The New York Rangers are on a roll, having won three of their last four games. In those four games, they have outscored opponents by a total of 15-8. The last win came against a new division rival, the Columbus Blue Jackets. These two teams are fighting each other for the final playoff spot in the Metropolitan division and the two wildcard spots available. The key to the Rangers’ success came with just a small adjustment to the roster.
Head coach Alain Vigneault made one minor tweak: switching Martin St. Louis with Benoit Pouliot. St. Louis was moved to a line with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, while Pouliot is now playing with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin. The switch has paid dividends as it has ignited Brassard, who has three goals in his last two games, including the game-winner against the Blue Jackets, his former team.
Brassard also registered the primary assist on the game-winner against the Ottawa Senators. Zuccarello has seemed revitalized as well with four assists in the last two games.
While this has had a good impact on the second line, the third line featuring Richards has not had the same luck. Aside from Pouliot’s unassisted goal against the Senators, the line hasn’t featured much in recent games. Hagelin scored the empty-net goal to finish the Blue Jackets off, yet Richards has not been a factor. While more skilled than a traditional third line, there have not been as many opportunities, and even less of those have been put in the back of the net.
This recent success is due to the patience of Vigneault, who has proven that his philosophy works. He allows the team to gel together and get comfortable with their linemates. He has gotten strong production out of Brassard, Zuccarello and Chris Kreider this season. The most skilled players on the team, Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, are finally starting to come around and produce offensively.
Stepan is on pace for a career-high 55 points and has already tied his career-high of 34 assists this season. He has scored three goals in his last five games, increasing his offensive production at the right time for the Rangers. While fans will probably have to wait another year to see Nash produce 30 or more goals like he has seven times for the Blue Jackets, he has come around to embrace the system and improve his play. He recognizes that he needs to go towards the center of the ice to get those prime scoring opportunities, and is working to improve that aspect of his game.
Now the Rangers will face the New Jersey Devils in a game that will have crucial playoff implications. The Devils are fighting to come back and join the playoff race, and are five points behind Columbus for that final spot. The Rangers have a seven-point lead on the Devils, so winning in overtime will not set the Rangers back.
Brassard, Zuccarello and St. Louis need to continue to create opportunities and provide extra offensive support to allow the Rangers to win. The Devils play with a lot of grit and physicality, and the Rangers are slightly undersized in comparison. Players like St. Louis, Zuccarello and Kreider need to use their speed and puck-handling abilities to create offensive against a team like the Devils.
When all is said and done, the Rangers’ success has been and will be contingent on their supporting scorers.