TAMPA, Fla. — Pavel Buchnevich wasn’t smiling much recently. The Russian winger’s answers to questions after practice were often one word. But there was nothing lost in translation.
After all, the 22-year-old who started the season on the Rangers’ top line, which was broken up after producing just one even strength goals in seven games, had been relegated to the fourth line and his ice-time reduced. He had produced just three assists. He wore a disappointed scowl.
But coach Alain Vigneault, aware of Buchnevich’s quick release, accurate shot and the vision to find teammates with crisp passes, still kept him on the power-play and Buchnevich kept plugging.
Now the former third-round draft choice in 2013, who was sidelined by back issues for half his rookie season and scored eight goals and 20 points, is heating up.
He scored two goals against Arizona last Thursday, a second-period power-play goal against Montreal on Saturday, and his third-period goal at even-strength on the re-assembled top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider that tied the score at 4 against Vegas on Tuesday sparked an animated celebration.
“They [the Knights] just played two games in two nights . . . we’re conditioned well, put pressure on and scored four goals. We were a little tired of losing every time,” said Buchnevich, who will enter Thursday’s game against the Lightning with a three-game goal streak and seven points (five goals and two assists) in seven games. Those five goals are the second most on the team.
The line, said Vigneault, was “a force out there, using their speed and skill, especially in the third period” said Vigneault, when the trio generated six points on three goals and three assists. “And it has to continue.”
The Rangers are 3-2-1 in the last six, but 0-3 on the road and the Lightning are 10-2-1. “Since I’ve been here, we’ve always been an excellent road team,” said Vigneault. “The focus has to be on execution with and without the puck. We’re playing one of the best, if not, the best team in the league right now.”
It will be defenseman Dan Girardi’s first game against the team with whom he played parts of 11 seasons and ranks ninth on the franchise’s all-time games played list (788). Girardi, whose contract was bought out, signed a two-year deal with the Lightning and joined former teammates Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman. The Lightning don’t visit the Garden until March 30. “That game is going to be a lot different going to [the Garden]. But it’s still going to be weird [Thursday],” Girardi told the Tampa Bay Times. “Dan was a real solid player for us, a real battler in the four years I had him and much prior,” said Vigneault. “No doubt that he left his mark on our dressing room.” . . . Ryan McDonagh, who took a maintenance day and did not practice, is expected to play Thursday, Vigneault said.