Lundqvist’s mindset and whether they could execute Alain Vigneault’s skating-intensive, quick-thinking, occasional risk-taking uptempo system.
December wasn’t very long ago, but the Blueshirts’ success so far in 2014 has made their initial growing pains under Vigneault seem like something that happened far in the past.
As January turns to February, Vigneault’s men in blue, red and white are proving they’re capable of winning both high-scoring and low-scoring hockey games.
“I think there are so many areas of our game that it’s been a lot better, starting with me,” Lundqvist said. “But it’s been a lot of good things. I like that we can win games when we score a lot. We can also win low-scoring games. Our special teams can step up and win games for us. So we’ve been winning in different ways. That is a big thing going down the stretch. It’s exciting to feel that we’re growing here as a group, as a team and now is the time you want to do it.”
The Rangers’ two-game stay at Yankee Stadium displayed ample evidence of their ability to win in different ways — as they demolished the Devils in a 7-3 track meet on Sunday and protected their 2-1 lead in Wednesday’s victory over the Islanders on a bitterly cold night.
“Our guys are definitely getting themselves well prepared to play whichever opponent we’re playing,” Vigneault said. “We know that all the games are going to be tough and challenging. They’re going to be hard-fought. Again, even in the New Jersey game, it was a 7-3 game, there weren’t a lot of chances on both sides. We were just able to bury ours. Tonight it was a hard-fought chance. They’re going to be very close, and we were able to score one more than they were.”
CONTRIBUTIONS FROM ALL OVER
The Blueshirts are now 29-23-3 and in second-place in the Metropolitan Division. They have the look of a team that is on its way toward leaving the rest of the chasing pack in its dust.
The Rangers are getting contributions from different players on different nights. This isn’t a team that is completely reliant on Rick Nash taking over a game with his individual brilliance. The wealth of goal-scoring is being evenly distributed.
“We have four good lines on our team,” Mats Zuccarello said. “From game to game, a different guy steps up. Everyone works hard. We’re just trying to work hard and play good defense and get some offense from that. Every night, it seems like a different guy steps up and I think that’s a strength of our team.”
The Benoit Pouliot-Derick Brassard-Zuccarello line is firing on all cylinders. Even fourth liners Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Daniel Carcillo are chipping in timely, important goals.
“It was Dom last night, and tonight Carcillo stepped up at an important time, and that’s why we won,” Vigneault said after Wednesday’s tightly-contested victory at Yankee Stadium.
POULIOT FINDING HIS GROOVE
The moment that seemed to energize the Rangers on Wednesday was Pouliot’s goal toward the end of the second period.
“That goal that Pouliot scored at the end of the second, I think really helped us moving forward and definitely helped us in that third period,” Vigneault said.
Throughout his career, Pouliot has blown hot and cold as he’s been branded with the reputation of one of the streakiest players in the NHL.
In early December, Vigneault challenged Pouliot to raise his game.
“Ben has been given a real fair opportunity and he hasn’t played to ours and his expectations,” Vigneault said on Dec. 7.
Since that point, the 6-foot-3 winger and former No. 4 overall draft pick has certainly pulled himself together to become a valuable contributor for the Blueshirts.
Pouliot is combining with creative winger Zuccarello and playmaking center Brassard to form one of the best-performing, yet overlooked lines in the league.
Brassard is impressed with Pouliot’s contributions.
“He’s been playing awesome for us,” Brassard said. “He’s a big body, he skates well, he goes to the front of the net, he wins a lot of pucks and he’s been doing a really good job at it. We need him to be good like that for the rest of the season.”
Zuccarello said he and his linemates share a lot of similarities in both their approach and abilities.
“I think we’re similar players. We can make a pass, we can go to the dirty areas, we can backcheck and everything like that,” Zuccarello said.
CHEMISTRY AND CONFIDENCE
The Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello line aside, the Rangers as a whole are feeling really comfortable with each other on the ice.
Gone are the days of John Tortorella constantly tinkering with his lines. Earlier this season, Vigneault mixed and matched. Now, he knows his four lines and three defense pairings. The chemistry is exactly where it should be.
Dominic Moore feels that the chemistry has been building for some time and will continue to build as the season goes on.
“We’ve had pretty much the same groupings for probably six weeks now,” Moore said. “It continues to build. Every time you’re talking on the bench, you’re communicating, sorting things out, working things out as a group. That’s something you build on game to game. I think you can see, it’s apparent now.”
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey
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