By Sean Hartnett
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Last season, Rangers general manager Glen Sather pulled off a fleecing by trading for steady defenseman Kevin Klein from the Predators.
On January 22, Sather completed the one-for-one swap, sending struggling defenseman Michael Del Zotto to Nashville and gaining dependability in the form of Klein.
“I knew he was a good player,” winger Rick Nash said. “I was excited when we got him. He’s a guy who I’ve played against since I was young. He can play in all the different roles.”
In Klein, the Rangers knew they were receiving a right-handed defenseman with shutdown capabilities on a good contract. Klein is earning an average of $2.9 million per year through the 2017-18 season.
“Our scouts had some real good reports on him,” Vigneault said following the January trade. “I’ve seen him for many years – solid two-way defenseman, more of a defensive-type defenseman.”
Klein has been everything the Blueshirts expected him to be and more by improving offensive game. He scored the opening goal in Wednesday’s 2-0 victory over Philadelphia by lurking into the low-slot to receive a pass from Carl Hagelin, snapping a shot past Flyers goaltender Steve Mason.
“To give him credit, he has found a way to find the right spots when he can get a shot through,” Vigneaut said. “His shots, three of his goals, he’s been right in the honey hole there. He’s getting that shot, mostly on the blocker side there. He’s been able to find the net. Good for him, good for our team.”
Klein has scored four goals through 18 games, tying a previous career high reached twice in 2008-09 and 2011-12. Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle is somewhat surprised by Klein’s increased offensive contributions.
“He’s playing with poise and playing smart,” Boyle said. “He’s playing a nice, solid game. Obviously, he’s contributing offensively as well, which is something he’s not necessarily known for. It’s a nice addition (to his game).”
Del Zotto returned to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday wearing the rival uniform of Philly. It remains to be seen whether Del Zotto will ever cut out the careless passes, defensive zone turnovers and poor reads that has stunted his progression. Through 17 games as a Flyer, Del Zotto has scored two goals and notched six assists. While these are strong offensive numbers, they do not tell the story of Del Zotto’s continued inconsistency.
The Rangers pulled the plug on Del Zotto at the right time. Meanwhile, Klein has been trusted to play an increased role this season, logging nearly three additional minutes per game.
“He’s been a huge part of our team ever since the trade,” alternate captain Dan Girardi said. “He’s capable of that top-four role. You can see out there, he’s a really calm guy and makes smart plays. Klein’s a real stay-at-home pro. He takes care of himself every day and takes it really seriously.”
Girardi remembers recognizing Klein’s high potential while the pair played junior hockey together for the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League in 2003-04.
“He was a really good player back in juniors,” Girardi said. “He got a bunch of points, had a great shot like that and was really good defensively. He’s turned into a great pro.”
BOYLE FEELS POWER PLAY IS CLICKING, NASH PRAISES ASSISTANT COACH ARNIEL
Throughout Wednesday’s game, the Rangers’ power play operated with a smoothness and cohesion. Nash doubled the Rangers lead at 7:43 of the second period by finishing off a fancy tic-tac-toe sequence.
“That’s what you need from the power play,” Boyle said. “I’ve always said – people are concerned with the percentage. For me, it’s always been about scoring the one goal. Whether you go 1-for-9 or 1-for-2, I think it’s important to get the one key goal. That’s the deciding factor in a game.”
Nash praised the impact of a healthy Boyle and the preparations made by assistant coach-power play coach Scott Arniel.
“The power play was clicking tonight, playing with some confidence,” Nash said. “Getting Boyle back is a huge part of it. He’s been quarterbacking power plays for years. You can tell how confident he is back there setting it up. Scott Arniel put together a great game plan. As long as we follow it, we seem to have success.”
RANGERS KNOW INCONSISTENT WAYS CANNOT CONTINUE
The Rangers have struggled to maintain any form of consistency this season. Dominant performances have been followed by flat, losing efforts. Positive trends shown in Wednesday’s victory over Philadelphia must be replicated each night for the Rangers to find success and live up to their potential.
“It needs to last every game,” Girardi said. “Real tight checking, close support – if you find a way to play like that every night, you might not get the score every night but you’re going to have a good effort and give yourself a chance to win every game.”
Backup goaltender Cam Talbot shut the door on the Flyers, making 31 saves to earn his fourth career shutout. The Rangers have now moved one game above .500 at 8-7-4. Girardi believes that the Blueshirts are fortunate to be third-place in the Metropolitan Division and must begin separating themselves from the pack behind them.
“We’re fortunate that some teams are struggling like we are in our division,” Girardi said. “So we’re still in the hunt there. We’re kind of lucky that way. It’s a matter of time that everyone’s going to start going up. We’ve got to put some wins together and create some space.”
Boyle knows the Rangers’ lingering inconsistency must be stamped out.
“There have been too many good games that are followed by average to below average efforts,” Boyle said. “We need to back this one up, make it count, get ourselves on a little roll and string some wins together.”
The Rangers will visit the lowly 5-13-2 Buffalo Sabres on Friday night. This is where the Rangers need to flex their muscle and extinguish their inconsistency. The Sabres have been steamrolled by superior teams this month, losing by five goals in two meetings with the Penguins and suffering the same result against the St. Louis Blues.
Follow Sean on Twitter – @HartnettHockey.
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