Rangers Head West to Battle Coyotes

The Rangers faceoff against the Coyotes tonight, for the second and final meeting of the regular season.

The Blueshirts turnaround off a poor start to the regular season began with a 5-2 victory over the ‘Yotes in late October. Since then, the Rangers have a more than respectable 19-9-3 record. Tonight’s game will mark the halfway point of a regular season that continues to be a dogfight in the Metro Division and Eastern Conference. The locals sit in the first wild card spot, a point ahead of surging Carolina as just three points separate four teams in the race. That being said, first place in the Metro (presently held by Washington) is just a six-point reach. Stay tuned. This race is not going to get any easier.

[Watch Rangers-Coyotes on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]

In the early season win over Arizona, Boo Nieves made an impressive season debut notching three assists. Nieves, who has had assists in three consecutive games, has done a good job anchoring a very effective fourth line. Playing with pace and smarts, Nieves and his wingers Jesper Fast and Paul Carey have a good job of spending more time than not in the oppositions end. In today’s NHL a deep lineup is one where the 4th line gives you effective minutes, keeps the pace of play up, stays out of the penalty box and chips in offensively. The Nieves line is sure holding up its’ end of the bargain in doing what is needed to be a deeper NHL team.

Perhaps the result of a “Winter Classic” hangover, the Rangers are coming off a 5-2 loss to visiting Chicago. The Hawks scored two empty net goals, suggesting the game was close. It wasn’t. Once again the tremendous play of Henrik Lundqvist kept this one within striking distance, as it could have very easily been a 5-2 Blueshirt deficit at the end of 40 minutes of regulation play. An inability to move the puck with any sense of precision resulted in chasing a quicker opponent. When you are spending an inordinate amount of time chasing you are in for a long night. Quickness is not just foot speed. Moving the puck tape-to-tape makes any team quicker. Recent struggles against quick opponents such as the Devils, Toronto and Chicago have largely been the result of poor puck movement. That part of the Ranger game has to be better.

Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash, Brady Skjei and Alain Vigneault speak to the media after the Rangers' 5-2 loss to the Blackhawks.

Arizona comes into the game sitting in the 31st point position in the 31-team NHL. Two seasons ago the Coyotes ownership decided to take an analytics route when they cleaned house of most “hockey” people. While many would agree that analytics has a role in today’s game, its’ true value should be to provoke further questioning. Analytics should not be deemed the final answer. Perhaps in a testament to their attempt to reinvent the hockey-wheel, in the 124 games since the change of course the Coyotes have won just 40 times. That is a winning percentage of .320%. In any analytics paradigm, that number is not very good. To say the least.

3 KEYS FOR RANGERS-COYOTES

1. Manage the Playing Surface

While their record does not indicate a whole lot of success the Coyotes are an opponent, that when given room, have speed and skill to make an opponent pay. The Rangers need to make the ice smaller by playing a solid, disciplined game.

Alain Vigneault meets with the media ahead of the Rangers' two-game road trip.

2. Raanta

Antti Raanta, who gave the Rangers two years of tremendous backup goaltending, has to be forced to play through traffic. Getting pucks and bodies to the net will force the more diminutive Raanta into a long night of battling to make a save.

3. Puck Management

This will be a crucial ingredient moving forward. In the scheme of things, the Rangers are a middle of the road team when it comes to quickness without the puck. They will be quicker when the puck is managed with efficiency and precision.

[Watch Rangers-Coyotes on MSG & Download Free on MSG GO]

The Garden of Dreams Foundation helps kids facing obstacles in the Tri-State area, including Rangers fan Taylor Ryan who is battling a rare blood disorder called Langerhans cell histiocytosis.