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Alain Vigneault reunites Derick Brassard with Rick Nash and Derek Stepan with Chris Kreider

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault looks

New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault looks on against the San Jose Sharks in the first period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on Monday, October 19, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Henrik Lundqvist will be back in net Friday night for his ninth start in 11 games when the Rangers host the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the top two lines will be changed.

Although the Rangers went 3-0-2 in the last five games with Rick Nash-Derek Stepan-Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider-Derick Brassard-Jesper Fast as the top two lines, the centers are being swapped. Coach Alain Vigneault is returning to some familiarity.

Brassard will be back with Nash and Zuccarello, a combo that was the most productive line last season. Vigneault likes the work of Stepan and Kreider together, he said Thursday, noting that Stepan is righthanded, easing passes to his left. Brassard is a lefty.

The lines initially were overhauled after some tinkering in the third period of the 3-0 loss to the Canadiens on Oct. 15.

At that point, Nash and Kreider had no goals and three assists between them. Zuccarello had three goals, Brassard was 1-1-2 and Stepan was 2-1-3. Kevin Hayes had been playing on Stepan's right and had a goal and two assists. Hayes was shifted to third-line center and center Oscar Lindberg, who had four goals, was moved to Hayes' left with Viktor Stalberg.

In the next five games, Nash and Kreider had a goal each (although Nash's was awarded on an empty-net penalty), Zuccarello added a goal and two assists, Brassard had two goals and an assist, Stepan had a goal and an assist, and Hayes and Lindberg went 1-2-3. Not much of an improvement in the top six.

But Vigneault wants more from all his players than what he's seen in the first 10 games.

"We need to be harder to play against," he said. "If you were to go through that whole group and ask them to rate themselves from 1 to 10, other than both goaltenders and maybe Kleiner [defenseman Kevin Klein] and Step to some extent, there'd be a lot of people worrying about getting a talk from their mother on their first report card."

So on Thursday at practice, he created what he called "a couple modifications to some of the lines. I just feel . . . we can spend more time in the offensive end, get more chances, spend less time in our end, give up less shots."

Lundqvist (4-2-2, 1.97 GAA, .941 save percentage) warned that the Rangers cannot look too far ahead. The Maple Leafs (1-5-2) might not be the best litmus test, but facing Washington on Tuesday will be.

Zuccarello improving

Vigneault didn't mention Zuccarello in his brief ratings but said later: "Since he's been with me, this has been his best start, but my expectations for him offensively and defensively are higher. He's a competitive player, he's a highly skilled player and because of his injury [fractured skull in the playoffs], he wasn't able to have a full summer of training, but he's getting his legs and his rhythm."

Stalberg on the mend

In his first comments since he was clipped in the head and knocked out of Saturday's game against the Flyers in Philadelphia, Viktor Stalberg said he never saw hulking defenseman Radko Gudas coming because he was "tangled up" with two other Flyers. He described Gudas' check as a "hit to the head" and did not feel "100 percent" after the hit. Gudas was not penalized.

Stalberg, who is familiar with concussions ("I've had a few of them before," he said. "I'd rather be safe than sorry"), did not return to the game. He had no concussion symptoms earlier in the week, was medically cleared and practiced Thursday, but he will be held out of Friday night's game as a precaution. Said Vigneault, "I'm sure if I need him next Tuesday [against the Capitals], he'll be ready."


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