In the wake of John Tortorella’s departure, the New York Rangers started the 2013-14 season scrambling to find some semblance of an identity under new coach Alain Vigneault.
The black-and-blue, shot-blocking, defensive-minded structured style of play was no longer the team’s bread and butter. Instead? Well, it was hard to tell.
Saturday night’s debacle in Vancouver, in which an irate Tortorella went after Flames coach Bob Hartley in between periods, was a stark reminder of just how much has changed on Broadway. Gone is the brash, jagged-edged style of play, and with it the daily diatribes and unpredictable blow-ups from their headline-grabbing coach.
But in his absence, a new team has emerged and things are finally starting to come together for the Rangers. That much was evident in the club’s 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Blueshirts collected their third straight win, and seventh in the past nine games, as they improved to 27-21-3 on the season -- good for fifth place in the Eastern Conference.
Their best players? On top of their game.
Rick Nash recorded another multigoal performance, tallying twice for the second time in an eight-game span. Derek Stepan notched his second goal in as many games. Sparkplug captain Ryan Callahan delivered a clutch shorthanded goal to snuff out any Capitals’ comeback hopes. And goaltender Henrik Lundqvist cruised to another win, turning away 24 shots to hand the Caps their fifth straight loss.
Now, we’re starting to see the way the Rangers will win games under Vigneault: exploiting their speed and skill.
Both were on display on the Rangers’ first goal, when a hard forechecking effort from speedy winger Chris Kreider created a turnover for Nash. Nash pounced to intercept Dmitry Orlov's pass and raced in all alone against Philipp Grubauer, backhanding the puck past the rookie netminder for a 1-0 lead just 1:10 into play.
Nash tallied once more before the period was over, notching a 5-on-3 power-play goal for a 2-0 Rangers lead.
“He’s one of the best players in the game,” Lundqvist said. “When he’s on top of things, he’s going to be a difference-maker.”
Those difference-makers -- Nash, Lundqvist, Stepan, Brad Richards -- are paying dividends for the Rangers these days, and it has led to the team’s ascent in the standings.
The team has also been utilizing its collective speed in a big way. Vigneault has managed to find a balance of that element on three lines, and they’ve been rolling accordingly.
“It’s one of our strengths,” Callahan said. “We have a quick lineup and we can get hard on the forecheck if [defensemen] are bobbling pucks or anything like that. We create a lot of turnovers that way and I think you can see that in our play.”
Callahan’s hustle play to beat Orlov, bury Dominic Moore's rebound and reclaim a three-goal lead in the second period was just another example of that speed put to use.
Less than two minutes prior, Alex Ovechkin one-timed the puck past Lundqvist for a power-play goal that whittled the Rangers’ lead 3-1, but Callahan’s ninth of the season dampened the Caps’ surge.
“They had that push to be in it in the second but that shorthanded goal really takes away any life that the team could have,” Vigneault said. “We have a 4-1 lead from there and just took it home.”
What’s more is that the Rangers have been grabbing, and protecting, early leads. The team has scored the game’s first goal in five of their past seven games and are 13-3-1 when leading after the first period and 17-1-1 when leading after the second.
“It’s a difference-maker,” Nash said of the team’s superior starts. “You get stuck behind early and it’s tough to come back in this league. When you get off to a good start and you keep it rolling, keep the momentum on your side, you have a better chance to win.”
The Rangers have also been stingy on the defensive end of the ice, holding opponents to two or fewer goals in seven consecutive games.
Vigneault, who is finally seeing his new team take shape, seems pleased.
“We are playing real solid, in my estimation, at both ends of the rink.”