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The days of the five goal-a-game Rangers, with their top to bottom scoring depth and red-hot powerplay, are long since passed. Following a string of poor performances beginning with a 4-2 loss against Columbus on November 18th, the Rangers had been largely reliant upon individual performances by their players. Like Rick Nash, who had developed a hot hand while in between groin injuries, scoring seven points in eight games before being injured in the first week of December. Or Michael Grabner‘s blistering scoring pace to start the season, which had him hovering near the league lead for a while. The Rangers team that had been largely reliant upon offense driven by high-speed plays and shots off the rush was devastated both by injuries and forward lines that had once shown chemistry, such as that of the Miller, Hayes, and Grabner combination which failed to consistently make the scoresheet.
On an off chance, Rangers’ Head Coach Alain Vigneault reunited what had been an on again off again line of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello. The line had never been consistently held together in previous seasons with Zuccarello more often than not on the wing of Derick Brassard, while Kreider and Stepan had played together numerous times with wingers that had included Ryan Callahan, Martin St. Louis, Rick Nash and Jesper Fast. Vigneault took a chance by reuniting the line given that all three players had been slumping throughout November.
In the 15 games through the month of November, Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello underperformed with nine and eight points respectively. Kreider, upon returning from injury, produced just six points in 13 games. Zuccarello and Kreider had both gotten off to hot starts in October but had both cooled down considerably in November when they had been placed on Mika Zibanejad’s wings. Among other issues, the Rangers had begun to mirror the team of the fall of 2015, in which high-scoring could no longer mask what were terrible possession metrics. In November of 2016, Derek Stepan was a clear representative of the team’s failure to control the puck with an abysmal 40.4% corsi. Only Kevin Hayes and Dan Girardi fared worse with 39.88% and 38.11% respectively. Zuccarello and Kreider were among the team leaders in corsi, but that does not mean much. Kreider was second on the team in corsi at 48.6%, which was nearly a 15% drop from where he stood in October pre-injury.
December would bring a different type of game for Kreider, Stepan and Zuccarello. Early December was centered around the supposed goalie controversy between Antti Raanta and Henrik Lundqvist while in the background three players began to control the offensive play for the New York Rangers. Suffering greatly from injuries to three top six forwards in Buchnevich, Zibanejad, and Nash, the Rangers were desperately in need of offense. The current top line of Kreider – Stepan – Zuccarello has since become the answer to the team’s scoring woes. In the midst of suspect goaltending and defense, that line has shown for the past month that it can dominate on a team that has been lacking in most statistical categories.
Powered by a sudden resurgence by all three players, the line has been finding its way onto the scoresheet as demonstrated in recent games against the Minnesota Wild, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. When not scoring, the line has provided energy with an aggressive forecheck leading to a high percentage of the team’s scoring chances. The energy provided is to be expected from players such as Mats Zuccarello, who is known for his feistiness despite his small stature, and Chris Kreider, who is finding the game he demonstrated in the preseason, while Derek Stepan had been known more for his simple play. Now feeding off his linemates energy, Stepan has pushed both his line and team to play better.
In December, the line has combined for 17 goals in 15 games. Stepan and Kreider have 16 points each while Zuccarello has 14. No other Ranger’s forward has been close to that production this month with Kevin Hayes being the fourth highest scoring forward at nine points. The line has also dominated possession metrics, marking the first time the Rangers have had forwards with positive corsi for an extended stretch this season, save Marek Hrivik. Zuccarello leads the team in corsi percentage this month at 55.53% and is followed by Kreider at 54.26% and Stepan at 53.99%. After being last among teams in corsi in November, the line’s play along with that of players like Marek Hrivik has helped increase the team by 9 spots to 21st in the league.
With Rick Nash listed day-to-day and Buchnevich and Zibanejad soon to be returning, it’s imperative that Alain Vigneault keep his current top line together. The Rangers have featured various lines this season which have dominated scoring for the team, but none have maintained the consistency on the scoresheet for as an extended time as the trio of Kreider, Stepan, and Zuccarello. If the line’s current play is to continue, the Rangers have a unit they can look to in order to get the team out of struggles and potentially return to the high-energy offense that was on display in October.