It is both cliche and true that the NHL season — in non-lockout years — is a marathon.
Perhaps no team can attest to that better than the Rangers, who welcomed Pacific Division-powerhouse San Jose to the Garden Sunday for a late-afternoon matinee.
“To tell you the truth, I sort of put … I don’t remember what it looked like,” head coach Alain Vigneault said, when asked how his team was different than the one that was embarrassed 9-2 in San Jose on Oct. 8. “We’re a different team now. We’re playing good hockey.”
While the Rangers have used a 16-9-2 stretch over the last three months to seemingly right their ship, San Jose has been one of the NHL’s premier teams all season. San Jose entered the game second in the Pacific and third overall in the West with a 44-17-7 record, good for 95 points.
“They [have] youth. They [have] speed and size. They play a real sound fundamental game,” Vigneault said, when asked to assess San Jose’s strengths prior to the game. “They can beat you with skill and if they need to beat you with size, they can do it. They’re an elite team in this league.”
Stralman, Brassard need to improve
While Vigneault is mostly pleased with his team, the coach specifically singled out center Derick Brassard and defenseman Anton Stralman as players who have to improve their play.
Since the Olympic break, Stralman has noticeably struggled in the defensive zone while Brassard only has two goals.
“Obviously their play is not at the same level as it was before the break,” Vigneault said. “We need everybody to be at their best right now. Those guys are aware. They know that they can be better. They know they need to be better, and hopefully will do that for us.”
Even with the pointed critique, both began the game in their normal positions. Brassard centered a line with Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello, while Stralman was paired with Marc Staal.
The Zuccarello-Brassard-St. Louis trio was put together prior to the 4-2 win over the Jets Friday night as an attempt to find the right linemates for the trade deadline acquisition from Tampa Bay. St. Louis had two assists and 18 shots on goal in the six games prior to Sunday afternoon.
“Marty is working extremely hard right now,” Vigneault said. “We tried [a line of St. Louis] with [Brad Richards] for a couple games and it had some moments — it had some good moments — but it wasn’t getting the results, the point production we thought we might get. So we made a couple changes in the last game. [Richards’] line was effective [and] I think [Brassard’s] line, where [St. Louis] was playing on, had some good moments and [Derek Stepan] has been very consistent with [Rick Nash and Chris Kreider], so we’re going [with those line combinations] and hopefully those guys will be real good for us.”
Haggerty on board
Recent free agent signee Ryan Haggerty joined the team, but was a scratch along with defensemen Raphael Diaz and Justin Falk, and right wing Derek Dorsett.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.