By Sean Hartnett
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If you don’t bring the right level of energy and urgency in the NHL, you’re going to be left in the dust. No matter how much talent a team has, they will go nowhere if they’re lacking fire and desperation on a nightly basis. The Rangers learned this the hard way after being outscored by a combined 12-4 in weekend losses to Metropolitan Division rivals in the Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The injury-depleted Blueshirts proved they’re a better team than their play of late has indicated in Tuesday’s 5-1 home victory over the rival Philadelphia Flyers. After a string of flat, turnover-filled performances, the Rangers were able to execute with speed and in cohesive units of five on both ends of the rink. Anything less wouldn’t have sufficed against a hot-scoring Flyers team that had entered Madison Square Garden on a four-game winning streak and averaged 5.25 goals over their winning run.
It was going to take a fully committed and alert 60 minutes of hockey to shut down a Flyers team that scores in bunches and owns the league’s eighth-best power play. Philadelphia possesses three forwards playing above a point-per-game in Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. The Rangers held the trio to zero points and a collective minus-six. As a whole, the Rangers held the Flyers to 26 shots while limiting their Grade-A chances and killing off all three of Philly’s power play opportunities.
“At the end of the day, I thought we played a much sounder game defensively and we had some real good looks offensively that we were able to capitalize on,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “There’s no doubt there was a big focus on that in the meetings this morning and the meetings prior to this game, obviously on the skill that Philly brings, how to adjust and how to do a better job. Overall, I think our guys did a real good job.”
It all starts with the right mindset. Defenseman Brady Skjei noticed a different kind of look in his teammates’ eyes prior to Tuesday’s game.
“We knew coming in that this was a big game for our team,” Skjei said. “We haven’t been playing well at all. We knew that we needed to be harder on pucks and win more battles. I think you could just tell in everyone’s eyes tonight that we weren’t going to be shut down. Every guy battled hard. It was probably our best defensive game in a while, and we ended up scoring five goals. So that’s a testament to playing the right way. You’re going to get your looks when you play good defensively.”
The best teams in the NHL defend and attack in harmonious, five-man units. For a good stretch, that integral part of the Rangers’ winning formula was broken, and thus they suffered on the ice and on the scoreboard. On Tuesday, the Rangers reclaimed that identity.
“It’s a five-man game, for sure,” Skjei said. “You see forwards backchecking and getting sticks on pucks. Those guys can stay above the forwards in the offensive zone and have good sticks and help out on the back pressure. It makes our job a lot easier. Our forwards did a great job tonight doing that.”
“I think we forechecked with five guys, we set up our neutral-zone trap with five guys, and we defended with five guys,” alternate captain Rick Nash added. “It makes such a big difference when you’re all on the same page, and I thought we were tonight.”
It was fitting that Nash played an instrumental role in Tuesday’s win. The 33-year-old had come to symbolize the Rangers’ inconsistency and spells of tough luck. Nash entered the game on a 12-game goalless drought.
The 6-foot-4 wing scored two goals and led all skaters with seven shots on goal. Nash played with an in-your-face gusto and with a real chip on his shoulder. The Nash who can be such a threat as a combo power forward/one-on-one dominator showed up with authority.
“It is only one game,” Nash said. “It’s not that big of a deal to me. It’s what I’m supposed to do, so I am going to go back to work tomorrow, keep working on my game and try to come back even better against Buffalo.”
The Rangers were boosted by the return of captain Ryan McDonagh, who had missed Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh due to back spasms. McDonagh recorded an assist and three shots on goal in 21 minutes.
Peter Holland played a solid first game for the Rangers following his recall from minor-league Hartford. He looked assured on the penalty kill and set up Paul Carey’s short-handed goal.
Injuries and the funk of previous games forced Vigneault into a rethink. The Rangers’ coach shuffled his forward lines and clearly got the desired effect. The new-look lines struck the right balance:
That was clear when Pavel Buchnevich sprung Nash on a long-distance, threaded pass directly to Nash’s stick that sent Nash to the races to eventually beat goaltender Brian Elliott on a breakaway. The chemistry was also evident with Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast reunited to form a speed-burning fourth line with Holland, the new guy, in the middle.
Though the Rangers were without Kevin Hayes and long-term absentee Chris Kreider, they were able to cool off the surging Flyers because their players brought full-hearted effort and Vigneault was able to find an ideal line balance.
But as Nash said, it’s only one game, and the Rangers will need to repeat the trick Thursday against Buffalo.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey