PHILADELPHIA — Ever since they announced their intention to rebuild and then dealt many veteran players before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, the main goal for the Rangers has been to get a good look at the young players within the organization to see whether they can be counted on going forward.
But coach Alain Vigneault said this week that evaluating the veterans left on the roster is trickier because the Rangers are not in the playoff hunt anymore, and therefore not playing in meaningful games. Still, the coach said, watching how productive the top line of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast has been of late, he can’t help but be impressed.
Vigneault put the line together for the March 10 game at Florida, and the trio had produced nine goals and 13 assists in five games together entering Thursday’s game against the Flyers. In the three games before Thursday, they were even hotter, with Kreider recording two goals and five assists and Zibanejad scoring five goals.
The trio kept it going against the Flyers, with Fast scoring twice and adding an assist and Zibanejad scoring his sixth goal in four games in the Rangers’ 4-3 loss at Wells Fargo Center.
Fast just missed his first career hat trick when he shot the puck over the crossbar at 6:53 of the third period with the goaltender down on the ice. That would have tied it at 4-4. Kreider, who had an assist, also appeared to score at 9:51, but the play was ruled offside.
“It looked like it was onside, but unfortunately, in our minds, the referees didn’t make the right call,’’ Vigneault said.
Vigneault, who was hot at the time of the call, was calmer afterward. He liked the fact that his team kept playing hard and competing, he said, and no one competed harder than Zibanejad, Fast and Kreider.
“There is a difference between playing under pressure and playing without pressure,’’ Vigneault said. “But I do think, for a player . . . you should always have the pressure to perform well; the pressure that you put on yourself to be the best on that given day and that given night. So when I see guys like Mika, right now, and ‘Kreids’ playing the way they are, I feel real good. For the last quite a few games here . . . for quite some time, they’ve been playing well. They’ve been playing well against real good lines, and hopefully we see that continuing moving forward here.’’
Part of their success may have something to do with Kreider starting to feel physically better since his return to the lineup after missing 24 games with a blood clot that required rib resection surgery.
“Yeah, having a couple of healthy lungs definitely helps,’’ Kreider said. “But Mika and Quickie [Fast] are real easy players to play with and we’re keeping it simple. Just trying to tilt the ice, make the other team play a little defense.”
Kreider scored the Rangers’ final goal Tuesday on a power- play deflection, and his screen of Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky helped create Zibanejad’s power-play goal earlier in that game. He also hit the post on an earlier deflection.
Kreider was asked why he thinks the line has been so effective. “I think we’re just working for each other,’’ he said. “We’re not overthinking it too much, just moving off of each other and trying to make our plays and keeping it simple . . . When you’re playing with the puck, it’s a lot easier. It’s easy to defend if you don’t have to defend, right?’’