Click your heels together and repeat, “There’s no place like road, there’s no place like road …”
The Rangers were in need of restoration of their identity, and a change of recent results, and the Big East basketball tournament did them an enormous favor: It chased them out of The Garden and onto the road for four games.
Because the Rangers are nothing if not road warriors.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault regularly says that they play the same way – the right way – home or away. But facts are facts. The Rangers play the right way more often on the road.
They get pucks behind the defense and play straight-ahead hockey more frequently on the road; they seemingly tend to the area in front of their net with more precision and grit, and get better goaltending, on the road.
So the Rangers started their four-game road trip (which continues in Sunrise, FL, Tuesday, in Raleigh, NC on Thursday, and in Detroit for one final regular-season visit to Joe Louis Arena Sunday) with a much, much-needed 1-0 overtime victory over Tampa Bay Monday.
Perfect? Hardly. Much better overall than the four previous games? Absolutely.
Somewhat fortunate? Well, yeah, when you consider it was scoreless when Mika Zibanejad scored his second sudden-death goal in just over two weeks (to go along with a shootout winner), in a game in which Tampa took control for a lengthy stretch in the middle of the game.
It was the third time this season the Rangers went into OT of a 0-0 game, and they won all three in sudden death, this time beating goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was as good as Antti Raanta.
The bottom line: The Rangers lead the NHL in road wins with 23, and have led the NHL in that department since the start of 2013-14 – or Vigneault’s debut – with 95 total regular-season road wins. They have won four in a row on the road, eight of nine, 16 of 19.
The timing of this one was immense, coming as it did after four games in which the Rangers weren’t happy with their battle level or their effort, and – coincidentally or not – were mostly outmuscled. They went 1-3 in those four games, beating Boston on the road, and losing home games to Eastern powers Columbus, Washington and Montreal.
The game against the Canadiens agitated Vigneault, who was unusually tense in his post-game press conference.
“Upset,” Vigneault corrected the following day after practice. “Normally, by the time I reach you guys, I calm myself down. And (that night) I just hadn’t been there yet. So I calmed myself down on the drive home.
“I just felt that our execution, as far as making tape-to-tape passes (and) our battle level just wasn’t good enough. I just wasn’t happy.”
So Vigneault went the shake-up route. With four regulars still out injured and with, as he said, cap space to expand the roster after the 23-man limit disappeared at the trade deadline, he called up one of his favorites, rugged winger Tanner Glass, and defenseman Steven Kampfer from Hartford Sunday morning, telling them to meet the team in Tampa.
Both played, Glass in place of Matt Puempel, Kampfer in for Adam Clendening. Glass lit an early spark in his limited ice time, with a hard forecheck shift, followed by a lengthy center-ice brawl with Tampa’s Luke Witkowski. Whatever you think of fights in today’s NHL, whatever your view of the disappearing “deterrent” in hockey, Glass’s teammates were happy to have him back. Raanta, who pitched a spectacular 38-save shutout, credited Glass’s fight for giving the team energy.
More important, though, the Rangers got back to using their speed when possible, but sticking with the basic hard-nosed forecheck when the rush or the fancy play wasn’t available. That forced the more desperate Lightning to play defense for stretches of the game.
It also helped them create offensive opportunities, even if goal-scoring continued to be at a shortage in recent weeks.
“I think at this time of the year, all teams play hard, and harder,” Vigneault said. “Teams are playing hard, playing tight. There’s not a lot of room. And you’ve got to compete. You’ve got to battle hard … in puck battles. You’ve got to win your share.
“I do think that in the last couple of games there, in those puck-battle situations, we could have been better. So this (call-up of Glass) just gives us little more flexibility.”
Defenseman Kevin Klein (back spasms) is not on the trip. Defenseman Dan Girardi (ankle) is still several days to a week away. Winger Michael Grabner (hip) skated with the extras on Monday in Tampa, but didn’t play. Winger Jesper Fast (shoulder) is out for two more weeks or so.
So the Rangers will have to get things back to where they were earlier in the season, without some of their key pieces. They have 16 games remaining, a playoff berth a virtual lock, and a chance to move up in the Metropolitan Division standings, even if many would suggest that fourth place and a jump to the Atlantic Division playoff bracket could be beneficial.
“I believe there’s better execution, better compete level, and we need to find that,” Vigneault said before getting on the plane for the Sunshine State.
“Games are hard, games are tough, and we need to get our game better.”
A good place to start was road, sweet road.