By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
Kevin Hayes gave the Rangers a huge lift Thursday night in his first game back after missing six consecutive contests due to a leg contusion. The 25-year-old center chipped in a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ thrilling 6-5 road victory over the San Jose Sharks.
Having arrived at the SAP Center on a three-game losing skid, the Rangers were eager to enter the All-Star break on a high note. A dogged effort allowed the Blueshirts to leave the “Shark Tank” with a vital two points in hand and positive mojo to build on when they return to action at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 1.
Losing a No. 2 center is a stern test for any hockey club. The Rangers wilted in recent games without Hayes backing up first-line pivot Mika Zibanejad. Hayes demonstrated what the Rangers were missing when he sent a powerful slapper past Sharks netminder Aaron Dell to open the scoring at 5:45 of the first period.
Of equal importance was the defensive zone presence he provided. The Rangers killed off San Jose’s lone power play, with Hayes’ 48 short-handed seconds leading Blueshirts forwards. His strong play across 200 feet made a considerable impact against a center-weakened Sharks team that shut down 36-point man Joe Thornton after he underwent right MCL surgery hours before faceoff.
In a roller-coaster season that’s been full of peaks and valleys, the Rangers are surprisingly right where they want to be heading into the All-Star break. The 63-point Washington Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division, followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins, who hold the second and third divisional spots, respectively. Though the 55-point Rangers sit just outside the two Eastern Conference wild-card positions, they are just two points behind Pittsburgh with a game in hand.
Despite their bumpy patches and a pileup of injuries, the Rangers are within striking distance of the Penguins and Blue Jackets. Long-term injuries to Chris Kreider, Kevin Shattenkirk and, to a lesser extent, Zibanejad and Hayes have made their challenge even more laborious. This team hasn’t been left in the dust, and we’ll see what they’re made of when they return from the break.
MCDONAGH, MILLER FIND THEIR GROOVE
In addition to Hayes’ standout contributions, captain Ryan McDonagh and top-six forward J.T. Miller summoned their best performances in a good while.
Rangers fans waited patiently for McDonagh to break out offensively after opening the initial 44 games of the 2017-18 season without a goal. The all-around defenseman put in a vintage performance, making a tremendous impact on both ends of the rink, similar to the best games of his back-to-back 2016 and 2017 All-Star seasons.
McDonagh recorded two goals within 72 seconds. He notched a tying goal at 11:04 of the second period and the go-ahead goal moments later on the power play. He tied for the game high with four shots on goal. The Rangers needed more from their captain, and he has delivered the goods of late by tallying six points (two goals, four assists) in his last seven games.
Miller needed to respond in a big way after being benched for the final two periods of Tuesday’s 6-3 loss in Anaheim. Head coach Alain Vigneault had sent a clear message to the 24-year-old forward, and he got the response that he desired from Miller, who took a bite out of the Sharks.
The 218-pound forward produced a three-point night (one goal, two assists) and recorded the game-winning goal at 18:10 of the third period. Known for his feisty play, Miller has often played his best hockey in tough road environments. His 17 road points share the team lead, and he leads the Rangers with four game-winning goals.
All season long, it’s been difficult to get a definitive read on a Rangers team that has been alarmingly inconsistent and self-inflicting, given their tendency to turn over the puck at crucial times. Vigneault and his coaching staff will have a six-day sabbatical to find solutions, as fans expect the Rangers to return home to Madison Square Garden as a much-improved outfit.
Please follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey