Young Rangers Ready to Shine?

Look, the Rangers knew coming into this season that there were some “ifs.”

They knew that for things to turn right in the wake of losing No. 1 center Derek Stepan, long-time defenseman Dan Girardi — both of them alternate captains and team leaders – and to a lesser degree Oscar Lindberg and Kevin Klein, other players were going to have to shoulder more responsibility.

Among those, certainly, were young veterans who would now become the core – Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and especially Mika Zibanejad.

Also among those were a pair of sophomores who were largely responsible for the Rangers’ 4-2 win over Boston Wednesday at The Garden, stretching the team’s winning streak to five games.

Could Pavel Buchnevich and/or Jimmy Vesey avoid the “sophomore slump?”

Well, Buchnevich, a year smarter, certainly stronger after battling back issues, and more comfortable and confident, appears to be at the brink of being a legit offensive force in the league. A player the Rangers believed was the top prospect in the organization before he arrived in North America is showing the hand skills, the offensive instincts, and the deceptive speed the Blueshirts had hoped for and imagined he would display in the NHL.

Like most young offensive players, both Buchnevich and Vesey have spent time on the fourth line, with limited minutes, and at times in Vesey’s case, stapled to the bench late in games.

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It’s an observe-and-learn process that some call “tough love,” and others (fans mostly, and mostly incorrectly) think is a dislike or a distrust. But there’s nothing like a young player being taught things in practice sessions and through video and coaching, then being acclimated into actual game situations slowly.

Miller went through it, Kreider went through it. Most do. Sometimes, it takes a return to the minors (as it did with Miller and Kreider). Rare is the athlete that comes out of the minors or out of college, even out of Europe and immediately succeeds in a permanent top-six role.

Buchnevich, who came here speaking almost no English, then hit with the back issues in his rookie season, appears to have sponged up all that his coaches and teammates have offered. He has earned their trust with better decisions, better defensive-zone plays and puck management, and now can flourish offensively with a bigger role and more minutes.

Against Boston, Buchnevich roasted former star defenseman Zdeno Chara with a shake-and-bake, took the puck to his backhand, then roofed a fore-hander up under the crossbar. Pure eye-popping brilliance.

He has scored goals in five of his last seven games (6-3-9 in that stretch), and has been a big reason for the teams power-play rise toward the top of the league, not to mention the improved play of linemates Kreider and Zibanejad.

Buchnevich’s sudden rise in the lineup meant a fall for Vesey, who is a very different, but nevertheless skilled, player. Vesey is a power forward, meaning more straight lines than dipsy-doodle, more bang-in and tap-in goals created by his willingness to battle for pucks around the net and in other areas of the ice.

Vesey’s game is built for the playoffs, as he showed in his first Stanley Cup tournament go-round last spring.

On Wednesday, he scored a pair of goals 29 seconds apart – two goals that combined, probably didn’t travel 10 feet – that were the difference in the game.

He was the first Ranger since Jaromir Jagr in 2006 to score twice that quickly (Jagr did it in 26 seconds).

“Right in front of the net,” Vesey said. “I’ve been trying to have good habits in my game — finishing checks, stopping in front of the net and I had two pucks just land there for me. But I’ll take them.”

There’s a skill to that, too: to getting to that area of the ice, staying there, and then cashing in when the puck arrives.

Assessing Vesey’s game overall, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, “I think we have to be careful. Maybe he wasn’t finishing on a lot, but Jimmy was working hard and, like you saw tonight early on, before he scored the goals, he made a couple real strong plays along the wall in our end that permitted us to get the puck out.

[Watch Saturday’s Rangers-Oilers Game on MSG and Download Free on MSG GO]

“So there’s more than just finishing – there’s a complete 200-foot game and tonight, the positive thing and the confidence-builder for him is he was able to finish on a couple of those and he went to the tough areas. So that’s definitely, as far as finishing and contributing, that’s a real positive step for him.”

And perhaps Vesey is yet another Rangers forward, joining a long list, who have turned the corner on this season.