By Sean Hartnett
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Filling the void left by Derek Stepan’s departure has not been an easy for the Rangers. No one player on the roster can easily step into the vacated role and replicate all the things Stepan does well, including terrific playmaking, intelligence on both ends of the ice and big-game poise.
Recently, the problem swelled to the point that coach Alain Vigneault opted to dress three centers in games against the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators. The call-up of Cristoval “Boo” Nieves was intended to alleviate the issue by placing him between Pavel Buchnevich and Michael Grabner on the fourth line. The Rangers probably didn’t expect the 23-year-old center to produce a No. 1 star performance in just his second career NHL game.
On Thursday night against Stepan’s Arizona Coyotes, “Boo” took center stage at Madison Square Garden five days before Halloween. Nieves recorded three assists in his season debut, as the Rangers defeated the Coyotes, 5-2.
The Grabner-Nieves-Buchnevich line contributed seven points (four goals, three assists). Grabner and Buchnevich each scored a pair. On the Rangers’ third goal, Nieves controlled the puck with one hand along the wall while being pressured by Arizona right wing Brad Richardson. He unleashed a one-handed pass to an open Grabner. It was the kind of play you’d expect from a crafty 10-year veteran, not a guy with two career games under his belt.
“I think we just meshed really well – me, Grabner and Buchnevich,” Nieves said. “Grabner is a really fast player like me, so it’s easy to keep up with him. A guy like Buchnevich can put the puck just about anywhere. They made my transition here pretty easy.”
Nieves showed how he can be a solidifying piece to the puzzle by demonstrating his speed and playmaking ability. Oddly, he became the first Ranger to post a three-point game in one of his first two NHL games since Stepan’s hat trick debut on Oct. 9, 2010, at Buffalo. Nieves is also the first Ranger to record a three-assist game in one of his first two NHL games since Dominic Moore on Nov. 1, 2003, at Montreal.
The Rangers were a much faster and more energetic team Thursday. Prior to the game, Vigneault spoke of the difference that comes with rolling four lines. While the Rangers were dressing three centers, the lines were constantly in flux given the need for mixing and matching.
“I’ve been a big proponent of four-line hockey,” Vigneault said. “I believe that you can play a better pace, a faster pace, a faster tempo.”
After the game, Vigneault said he liked the line balance and speed factor that was made possible by Nieves’ introduction.
“Well, if you look at how the ice time was spread tonight, it was pretty evenly matched for the four lines,” Vigneault said. “I think that permits us to play with a higher pace and more energy, and you can roll and score with four lines quickly, and I think that’s what Boo’s line helped us do tonight by playing well and being efficient on the ice.”
It was a difficult night for Stepan, who looked out of sync and overcome by emotion in his Garden return. He entered Thursday in scintillating individual form although the Coyotes are yet to record a victory. The 27-year-old center has recorded seven points through his first 10 games since joining Arizona. After Thursday’s defeat, Arizona is 0-9-1.
“It was probably one of the hardest things I have had to do in my career, playing in this game,” Stepan said. “I thought it took me a period and a half to get going a little bit. Mentally, I wasn’t sharp. It was just hard to stay focused. Like I said, it was one of the hardest things I had to do, and I’m glad that it’s over with and I can move on now.”
The Rangers honored Stepan with a video highlight tribute on the big screen. A visibly emotional Stepan watched from ice level, then pounded his heart with his glove and raised his stick to salute the crowd. He was given an ovation befitting one of the best centers this franchise has produced.
Defenseman Adam Clendening skated for 15:03 in his return to MSG. Former Ranger Anthony Duclair scored in the second period.
Rangers alternate captain Rick Nash skated in his 1,000th career NHL game and rallied teammates to ensure the night was special by grabbing a win.
“Before the game, I told the boys I really wanted this one and we needed our best effort. It’s a special night I’ll never forget,” Nash said.
When asked what stood out about his 1,000th game, Nash answered: “I would say the support of the players and from the Rangers organization. They’ve been first class since I got here. They brought my whole family in tonight, so I have to say thanks to the Rangers for that. The guys kind of made it all about me tonight, and I appreciate that. I’m not one that really likes the limelight and kind of like to be in the background. It was kind of nice.”
On a night that was special for Nieves and Nash, what stood out the most was how the Rangers finally looked like a well-oiled machine thanks to a four-line attack. Albeit, it was against a dismal Coyotes team, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“One thing that stood out for me was we kept it kind of simple,” Nash said. “There was a lot of chipped pucks. When there was a play to be made, we made it, and when there was no play there, we kept it simple and kept our legs moving. I thought every line chipped in. Boo’s line and Grabner and Buch played unbelievable, and it was fun to watch them. It seems like they handled the puck pretty well. Obviously, their speed, too, was fun to watch.
“If you look at all the good teams, whether it was Pittsburgh the last few years, all four lines chip in,” Nash continued. “It’s what you need to be successful.”
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey