By Sean Hartnett
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If the Rangers are to get their season going in the right direction, they are going to need Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes to embrace the challenge and step up as go-to guys.
Four seasons ago, head coach Alain Vigneault demanded the Rangers’ top stars “put on their big boy pants” during a second-round playoff series against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins that was spiraling out of control.
The sudden passing of Martin St. Louis’ mother galvanized a team ethos of everyone realizing that they could dig a little deeper for a teammate who was going through a difficult time. A determined turnaround from a 3-1 series deficit built an unshakable confidence in the Rangers that pushed them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Defacto captain Brad Richards, Ryan McDonagh, Henrik Lundqvist, Dan Girardi, Derek Stepan, Derek Brassard, Marc Staal, St. Louis, and all the big boys stepped up and delivered.
Core groups change over time due to retirement, the salary cap squeeze and the genuine need to incorporate the fresh legs of youth into the machine. Back in the 2014 playoffs, Kreider was that fresh, exciting, and dynamic young player whose 13 points in 15 games played a key role in the Rangers reaching their first Cup Final appearance since 1994.
Miller was a more peripheral figure at that point, only appearing in four playoff games, while Hayes wouldn’t join the Rangers until the offseason, after his rights with the Chicago Blackhawks expired.
What doesn’t change is the on-ice and off-ice adversities that emerge during every season. At the moment, the entire hockey world is paying close attention to the status of an under-pressure Vigneault and rival general managers are sizing up trade targets should the wheels come off a Rangers bus that finished October 4-7-2.
But all that outside noise is just noise. It doesn’t seem to be impacting this team in a negative manner. In fact, it seems to be fueling their eye toward improvement. Vigneault has remained a resolute figure while some have criticized his methods, his juggling of defensive pairings, and the level of trust he puts in the team’s youth.
He’s been under pressure before. Vigneault’s baptism as an NHL head coach came 20 years ago in the hockey-fervent city of Montreal at the youthful age of 36. I don’t think anything Vigneault has experienced in his four-plus years in New York compares to the pressures of being a rookie head coach in your home province, guiding a franchise whose name is synonymous with the Stanley Cup and had members remaining from the 1993 championship roster.
The bellyachers amongst the Rangers’ fan base who like to use Vigneault’s managing of youth as the stick to beat him with probably haven’t given him credit for the tough love that allowed Kreider, Miller, and Hayes to develop into more complete forwards. None of those players were guaranteed ice time until they took significant strides forward in refining their two-way aptitude.
On Thursday in Tampa, the Rangers flipped the script against the Lightning (10-2-2), who have been one of the league’s dominant forces. In a season plagued by lethargic, turnover-prone starts, the Blueshirts came out dogged, determined, clean in their execution, and physically engaged in the first period. All that carried over for 60-plus minutes as the Rangers defeated the Lightning, 2-1, in overtime.
A coach can only succeed if the men he sends out on the ice play to or above their standards and are able to execute his system. Vigneault’s uptempo style requires players to be quick on breakouts, aggressive on the forecheck, and to work harmoniously in units of five on both ends of the rink.
Kreider, Miller and Hayes aren’t young pups anymore. They have been hardened by age and expectations and are counted on to be core players at this stage of their respective careers. As a team, the Rangers were buzzing and created constant havoc around Tampa goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s crease. Kreider and Miller were particularly effective and engaged.
As the Rangers raced on a three-on-one break late in the first period, Brady Skjei, Mika Zibanejad and Kreider combined on a tic-tac-toe sequence, with Kreider supplying the finishing touch to give New York a 1-0 lead.
Lately, Kreider has answered the call by raising his game. The 26-year-old left wing has scored in consecutive games and has tallied four goals in the last six games. On Thursday, the 6-foot-3 wing was active with his stick and used his strength to muscle his way into prime scoring areas.
Miller is at his best when he’s feisty and getting in the face of opponents. He actively chirped at the Lightning and was dialed-in all over the ice. The 24-year-old forward recorded a game-high four shots on goal, won three of four face-offs, and scored the jaw-dropping overtime winner.
After receiving a drop pass from Kevin Shattenkirk near his own blue line, Miller raced to the outside and drove in on Vasilevskiy’s net like a freight train, while keeping the puck away from defenders before ripping a shot top shelf. Miller now has eight points in his last nine games.
The Rangers showed push-back in consecutive wins against Vegas and Tampa Bay. Several core members — Lundqvist, McDonagh, Kreider, Miller and Shattenkirk — found their “A” games.
The Blueshirts are still trying to get everyone on board, but a big win against a very talented team like the Lightning may be the revitalizing tonic needed to kick things into a higher gear.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey