By Sean Hartnett
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Keith Yandle provides an indisputable difference for the Rangers.
There aren’t many players in the NHL who can initiate attacks the way Yandle does with his explosive speed and proficiency at outlet passing. Whether on the power play or at even strength, his puck movement and incredible vision are major weapons for the Blueshirts.
“He does a real good job of breaking the puck out for us — helping us come out clean,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s able to beat that first forechecker and make that pass where we come out with speed. He’s really playing hard and well for us.”
Vigneault leaned on Yandle on Wednesday night, handing the 29-year-old a game-high 22 minutes of playing time. Yandle repaid that faith by recording two primary power play assists in the first period, helping the Rangers to a 5-2 home victory over the Boston Bruins.
“He understands the importance of passing on the power play and I think that’s something that he is so good at,” Rangers alternate captain Derek Stepan said. “When he makes a pass it’s right on the tape and it’s to a guy that is in a scoring area, and that’s something that isn’t easy and he’s able to do it really well.”
Over the last 20 games, the Rangers’ power play is clicking at 28 percent, and Yandle has been a vital cog in the machine. He stalks the opposition with his unpredictability. He can create his own space, moving teammates and the opposition like pieces on a chess board, makes crisp tape-to-tape passes and packs a powerful shot.
Yandle has become popular with teammates to the point where they’re running out of adjectives to describe his game-changing playmaking. Alternate captain Marc Staal paid him quite a compliment by comparing his wizardry to Hall of Famer Adam Oates.
“Keith Oates was dishing all over the place, it was nice to see,” Staal told WFAN.com. “For the last month or so, that unit has been making plays and playing with a lot confidence. It starts with him back there, controlling everything and making great passes. He’s dangerous to shoot from up there, and he makes defenders respect that and it opens up lanes for him.
“For the better part of the month here, he’s been fun to watch,” Staal continued. “I just called him that today — Keith Oates. He’s impressive, he deserves it — he’s a great passer. The amount of talent he has on the offensive blue line, the patience he shows, his vision — there’s not a lot guys in the league who can make the plays that he does. Obviously, it’s a huge strength in his game. We’re happy to have him clicking like that on the power play. It’s a big boost for our team.”
Among defensemen, Yandle’s 1.51 assists per 60 minutes trails only Erik Karlsson and John Klingberg, and his 24 primary assists are only behind Karlsson and Roman Josi. He leads the Rangers with 37 assists, 17 power play assists, shares the team lead with 24 primary assists and his 42 points are best among Blueshirts defensemen.
New to the Rangers, Eric Staal said he has an enhanced appreciation for the way Yandle operates on the power play and sees the ice.
“He’s a smart hockey player,” Staal said. “Our power play is coming at a good clip right now. A lot of it is because of his plays, the way he reads the ice and reads the game. You knew he had those offensive instincts, but to see it firsthand — it’s fun to see. He played a great game tonight. Obviously, special teams are huge and it’s going to be as we move forward.”
And what Staal said there is truth. When the playoffs come around, Yandle has the ability to be the kind of player who can lift the Rangers because of his rare set of skills.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey