Nearly two months later, Derek Stepan still couldn’t believe what fortune had bestowed up his New York Rangers.
It was a few minutes after 10:30 p.m. on the night of Oct. 26 and the Rangers had just completed a thorough 5-2 trouncing of the Boston Bruins, due in no small part to Brandon Pirri’s two goals. An unrestricted free agent, Pirri signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal with the Rangers on Aug. 26.
Pirri’s first goal against the Bruins put the Rangers ahead 3-2 late in the second period. His second goal, early in the third, gave the Rangers a two-goal cushion.
The first of his two goals was a laser from the right circle which cleanly beat Bruins rookie goaltender Zane McIntyre glove side. The second was a jam job from alongside the net.
“You guys can all see he can shoot the puck. He’s just got a knack for the net. It’s not easy to score goals in this league [and] he seems to be in those areas to score. That’s a difficult thing and to me that’s a skill. If you have it, it’s special and it’s rare,” said Stepan before being asked if he was surprised a player possessing those talents lasted in the free agent market as long as Pirri did.
“I don’t really know the story behind [why he hadn’t been signed] but I’m glad we’re the ones who got him, that’s for sure.”
Prior to Sunday night’s 6-1 win over Tampa Bay, Pirri was tied with rookie Jimmy Vesey and Mats Zuccarello for the team lead in goals with four apiece. As a team, the Rangers’ 29 goals were tied for third most in the NHL, and their 3.63 goals for per game was tied with Edmonton for the league lead.
Michael Grabner recorded a hat trick against the Lightning and Vesey added a goal. Both now are tied for the team lead with five goals each.
Possessing four skilled, fast, scoring lines has been a significant factor in the Rangers’ 6-3-0 start to the season.
“There’s no doubt that, especially in the first two periods, that our quickness and our speed was a factor both defensively and offensively,” Alain Vigneault said after the Rangers’ season-opening 5-3 win over the Islanders at the Garden on Oct. 13. “The fact that we could roll four lines, I think that definitely helped us. They made it 2-2 when we made a couple of mistakes on rush coverage, but I like the way we responded and came right back and made it 3-2. The power play went out and gave us a two-goal lead, and that was a big factor in getting two points from this game.”
Following a 2015-16 campaign in which the Rangers did not have the requisite overall depth to truly compete for the Stanley Cup, the roster underwent somewhat of a transformation overseen by general manager Jeff Gorton.
Defenseman Dan Boyle retired. The negotiating rights to Keith Yandle were traded to Florida, with whom he subsequently signed. Center Derick Brassard was traded to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad. 2013 third round pick Pavel Buchnevich was signed. Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes all signed RFA deals. Defensemen Adam Clendening and Nick Holden were brought in, as was Grabner, the ex-Islander.
While concern remains about the defense corps, upfront the Rangers have quality wingers and centers. As such, jobs were earned and not given by rote. And to hear Pirri, that is a positive.
“Internal competition is a good thing because it drives us each to get better every day,” Pirri said after the season opening win against the Islanders. “We are all pulling for each other. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who is playing the minutes as long as the team is winning.”
You can follow Metro New York NHL writer Denis P. Gorman on Twitter at @DenisGorman.