COLUMBUS, Ohio — Rookie left wing Jimmy Vesey was struggling, with one goal in 16 games, and Rangers coach Alain Vigneault dropped him to the fourth line in practice Sunday.
But Vigneault had said he might change his plans during Monday night’s game, and he did, putting Vesey with top-liners Rick Nash and Mika Zibanejad. He responded by scoring his fourth game-winning goal as the Rangers beat the Blue Jackets, 3-2, and extended their season-high winning streak to six.
Vesey swept past defenseman David Savard and roofed a shot from a sharp angle past Sergei Bobrovsky at 13:28 of the third period to break a 2-2 tie. The Rangers (37-18-1) pulled into a tie with Columbus for third place in the Metropolitan Division with 75 points, although the Jackets have a game in hand.
“I thought early on that Jimmy was skating really well,” Vigneault said. “I thought he was skating better than Buchie [Pavel Buchnevich], so I made the switch early and it worked out for us. It was a great shot.”
The goal was a long time coming for Vesey — and came a short time after the Blue Jackets tied it at 11:53 when Nick Foligno’s pass bounced in off J.T. Miller and past Antti Raanta.
Raanta, who has served as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup for two seasons, had not started since Jan. 14 in Montreal, when he left after the first period with a lower-body injury. His last complete game had been a 6-3 win in Arizona on Dec. 29 — a stretch of 46 days. Nevertheless, he made 30 saves to lift his record to 11-5.
“You don’t want to be the guy who is ruining the winning streak,” Raanta said. “I just wanted to get a good feeling going. You don’t want to let goals in through your body. Other than that, I felt really good. The team was playing a good road game again.”
Down by a goal, the Blue Jackets turned up the heat in the final minute, but the Rangers held on.
“It feels like forever,” Raanta said. “When the other team is pressing, they pretty much throw pucks to the net and hope they bounce somewhere. The last shot from the point, I didn’t see it, it hit my body and stayed out of the net, so you have to have a little bit of luck. It was a great ending there.”
Neither team scored with the man-advantage: The Rangers were 0-for-5 and the Blue Jackets were 0-for 4.
Kevin Hayes gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead at 4:49 of the third period when he poked the puck away from Savard at the red line, raced in alone on Bobrovsky, slowed, deked and went five-hole to snap a 1-1 tie.
“It was a great move against one of the top goaltenders in the league this year,” Vig neault said.
Former Ranger Brandon Dubinsky scored at the end of a rush as a power play expired for a 1-0 lead in a dreary first period for the Blueshirts. He called for the puck near the left post and Brandon Saad, behind the net, found him for a quick shot that beat Raanta short side at 8:12.
Only 12 seconds into the second period, with Kevin Klein out on a carry-over penalty, Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi wristed a loose puck from the right circle to tie the score at 1. It was Girardi’s first game since last Tuesday, when he injured his ankle blocking a shot. Both Hayes and Miller made hustle plays to create the shorthanded opportunity.
“Dan’s goal went off two of their sticks. Those are the bounces,” Vigneault said. “For us, it was a real big two points in a tough environment. When you can win a game when you’re not at your best execution-wise, that’s not a bad sign.”