Now that the Winter Classic is over the Rangers can get back to business; the business of winning hockey games.
Yes the Winter Classic counts towards the standings. And yes the Blueshirts won the game; thereby securing two points. But even Head Coach Alain Vigneault admitted that it became a distraction at times.
With all the extra off-ice responsibilities thrown at the players, it’s no wonder that many seemed relieved for the annual New Year’s Day spectacle to be over.
The players, coaches and fans alike got to enjoy it while it lasted, but the second-half of the season is upon the Blueshirts and there’s work to be done.
Currently occupying a Wild-Card spot, the Rangers know they need to improve several areas of their game if they’re to be taken seriously as true Stanley Cup contenders.
The defense still needs to solidify itself as it is near impossible to go far in the playoffs giving up close to 40 shots-per-night.
As for the offense, the fourth-line has been tremendous but the bulk of the team’s scoring still has to come from the top two lines.
Their five-on-five scoring and power-play have been streaky at best and now it’s time to see if they have the goods necessary to take the next step as a team.
And once again the 7th Avenue Skaters will only go as far as Henrik Lundqvist can take them.
It’s imperative that they either go out and get a reliable backup netminder to spell Lundqvist, or they have to give Ondrej Pavelec the chance to show he can be a solid number two option.
Either way, the Blackhawks coming to town is the next hurdle that the Rangers must clear, and the outcome will be telling.
DEEP ROOTED CONNECTIONS
Kevin Hayes was originally drafted by Chicago in the first-round (24th overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
Injured Chicago center Artem Anisimov spent parts of four seasons with the Rangers (2008-2012) and was the Rangers’ second-round (54th overall) pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
Michal Rozsival spent six-years with the Rangers (2005-2011).
Mats Zuccarello: Arguably the best playmaker on the Blueshirts, Zuccarello is two assists away from 200 in his career.
Henrik Lundqvist: The King is the Ranger’s franchise wins leader. He’s also set to add another milestone to his legacy. His next win moves him ahead of Blackhawks legend Tony Esposito for eighth-place on the NHL’s all-time wins list (424).
PLAYER TO WATCH
BLACKHAWKS: PATRICK KANE. The Blackhawks leading scorer is having another fine season with 38 points (16G, 22A) in 38 games; 11 in his last nine. Many people zeroed in on his somewhat slow start to the season and stated that he was beginning to decline — myself included. Well what’s more dangerous than a superstar player? How about a motivated superstar. Kane is perfectly capable of maintaining his point-per-game pace and should find himself among the league leaders when the season’s over.
RANGERS: KEVIN SHATTENKIRK. After the Blueshirts’ practice on New Year’s Eve at Citi Field, Head Coach Alain Vigneault was asked about Shattenkirk’s play to this point of the season. A rather direct Vigneault stated: “he’s a work in progress right now. He’s been pressing at times and occasionally tries to do too much. But I know he’ll turn it around.” The question now becomes, how much longer until he turns it around? The season is half over and the Rangers play in the most competitive division in hockey. If they’re going to make a run at the Cup they’re going to need Shattenkirk to play the way he has throughout his career.
Jesper Fast unexpectedly returned to the lineup for the Winter Classic against Buffalo. And his performance, along with that of his linemates (Paul Carey and Boo Nieves), suggests he’s back for good.
Chris Kreider remains without a timetable to return from the blood clots in his right arm. In the meantime, the Blueshirts need to figure out a way to spark their top-six forwards without their powerful winger.
The rest of the lineup should remain the same from the Winter Classic.
Lundqvist should be in net.
We won’t know for sure until Coach Alain Vigneault speaks at 6pm.
Recently called up Vinni Lettieri could have a hard time cracking the lineup with Fast’s return. That, coupled with the solid play of the fourth-line could mean a demotion for the rookie.
WHERE TO WATCH
The game will be broadcast on NBCSN at 8pm ET. And for in-game coverage check out our Twitter account @NYRBlueBulletin.
Lundqvist isn’t getting any younger; you can’t run him into the ground before the playoffs even begin. Call it fate, but it’s no coincidence that when Henrik missed nearly two months with a neck injury in 2014, he came back rested.
A rested Lundqvist then guided the Blueshirts all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
This is game number 40 for the Rangers.
And it is the start of their toughest playoff push in years.