By Sean Hartnett
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On a night where Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen weathered storm after storm, a savvy lineup decision allowed the visiting Rangers to force overtime and eventually earn a 2-1 shootout victory.
Alain Vigneault opted to dress streaky scorer Brandon Pirri over promising rookie Pavel Buchnevich. Of late, Buchnevich had struck up solid chemistry with Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast on the fourth line. Vigneault could have gone with a "if it's not broke, don't fix it" mentality and kept the trio together.
Instead, Pirri was handed his action after being a healthy scratch for nine straight games. The rationale behind AV's decision was to spark a power play that has fallen on lean times of late, slipping to 15th overall. Pirri is tied for the team lead with five man-up goals and his nine power play points are tied for third on the team. His 36 shots on the man advantage are just one off the team pace.
When the Rangers went on their second power play nearly halfway through the third period on Thursday, Vigneault's call paid off. Pirri jumped on the ice as part of the second unit that put Andersen under pressure and kept the Leafs pinned in the defensive end. As the advantage expired, Pirri's wide shot led to J.T. Miller solving a resolute Andersen.
Pirri finished the night with an assist and three shots on goal in 10:57 of ice time The 25-year-old's knack for getting into quality shooting positions on the power play will have caught the attention of scouts in attendance at Air Canada Centre.
Adam Clendening, Matt Puempel and Pirri have received infrequent ice time of late and are subject to waivers. Clendening skated for 15:09 against the Leafs after fellow right-handed defenseman Kevin Klein was a late scratch due to what the Rangers described as an upper-body injury.
Prior to Thursday, Clendening did not dress in three of the Rangers' previous four games. Puempel has been a healthy scratch in seven of eight. Pirri, Clendening and Puempel are each restricted free agents in the summer and the Rangers could potentially lose them for nothing.
Out of the trio, Pirri has the best chance of being an attractive chip as the March 1 trade deadline nears. The former 22-goal man is recognized around the league as a power play specialist and a winger who can add supplementary offense as a scorer and provider.
Over the past three seasons, Pirri's 0.28 goals per game is even with Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Brendan Gallagher, Loui Eriksson and David Backes. He's a shade above Daniel Sedin, Claude Giroux, Gabriel Landeskog and Justin Williams. Among NHL skaters to play at least 150 games over the past three seasons, Pirri ranks 20th in the league with a 1.20 G/60.
Pirri would be an ideal rental for any general manager looking for an offensive boost, given his affordable cap hit of $1.1 million. Competing against the Rangers' abundance of goal-getting forwards, it has been difficult for Pirri to cement his place in Vigneault's lineup. Through 49 games, he has collected eight goals and nine assists.
If the Rangers opt to trade Pirri, it could clear the path for 23-year-old center/forward Cristoval "Boo" Nieves to make the jump from the minors. Nieves looked the part in his Nov. 15 debut in Vancouver. He has impressed in an all-situation role for AHL Hartford, recording 17 points in 38 games.
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