The Rangers are being coached, and have been for a while, as if every game were a playoff game.
After an atrocious start to the season, it’s hard to dispute the necessity of that mentality as purveyed by Alain Vigneault. But it’s equally as hard to think that such urgency is sustainable, being that it’s also antithetical to the way Vigneault says he wants to manage his roster.
That begins with Vigneault saying he wants to roll four lines, though that sentiment hasn’t been executed. Because why then was Rick Nash sitting for the final 9:12 of regulation on Tuesday night against the Penguins?
Say what you will about Nash’s offensive production — although saying he isn’t due for an offensive outburst would be shortsighted — but he is undoubtedly one of the Rangers’ best defensive forwards. And there he was on the bench, next to linemates Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey, as the fourth line of Boo Nieves, Paul Carey and Jesper Fast got regular shifts while successfully defending a one-goal lead that turned into a 4-3 victory over the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
So it’s good news for the Rangers they have a productive and dependable fourth line, especially as they prepare for Friday night’s match in Washington that kicks off a stretch of six games in nine nights that will necessitate depth, from top to bottom.
“They were playing well. They were playing better than some of the other guys,” Vigneault said of the fourth line. “When you get down to the last seven or eight minutes, I shorten up the bench a little bit. I went down to nine forwards and they were in it, because that line had been real effective at both ends of the rink.”
It’s true that the line centered by Nieves, a rookie, was effective, and more effective than Nash’s line — which, in itself, is a problem. But contributions from up and down the lineup are what’s needed, and with Nieves getting his first NHL goal on Tuesday, it could be a boost to a unit that can carry more than an arbitrary role going forward.
“I think the two things that we do really well is we play fast, and I think speed kills in this league. And I think the other thing is our simplicity,” Nieves said. “Playing with Carey and Fast, we don’t try anything too crazy. We keep pucks along the boards and we make the smart play that’s in front of us. And I think that’s starting to pay off.”
The win-at-all-costs mentality from behind the bench has paid off, getting the Rangers wins in six of their past seven and 12 of their past 15. Waking up Wednesday morning (a travel day to get from Pittsburgh to Washington before a practice in the nation’s capital on Thursday), they were four points behind the first-place Devils — with six teams in the Metropolitan Division within those four points.
But goalie Henrik Lundqvist had become ill, having to miss Tuesday what was scheduled to be his 15th straight start. It’s a positive sign that the team sent Alexandar Georgiev back to AHL Hartford on Wednesday, meaning Lundqvist likely is feeling better and could be ready for Friday.
Lundqvist repeatedly has said he feels physically fresh, but the workload is starting to pile up with 23 starts in the first 27 games. Vigneault has been adamant not to put a number on how many games he wants Lundqvist to start (as the coach did last season), but it’s clear the Rangers are going to need to keep getting wins in front of backup Ondrej Pavelec, who started Tuesday.
That had not been needed for a while — since Oct. 28, to be exact, the previous time Pavelec started. An open schedule thus far has allowed Vigneault to coach without too much concern about fatigue, from the crease out. That has his team back in the playoff race.
And maybe the NHL has become so bogged down with parity the only way to win is to coach every game as if it’s an elimination game. But that seems tiresome and unsustainable. More importantly, it seems against the way Vigneault wants to coach.
But for now, that’s the way it is — and there is no indication it’s going to stop anytime soon.