GREENBURGH, N.Y.— For the majority of the season, Neal Pionk was the Rangers’ No. 1 defenseman. He was the point man on the No. 1 power-play unit, and was the righthanded half of the top defensive pair, both at even strength and on the penalty kill. And he led the team in ice time every night.
But lately, things haven’t been going well for Pionk, the 23-year-old, second-year pro out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth. A lower-body injury, sustained blocking a shot in late December, caused him to miss three of four games in mid-January and appears to have factored in his slippage in play. In his last 10 games, dating to before the bye-week/All Star break, Pionk is a combined minus-10. And he has just one assist in his last 14 games.
When the Rangers host the Boston Bruins Wednesday in the third game of their five-game homestand at Madison Square Garden, Pionk won’t be in the lineup.
“Yeah, he’s the guy we’ll probably hold out,’’ coach David Quinn said after practice Tuesday. “Listen, we’ve asked him to do an awful lot. He’s played against everybody’s top players and he’s done a really good job. The injury kind of slowed him down a little bit. I think he’s lost a little bit of his confidence. It might be good to give him a night off and let him get back to feeling good about himself and kind of work on some things that we’ve got to get him back to playing the way he was.’’
Quinn said Pionk looks “indecisive’’ lately, and the coach said that’s just part of the natural ups and downs that come with being a young player.
“When he’s on his game, he’s very decisive, and he does things fast,’’ Quinn said. “And he competes, and he moves pucks quickly. And he’s just a half-a-fraction-of-a-second off in these decisions.’’
Pionk insists his struggles don’t stem from being tired, but he does admit he has lost some confidence. And, he said, confidence is a big key to playing well.
“You need that confidence to make those plays,’’ he said. “You know you can make them, you have your whole life, right? And then you come to the highest level in the world and when you lose that confidence, you’re going to get eaten up. So that confidence is highly important to maintain and keep in this league.’’
To regain his confidence, Pionk said he’ll lean on his work ethic and begin working harder in practice. It’s the only way he knows how to fix what’s broken.
Notes & quotes: Jesper Fast missed practice again Tuesday and Quinn said the forward has “a situation’’ that the team believes can be managed by not having him practice on days before games. He will be playing in games, however . . . Quinn said Alexandar Georgiev will start in goal Wednesday.