By Sean Hartnett
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How the Rangers fare on their California road swing could be a true measurement of their progress following last summer’s Stanley Cup Final defeat.
Starting Wednesday night, the Blueshirts will face three Pacific Division powerhouses in the Anaheim Ducks, defending champion Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks in four days.
The Rangers were overpowered by the Kings in last season’s cup Final. Their most glaring flaw was a stagnant power play that went 2-for-22 over the five games. Some fans assigned blame to associate coach Scott Arniel, who was head coach Alain Vigneault’s hand-picked power play specialist.
But as the Rangers near the halfway point of the 2014-15 season, Arniel has gotten their power play clicking with cohesion and confidence. The Blueshirts have won 10 of their last 11, and are now operating Arniel’s 1-3-1 man-advantage scheme with quick movement and instinctual execution.
The Rangers have tallied a power play goal in five consecutive games and in seven of their last eight, going 10-for-26 (38.5 percent) in that span.
NASH ON ARNIEL: ‘HE’S MADE A HUGE IMPACT’
Winger Rick Nash believes that Arniel’s attention to detail is a key element in the team’s success. Arniel is responsible for scouting the opposition and preparing game plans.
“He’s made a huge impact,” Nash said. “I’ve had him in Columbus and I’ve had him here. He’s really detailed and positive. It helps our power play and five-on-five game tremendously. Arnie gives us a great game plan ahead of games. He scouts the other team. We know exactly what we’re seeing. It’s matter of the guys on the ice getting the job done.”
VETERAN BOYLE FINDING HIS GAME
Another reason why the Rangers’ power play is clicking has been the presence of veteran power play quarterback Dan Boyle. A broken right hand and the flu played havoc with Boyle during the early months of the season.
Now healthy, Boyle is performing to expectations. He has recorded five points in five games, collecting three power play points over that stretch.
Even at 38, Boyle remains a highly mobile defenseman with tremendous puck-moving savvy. His ability to make intelligent reads with and without the puck makes him a unique weapon on the power play.
“He’s very good at reading when he can jump in there and he’s such a good skater he can get back, too,” alternate captain Derek Stepan said of Boyle in late December. “It creates offense. Even if he doesn’t touch the puck, it causes confusion and it creates space for us forwards.”
The Rangers’ power play might be able to set a tone out West. Though the Ducks lead the NHL with 58 points, they are only 21st on the penalty kill (79.4 percent). The Kings and Sharks, who would be in the playoffs if the season ended Wednesday, are ranked 18th and 14th, respectively.
“I think it’s the hardest road trip in the season,” center Derick Brassard said. “It doesn’t matter who we are playing, we play hard. It’s going to be a big test for our team.”
Though the Rangers have been playing their best hockey of the season, they are in seventh place in the Eastern conference. They sit one point behind the Washington Capitals for third in the Metropolitan Division, and seven back of the Pittsburgh Penguins and rival Islanders.
The good news for the Rangers is they have played only 36 games, the fewest in the NHL.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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