By Sean Hartnett
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Speed stopped the Rangers’ playoff hopes dead in its tracks in April. They were swept aside in five playoff games because they couldn’t handle the lightning legs of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The skate was on the other foot on opening night Thursday, as the Rangers used speed as their weapon to torment the rival Islanders. Skating with a ravenous energy across five-man units that was a night-and-day difference to their 2016 playoff exit, the Rangers earned a comfortable 5-3 victory in front of charged home crowd.
“There’s no doubt that, especially in the first two periods, that our quickness and our speed was a factor both defensively and offensively,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “The fact that we could roll four lines, I think that definitely helped us. They made it 2-2 when we made a couple of mistakes on rush coverage, but I like the way we responded and came right back and made it 3-2. The power play went out and gave us a two-goal lead, and that was a big factor in getting two points from this game.”
If a coach can spread speed and skill across four lines, he’s in a good place. Having four lines that can generate positive possession and scoring chances is a must for any contending club. It’s an element that’s been missing from the Rangers’ equation since their trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, when Dominic Moore, Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett formed a difference-making fourth line. Back then, the trio was able to generate possession and thrived against tough assignments.
What the Rangers have now with Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri and Jesper Fast is a fourth line blessed with speed, skill and scoring touch. Once center Oscar Lindberg is healthy enough to return to game action, he will figure into a crowded competition for playing time, and that will be a good problem for Vigneault to have.
“It’s pretty clear we’re four lines deep,” Pirri said. “Everyone can score. We’re a fourth line, but at the same time contributing offensively is half the battle. Being solid defensively, that’s all four lines, and not just the fourth line. We’re a fast team. It was a lot of fun playing tonight, and if we’re being solid defensively, with all the speed and skill we have, it’s going to make it tough on opponents every night.”
While the arrival of Pirri and Grabner has given the fourth line a much-needed shot in the arm, new faces Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey has added dynamism to Vigneault’s top two lines. Together, the top six of Vesey/Derek Stepan/Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider/Zibanejad/Buchnevich established healthy offensive zone time and generated a slew of Grade-A chances.
“You see us playing fast again,” Kreider said. “There are 81 games to play, but you want to play well in Game 1, Game 2, 3, etc. The five-man unit is moving as a group, suffocating them inside of that house, limiting their chances, picking up pucks and going, instead of getting spread out and giving up chances in those high-percentage areas. Even when they were getting pucks and pucks didn’t bounce for us, you saw guys getting picked up, sticks getting lifted, guys getting cleared out, so it’s a good sign.”
For a kid who barely speaks English and is adjusting to a new league and a smaller North American rink, Buchnevich sure was impressive in his NHL debut. How about that long-distance, cross-ice pass that sent Kreider to the races on the 3-2 go-ahead goal?
“He sees the ice very well,” captain Ryan McDonagh said of Buchnevich. “Obviously, we know he’s a skilled guy. He’s got some playmaking ability that’s tough to find and is noticeable right away. He’s a guy that can skate, too, so him and Kreider and Mika, that was a tough line to handle for a majority of the night.”
Kreider was voted the No. 1 star of the game after a speed-burning and physically engaged performance. He finished the night with a goal, an assist, seven shots on goal and four hits in 16:11 TOI.
“He’s playing to his strengths,” Vigneault said. “Obviously, that’s being a power forward, using his speed when he has the puck and using his speed on the forecheck to create a turnover. Power forwards have to go to the tough areas, and we saw that tonight.”
As a team, the Rangers used their speed effectively on both ends of the ice and looked nothing like the team that struggled to match pace with the Penguins in April. As Kreider said, it’s only Game 1, and there’s still 81 regular season games to go – but it sure was an encouraging sign if you pull for The Boys in Blueshirts.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey