By Sean Hartnett
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Keith Yandle was acquired by the Rangers to be a difference-maker against the league’s best teams. Sunday’s meeting with the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks could be seen as a potential Stanley Cup Final preview, as both teams are gunning for the Presidents’ Trophy.
In front of the home fans and against a Western Conference powerhouse, it was the perfect opportunity for Yandle to demonstrate his value. The Ducks entered Madison Square Garden carrying a four-game winning streak. Hours later, steamed head coach Bruce Boudreau admitted that the Ducks were on the receiving end of a “good, old-fashioned butt-kicking.”
“I think (the team was) embarrassed on national TV, and you’re playing a team that’s right behind you in the race for being number one,” Boudreau said. “We looked more like number 30 than we did number one. But, it’s over. It’s a good, old-fashioned butt-kicking.”
Much of the damage was caused by Yandle. The gifted offensive-defenseman picked apart the Ducks with surgical precision throughout Sunday’s convincing 7-2 victory over the 99-point Ducks. Yandle finished the night with three assists, four shots and a plus-three rating.
“It’s been coming over the past few games,” Yandle said. “Every game, I’m getting a better feel for myself with this group. Over the last week or so, it’s been feeling better and better for me.”
Teammate Mats Zuccarello has noticed Yandle’s confidence growing.
“Obviously, you’re impressed,” Zuccarello said. “You’ve seen that from him for many years in this league. He’s starting to get more and more into the group. You can see he’s getting more confidence on the ice. He’s a great team player, a great guy in the locker room and an even better person.”
The 46-18-7 Rangers now stand atop the Presidents’ Trophy race, having collected 99 points in three fewer games than the Ducks and in two fewer games than the Montreal Canadiens.
Some fans and media members expressed concerns after Yandle suffered an initial five-game dry spell and collected just one point in his first nine games as a Ranger. In addition to his lack of productivity, Yandle was making poor decisions under pressure.
His early struggles in a Rangers uniform mirrored the difficult adjustment period for Martin St. Louis following last season’s trade-deadline blockbuster. Fans panicked when St. Louis failed to light the lamp in his first 14 games as a Ranger.
Great players find a way. St. Louis eventually found his game and played an integral role in last season’s run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
“Different positions, but they’re both elite players in my mind,” head coach Alain Vigneault said prior to Sunday’s game. “Obviously, Marty is probably a notch above here. Keith is one of the better offensive-defensemen in the league.”
With Yandle added to the mix, the Rangers feel they have a strong chance to reproduce last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Final and perhaps go one step further by lifting Lord Stanley. Back on Mar. 2, Rangers general manager Glen Sather compared Yandle’s potential impact to star winger Rick Nash.
“This player doesn’t come along very often,” Sather said. “He’s like Nash in a lot of ways. We’ll see how it develops.”
During Sunday’s victory, Yandle became the only defenseman to record three 40-assist seasons since 2010-11. He ranks second in the league with 25 power-play assists and his 27 power-play points are the seventh-most in the NHL. Yandle leads all NHL defensemen in power-play assists and power-play points. His 40 total assists is only bettered by Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (43).
“He’s a very valuable player,” forward Kevin Hayes said. “There’s a reason why we wanted to get him at the deadline. He’s always been an offensive guy and it shows, with the little passes out of the corner and the no-look in the center. That’s why he was brought here. He’s more than just a points guy. Tonight, he had that blocked shot that was point-blank. Those are the things that people out there don’t notice.”
There’s no question that Yandle could prove to be an elite player for the Rangers. Crucially, he looks like he’s getting his game in order ahead of the playoffs.
STEPAN STEPPING UP
Prior to Sunday’s 7-2 victory, alternate captain Derek Stepan was mired in a 12-game pointless drought and a 14-game goalless slump. Stepan put in a breakthrough performance, recording two goals and an assist.
A relieved Stepan was glad to get the monkey — check that – the multiple pianos off his back.
“Feels like a couple pianos off my back,” Stepan said. “For 12 or 13 games, I didn’t do much with the puck.”
Vigneault was never worried about Stepan’s prior struggles.
“I wasn’t concerned about it,” Vigneault said. “He was playing well at both ends of the rink, he was getting good looks. It was just a matter of time before he started to get on the score sheet. Tonight, he did. Hopefully, that’s going to continue for him and a couple other guys.”
AV COMPARES MILLER TO POULIOT
For the second game in a row, Vigneault compared forward J.T. Miller to former Ranger Benoit Pouliot.
“Benny brought a physical dimension that, so far, J.T. has brought to our group,” Vigneault said.
During St. Louis’ absence, Vigneault reshuffled the lines, placing Miller on the left side with Derick Brassard and Zuccarello. Last season, Pouliot formed incredible chemistry with Brassard and Zuccarello.
Miller sniped a snapper past John Gibson at 2:38 of the second period. He also added an assist on Brassard’s third-period goal. The 22-year-old is finding greater consistency in his game. This season, Miller has cut out the positional mistakes that once plagued his chances of remaining in the lineup.
“He’s playing great,” Hayes said. “We needed someone to step up and take Marty’s spot. J.T.’s done that the last two games. He’s been playing great.”
Giving up early on Miller would have been a mistake. The Rangers have tolerated Miller’s growing pains and their faith in him is paying off.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.