By Sean Hartnett
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Alain Vigneault and the Rangers have their work cut out for them with five regular season games separating them from the playoffs.
Even though they have punched their ticket to Lord Stanley's tournament and have collected 97 points through 77 games, issues are in need of fixing.
MAKE MSG A FORTRESS AGAIN
The Garden has been a tough place to play, not so much for opponents, but for the Rangers, themselves. They've been a .500 team in their building (19-16-3) and take on the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday hoping to put an end to their seven-game home losing streak.
The Rangers have truly been a Jekyll and Hyde home and road operation this season. Renowned as this season's "road warriors," their 27 away wins are the second-most in franchise history. It's difficult to understand why their power play feasts away from MSG but comes up flat at home. The Rangers have converted 23.5 percent of their chances on the road, fourth-best in the NHL, but only 15.6 percent in their arena.
The Rangers keep it simple on the road, playing effective, straight-line hockey. When they come home, they tend to be a little too cute with their passing sequences and a little careless with the puck when they break out of the defensive end.
Meanwhile, their home penalty kill is an abysmal 28th in the league at 75.5 percent. I'll offer more on the PK's struggles a little later.
GET LUNDQVIST BACK ON HIS A-GAME
The Rangers have been one of the Eastern Conference's most dominant teams despite not getting a trademark season from franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Through 53 games, the Swede has posted a .911 save percentage, which is well below his career average (.920).
Lundqvist has allowed five goals in each of his two appearances since returning from a hip strain that shelved him for eight games. The 35-year-old is scheduled to play four of the Rangers' final five regular season games in an attempt to get him into a rhythm for the playoffs.
Prior to his injury, Lundqvist was settling into his usual tendencies of playing deeper in his net and reading and reacting. Earlier this season, he appeared to be pressing too hard. When Lundqvist is at his best, he keeps his movements to a minimum and squares up to the shooter with a high stance. His next four games should be enough time to get his game on track.
SORT OUT THE DEFENSIVE PAIRS
The Rangers have nine options -- Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Brendan Smith, Brady Skjei, Nick Holden, Kevin Klein, Steven Kampfer and Adam Clendening -- to fill six spots. McDonagh, Girardi, Skjei and Staal are the only ones who are certain to be in the lineup once the playoffs get underway.
Back spasms caused Klein to miss 16 consecutive games before he made his return in Anaheim on Sunday. He was held out of Tuesday's game in San Jose and it remains to be seen how healthy and effective he will be after missing such a huge chunk of time.
It's not an easy equation for AV to solve. Holden's game has gone south after an impressive first half, while Smith has proven to be versatile and handy on either side. Vigneault has taken a shine to Kampfer, praising him for being "safe and dependable," yet Clendening is one of the best puck-movers on the team and if given the chance could spark the underperforming power play.
GET THE PENALTY KILL CLICKING AGAIN
History has shown that the Stanley Cup can be won without a thriving power play, but capturing hockey's ultimate prize without a top-notch penalty kill is next to impossible. Through 77 games, the Blueshirts rank 23rd overall with a 79.1 penalty-killing percentage. Believe it or not, the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks are in an even worse position at 25th overall (77.7 percent).
Formidable penalty killing units are aggressive and able to pressure opponents out of their comfort zone. The Rangers possess excellent team speed. Their four-man units are capable of getting on pucks quickly and throwing off the opposition power play's timing. Right now, you're not seeing the Rangers playing to their strengths in these situations. They're not taking away shooting lanes quickly enough, and they're not sturdy enough with their net-front protection. Opponents are getting second and third opportunities. This needs to be rectified ASAP.
One positive has been the transition offense supplied by some of their young guns. Third-year center Kevin Hayes is tied for the NHL lead with seven shorthanded points. J.T. Miller is tied for fifth overall and his three shorthanded goals are also tied for fifth.
FIGURE OUT BUCHNEVICH'S IDEAL ROLE
Rookie winger Pavel Buchnevich has all the makings of a playoff X-factor. His explosive speed, excellent hands and superb dangling ability can really put fear into opponents if it's harnessed in the right way. Lately, he's either been given scant playing time of nine-to-11 minutes per game or has been relegated to the press box.
Vigneault will be rewarded if he can learn to live with some of the 21-year-old's defensive blemishes, because his impressive skill set can produce game-changing moments.
As mentioned in Wednesday's column, Buchnevich has recorded 20 points in 37 games and his 2.46 points per 60 minutes ranks fourth on the Rangers, just a shade below Chris Kreider (2.48) and Hayes (2.47). Among NHL skaters to play at least 400 minutes in five-on-five situations this season, Buchnevich's points/60 is tied for 13th best in the league.
The Rangers' biggest strength earlier this season was their ability to roll four, interchangeable lines that generated quick transitions and put opponents on their back foot. Vigneault plans to experiment with Buchnevich on the second line alongside Mika Zibanejad and Rick Nash on Friday.
Bumping up Buchnevich on the depth chart could have a two-pronged benefit. He likely will benefit from being surrounded by playmaking teammates who can maximize his skill set and by doing so the wealth should be spread more evenly across four lines.
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