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Rangers are happy that defenseman Keith Yandle is paying dividends

Keith Yandle of the New York Rangers defends

Keith Yandle of the New York Rangers defends against Reilly Smith of the Florida Panthers during the first period at Madison Square Garden on Monday, March. 21, 2016 in New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

When he wasn’t shipped out by the Feb. 29 trade deadline, Keith Yandle was genuinely relieved by the endorsement, saying it showed that Rangers management has confidence in him.

At 29, and on the cusp of becoming a free agent this summer, Yandle shouldn’t be lacking in confidence. In the current market, he will command a multiyear contract worth perhaps $6.5 million a season.

But for now, Yandle wants to be — and could be — a weapon in the postseason on a team in desperate need of a power-play quarterback.

After setting up two first-period power-play goals against the Bruins on Wednesday night with completely different but unerringly accurate passes, Yandle acknowledged the importance of clutch scoring with the man-advantage.

“It gets the group going,” he said. “It’s something that we know: Late in the season, your specialty teams have to be good. Any way you can find ways to win, it’s big now.”

Yandle can be suspect defensively, but what fans are seeing is a player whom team president Glen Sather said he yearned for — particularly given that acquiring Dan Boyle was not the power-play answer — and for whom he surrendered a top prospect (Anthony Duclair) and a first-round draft pick.

Consider this: In his first full season since being acquired from the Coyotes on March 2, 2015, Yandle has 42 points in 74 games. He needs two in the next eight to be the team’s highest-scoring defenseman in a season since Tom Poti (48) in 2002-03 and Brian Leetch (55) in 2001-02. Ryan McDonagh had 43 points in 2013-14.

With the Coyotes, Yandle had at least 40 assists three times. In nine years there, he had 120 power-play assists and 23 goals with the man-advantage. This season, he has five goals and a team-high 37 assists despite less ice time. In his last three years with the Coyotes, he played 24 minutes a game. This season, it’s 19:56 a game.

“I like him not only on the rush and on the power play, but he does a real good job of helping us come out clean,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “He’s able to beat that first forechecker and make that pass where we can come out with speed. He’s really playing hard and well for us right now.”

In the last 20 games, the Rangers’ power play has revived, scoring 14 goals. After an 18-game stretch from Dec. 28 to Feb. 10 in which it went 2-for-50, the power play has climbed into a 13th-place tie at an 18.8 success rate.

Yandle’s ability to read the passing lanes certainly has been a factor. He has 17 power-play assists and ranks third among NHL defensemen in primary assists with 24.

“When he makes a pass, it’s right on the tape and it’s to a guy in a scoring area,” said Derek Stepan, who had a tap-in Wednesday night after Yandle split the defense. “That’s something that isn’t easy and he’s able to do it really well.”

New York Sports