By Sean Hartnett
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Hockey can sometimes be a strange and cruel sport.
On some nights, a player’s execution may be right on the money, but he ends up with nothing to show for it. Then, a day or two later, that same player’s hard work is rewarded in spades.
Rangers sophomore Jimmy Vesey was mired in a prolonged slump prior to Wednesday’s meeting with the visiting Boston Bruins. The 24-year-old left wing entered the contest with one point in the previous seven games and only three points all season, despite averaging 14 minutes of ice time.
Vesey’s minutes were slashed to just under nine during Monday’s 5-3 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets — and he didn’t leave the bench over the final 22:45 after being on the ice for two goals against.
Suddenly, the youngster who was coveted by a host of NHL clubs in the summer of 2016 was facing the first difficult challenge of his career. He had to find a way to get back into head coach Alain Vigneault’s good graces.
On Wednesday, Vesey forced the issue by playing with an edge. He consistently drove to the net, was involved in numerous blue-paint scrambles, and wasn’t afraid to get his nose dirty. As a result, he was rewarded for his efforts. Vesey scored twice in a span of 29 seconds as the Rangers claimed a 4-2 victory over Bruins to run their season-high winning streak to five.
“I think any team needs contributions from all four lines and I consider myself a goal scorer,” Vesey said. “I’ve done that my whole life. I think I’ve had the chances some games and it hasn’t necessarily fallen for me. I got a couple greasy ones tonight and maybe it will take off from here. I’ve been trying to have good habits in my game — finishing checks, stopping in front of the net and I had two pucks just land there for me. But I’ll take them.”
Vigneault noted after the game that Vesey’s poor luck wasn’t an issue of effort.
“Maybe he wasn’t finishing on a lot, but Jimmy was working hard and, like you saw tonight early on, before he scored the goals, he made a couple real strong plays along the wall in our end that permitted us to get the puck out,” Vigneault said. “So, there’s more than just finishing; there’s a complete 200-foot game and tonight, the positive thing and the confidence-builder for him is he was able to finish on a couple of those and he went to the tough areas. So that’s definitely, as far as finishing and contributing, that’s a real positive step for him.”
It was fitting that the Charlestown, Massachusetts native, who captured the Hobey Baker Award at Harvard University, would reignite his season against the Bruins, the team he grew up following.
“I think every game this year, I’ve been trying to bring it and be more consistent. Probably, deep down (I) give a little extra against Boston,” Vesey said.
Vesey has tallied five points, including three goals, in four career games against the Bruins. The 6-foot-3 forward said he knows what it will take to keep things going in the right direction — repeating the right habits.
“I think at this time last year, I might have had more points, but I think I’ve actually played better this year,” Vesey said. “I’ve played a more well-rounded, just solid game. I’ve been more physical this year and I’m trying to be hard on the forecheck and go to the net. It’s starting to pay off.”
It’s easy to forget that Vesey has only skated in 109 career games, including the playoffs. He’s still relatively raw and inexperienced at this stage of his development.
“(Vesey) was all over the puck. He was forechecking hard and he deserved the couple that he got. He’s been working hard for them,” alternate captain Marc Staal said. “This is just his second year. He’s still learning the NHL game. I think his play away from the puck, his D-zone coverage, making the right play at the right time has been really good. He’s continuing to move in the right direction.”
Lately, the Rangers have gotten A-plus performances from Pavel Buchnevich, Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and J.T Miller. If Vesey can find the game-to-game consistency that the Rangers are looking for, he should provide a major boost to their secondary scoring.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey