By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers desperately needed to raise the bar after their execution dipped during a three-game losing skid. On Monday night, they got back to playing with the urgency, energy and cohesiveness that’s required from a team that is expected to challenge for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The Blueshirts re-established a strong, consistent forecheck and supported each other in all zones in five-man units during the 4-0 win over the San Jose Sharks, a team that’s already one of the better ones in the Western Conference.
“We had more energy in the room going into the game,” Rangers alternate captain Marc Staal said. “It felt like everyone was committed to turning the tides a little bit. The way we were playing, we weren’t happy with it. A team like San Jose, as well as they’re playing, coming in here and challenging us, I thought we did a good job of raising our level of play.”
The Rangers weren’t going to suddenly fall off from last season’s 113-point, Presidents Trophy-winning campaign to a state of mediocrity. Stamping out mistakes quickly has been a trademark of head coach Alain Vigneault’s tenure.
“Good teams don’t let these things slide,” winger Rick Nash said. “They stop them right away. I believe we’re a good team and we were urgent to turn it around.”
The Rangers swarmed the Sharks. If not for a couple of shots that hit iron, the final score could have been even more lopsided. Nash led the way, making an impact all over the ice. He exerted his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and caused all kinds of have, including screening Sharks goaltender Martin Jones on Mats Zuccarello’s second-period power play goal.
Nash finished the night with eight shot attempts, an assist and three hits in 15:39 ice time. Although still without a goal, Nash is a player who makes the Rangers go. He capitalized on a number of transition opportunities, making quick rushes up ice and was unlucky not to light the lamp.
“I thought he had one of his best games since the beginning of the year,” Vigneault said of Nash. “He had some great chances. The ones that aren’t going in right now are definitely going to go in later.”
If Nash represented the energy brought by the Rangers on Monday night, Staal illustrated the responsibility shown across four lines and three defensive pairings. Staal was at his very best, putting on a defensive clinic and made a big impact when the puck was on his stick, registering a goal and an assist.
“We stayed aggressive, we stayed on top of them,” Staal said.
The Rangers’ penalty killers were again on top of their game, allowing only one shot on goal while shorthanded for 3:39. They are 10-for-10 on the kill over their past three games.
Adding to the good feeling was the play of Jesper Fast. The 23-year-old winger has shown throughout his young career that he thrives on responsibility. In the early going the Rangers have attempted to find the right mix of top-six forwards. Fast skated with Chris Kreider and Derick Brassard on the second line and played a highly effective game, screening Jones on Staal’s first-period goal and in the third period broke free on a long-distance pass from Kreider to score a goal of his own.
The high-energy Swede also registered three shots on goal and recorded three hits.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in him because of his work ethic and hockey sense,” Vigneault said. “Good to see him rewarded by a goal and I thought that line had some good looks tonight and it is a step in the right direction.”
Executing in five-man units, getting back to playing their speed game, Nash’s strong performance, Fast looking like a fit on the second line, Staal and fellow blueliners putting the Sharks on lockdown, and Antti Raanta’s coolness between the pipes in notching the shutout – there was a lot for Rangers fans to feel good about.
The Rangers have rediscovered their winning blueprint. Now, they just need to follow it through.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey