Rangers coach Alain Vigneault knows its gut-check time for his team.
ANAHEIM – Alain Vigneault noticed “a sense of urgency” in his Rangers during Tuesday afternoon’s lengthy practice at Honda Center as they prepared to hunt Ducks Wednesday night and curb a two-game skid.
“I think if you’re a player on our team right now and you get up in the morning and you look at the standings, you’ve got to have a sense of urgency,” the coach said of Tuesday’s opponents in Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Penguins, breathing down the second-seeded Blueshirts’ necks.
Improved execution is as paramount as heightened urgency for the Rangers (39-23-7, 85 points), however, so Chris Kreider’s improved net-front presence and recent tear (five goals in nine games) is especially encouraging since it is jumpstarting this team’s age-old Achilles heel: its power play.
The Blueshirts’ man advantage infamously scored at a measly 12.6% clip (13-for-103) during their 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Final, and though it improved last postseason (21%, 13-for-62), the Rangers’ power play short-circuited to 0-for-6 in their Games 5 and 7 shutout losses to drop the Eastern Conference final.
Now, the Rangers’ 17th-ranked power play (18.6%) has scored in a season-high five straight games thanks to the high-end skill of Derick Brassard (three goals), the long-awaited captaining of the top unit by a confident Keith Yandle (goal, five-game point streak), and Kreider’s more effective presence.
“I think I’ve been doing it consistently. I just think the puck’s getting there,” Kreider said Tuesday. “Less is more in front of the net. It’s about being in the way. But how I’m playing (overall) is more of a function of how Step (linemate Derek Stepan) is playing. You could have scored on that one the other day (on an even-strength tap-in from Stepan against the Penguins).”
Kreider’s power will be tested by Anaheim (38-21-9, 85 points), which thumped the poor Devils, 7-1, on Monday night and rattled off a 25-4-2 record from Dec. 27 through March 5 to “the best team in the league” in the second half, as Vigneault said.
Vigneault has made noteworthy lineup changes for this big week out West: He is “going back to the well” moving Rick Nash – who rode the bike day off-ice (maintenance) – onto a familiar line with Brassard and Mats Zuccarello also reunited. The struggling Dan Girardi is off the top defensive pairing. Kevin Klein is up alongside captain Ryan McDonagh.
The coach also is putting Viktor Stalberg, “one of our better players,” on the fourth-line with Tanner Glass (back from injury) and Dominic Moore to “balance” his lines and feel confident in using all four of them during a grueling stretch of three games in “three-and-a-half days.”
Antti Raanta will start in goal Wednesday. Henrik Lundqvist will start Thursday night against the L.A. Kings and Saturday afternoon against the San Jose Sharks.