It has become clear over the past two weeks the Rangers are not the same four-line offensive juggernaut since Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich left their top-six with injuries.
The broken fibula Zibanejad suffered Nov. 20 is going to keep him out another month or so, while Buchnevich’s back ailment that became too dire after the Nov. 12 game in Calgary will sideline him for about another two weeks. That has left coach Alain Vigneault searching for answers in terms of who plays with whom, juggling his lines constantly without much consistent production from any one unit.
So if he can’t roll four lines all with skill and score four-plus goals a game, the need is for one or two lines to carry the load.
A distinctive top line finally emerged in Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Hurricanes at the Garden, where the unit of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello combined for seven points as Kreider scored twice in the third period to break a 2-2 tie. For a team whose success has been predicated on its depth, it was an odd night to see the Rangers carried by their top players. And that is something that might have to keep happening if they want to stay afloat before they get healthy again.
The win brought the Blueshirts to 4-4-1 in their last nine games while 17-8-1 on the season, two points clear of the Penguins in first place in the Metropolitan Division with Sunday off and the next game Tuesday in Brooklyn against the Islanders. It’s been a very up-and-down first third of the season for Kreider, who missed some time with a neck and spine issue in early November. He now has six goals and 16 points on the season.
Stepan’s production has been even more wanting, with five goals and 18 points through the first 26 games for the team’s top center.
“We had some opportunities to shoot some pucks and then get second and third opportunities and maintain a little zone pressure. I think we’ve lacked that recently,” Stepan said after Saturday’s game. “But [we did] a lot of good things and found a way to win. It’s hard to win in this league and come out with two points, big ones.”
If the injuries have exposed a weakness in the Rangers’ roster, it is down the middle, where Zibanejad’s absence has loomed large. Vigneault tried to put J.T. Miller there for parts of two games with little success, and the elevation of Brandon Pirri from a role as a fourth-line winger and power-play specialist to a third-line pivot has not panned out, either.
Matt Puempel, the 23-year-old winger the Rangers picked up off waivers from the Senators, has managed to stay in the lineup because of his proclivity to shoot — and the Blueshirts’ need for goal scorers. That again has left Oscar Lindberg on the outside of the lineup looking in, yet it is not like Lindberg was making it difficult for Vigneault to sit him.
All of that has left the Rangers with an offensive void. They might need one line or a few top players to carry them for the time being. Behind Stepan’s line, the combination of Jimmy Vesey-Kevin Hayes-Rick Nash has been steady, and Nash has had moments when he has been particularly terrific, like the 3-2 win over the Hurricanes on Tuesday.
The Rangers will need that from their star players. As Vigneault is wont to say: “Your top players need to be your top players.”
Now that the Rangers aren’t quite as deep as they were to start the year, they need that to be even more true.