Rangers Roll, but not Without Issues

So far this season the New York Rangers have been an absolute smash hit on Broadway.

Winners of three straight, eight of nine, and 11 of their last 13 games, the Rangers currently sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 13-4-0 record and 26 points, just two behind East-leading Montreal.

The Blueshirts have scored a league-best 72 goals, own a whopping +34 goal differential through 17 games, and have scored five goals or more nine times already this season. For what it’s worth, nhl.com this week also listed the Rangers atop its Super 16 power rankings.

With Chris Kreider practicing Thursday and likely to play Friday in Columbus against a Blue Jackets team that has won six straight on home ice, the Rangers get a key player back in the lineup after a two-game injury absence. In other words, to steal a phrase, the rich get richer.

Though it seems like all is perfect with Alain Vigneault’s squad, and to be honest much of it is, there are still a few areas of concern for the Rangers.

Kreider’s Neck Issues

While a pleasant surprise to see Kreider rejoin his teammates Thursday for practice and declare himself again fit to return to the lineup Friday, that the power forward missed four games in late October with neck spasms and then returned to New York for tests during the current road trip, missing another pair of contests, is worrisome.

The fact that he was held without a goal, and benched twice, in the six games he did play between injuries, is not exactly great news either.

Kreider was the Rangers’ best player during the preseason and burst out of the starting gates with multiple-point outings in the first three games and a 3-4-7 ledger through four contests. It seemed he was finally going to fulfill his immense potential and the greatness Vigneault predicted for him before last season.

Then the injury. Followed by uneven play at both ends of the ice. Then the mystery surrounding his latest injury, this time termed simply “upper body”. Now a question mark in his latest return to the lineup.

The Rangers have weathered Kreider’s absences quite fine, so far. They have won five of the six games he has missed, scoring 26 goals in that span, including seven in Tuesday’s win up in Vancouver. However, looking at the big picture, if Kreider is not right, not healthy enough to perform at his peak level as the season progresses, it will be a major blow to the Rangers, one that could eventually disrupt the Garden party they have enjoyed.

Back to Buchnevich

A similar injury concern surrounds rookie Pavel Buchnevich. The highly skilled 21 year-old Russian did not practice again Thursday and will miss his third consecutive game against the Blue Jackets because of back spasms.

Like Kreider this is the second time Buchnevich is sidelined with the same injury. He missed five games in October when his back acted up and now has been absent for nearly a week. Back issues are always troubling, especially when there are still five months remaining in the regular season, not to mention the Rangers hope to make a long playoff run after that.

When healthy, Buchnevich has produced, so, like Kreider, his absence does leave a big hole in the lineup. He adjusted very quickly to the North American game, recording at least one point in six of the first eight games he played (4-4-8) this season. Buchnevich also scored goals in four straight games, something that no Blueshirt rookie had done since Derek Stepan back in the 2010-11 campaign.

Buchnevich was really hitting his stride and was a difference maker before his latest injury setback. If he continues to have back woes and is unable to be counted on to stay healthy, it will make life difficult for Vigneault and, ultimately, for the team.

Right now the Rangers have compensated quite well with Kreider and Buchnevich sidelined, their depth providing plenty of offense from all four lines. However, will that continue all season or is it simply a red-hot run this team is on?

The answer to that question is not known; but the Rangers are better off with Buchnevich, and Kreider, flying around the rink than sitting upstairs watching.

Defensive Deja-Vu?

A year ago the Rangers raced out to a similar 15-3-2 start through 20 games. At the time all seemed to be great in Rangersland, except if you were actually paying attention and watching the games closely. Defensive breakdowns, poor decision-making, neutral zone turnovers, and sometimes Three Stooges-type play in their own end was camouflaged by the outstanding work of goaltenders Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta, and the wins piled up.

Eventually the mistakes became too big and were too often, there wasn’t enough offense generated, and the goalies could not sustain the surreal level they began the season at. Though the Rangers still finished with 101 points, they were ripe for the picking come playoff time, dusted in five games by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Not to say the same is happening this season, but there have been some glaring weaknesses in the Rangers’ defensive game the past couple of weeks, even amidst all the winning. The latest example was Tuesday night when a struggling Canucks team took it to New York in the first period, yet the Rangers held a 1-0 lead after twenty minutes due to the brilliant play of Lundqvist. The Blueshirts would go on and win with ease, but after the game Kevin Hayes pointed out that it was not the team’s best effort and that it was fortunate victory despite the lopsided score.

The Rangers have not been as sloppy or mistake prone as last year’s edition, but it bears watching to see if the goaltending and high-flying offense are masking some bigger issues in their own end.