ST. LOUIS — It’s been an up and down year for Brady Skjei, but going into Saturday’s game, the fourth-year defenseman was on an upswing.
“I think his last two games have been arguably his best games of the year,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said of Skjei at Thursday’s morning skate, before the 6-3 win over the Devils. “I really like the way he's defended. And look at the way he's moved pucks.’’
The strong play has come after Skjei had quite a struggle in the Jan. 2 game in Calgary against the Flames. The 6-3, 210-pounder committed a bad giveaway in that game that led directly to a goal by the Flames’ Derek Ryan, and he was so shaky overall that Quinn benched him late in the third period. Quinn, who was so disheartened after that 4-3 loss, threatened to make changes after the game, but ultimately, the coach changed his mind.
“I came very close to changing the ‘D’ pairs before the Vancouver game (last Saturday), and then after long thought, and deliberation, decided to give it one more crack,’’ Quinn said.
That meant Skjei got to stay partnered with his longtime friend, Jacob Trouba, while Marc Staal, who took Skjei’s spot next to Trouba late in that Calgary game, stayed with his regular partner, Tony DeAngelo. The Rangers, as a team, responded with a strong effort in a 2-1 loss to the Canucks, and Skjei responded with a strong game against Vancouver, and followed that with another strong game in a 5-3 win against the high-flying Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday.
“I think I’ve just been focusing on playing defense,’’ Skjei said Friday, when asked what changed for him between the Calgary game and Vancouver game. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing. Obviously, the Calgary game, I coughed one puck up and it ended up in the back of the net. But I’ve been focusing on playing D — I thought me and ‘Troubs’ (Trouba) have done a good job the last few games. Coming into Vancouver, I think we did a good job against that top line, and Colorado, and (Thursday, against the Devils), too. I thought we’ve played good the last three games. It’s something we’ve taken a lot of pride in, shutting down those (top opposing scoring) guys.’’
Skjei, 25, has struggled at times, and actually was scratched by Quinn for a game in early November because of poor play. He might have been held out more than that one game, had Staal not been forced out of the lineup due to surgery on his ankle, but overall, Skjei has been a relative reflection of the Rangers’ defense as a whole — good some games, bad others, but overall, mostly good enough. Entering Saturday, he had scored six goals and added 12 assists (18 points) in 42 games, doing all that without getting any power play time.
Injuries to Ryan Lindgren in both the Colorado and New Jersey games opened up extra ice time for the other defensemen and Quinn wasn’t shy about giving some of that ice time to Skjei, who played over 27 minutes against Colorado (he scored a goal in that game) and over 26 minutes against New Jersey.
“I think he's been inconsistent, but I think I can say that about a lot of guys this year,’’ Quinn said. “I think that's why we're [21-18-4, entering Saturday]. I think we have been that type of team so far, but I think, hopefully, we’re creating more of our identity and understanding how we're going to have to play. And I think (Skjei)'s also doing that as well. I think that I think he's still relatively young, and he's finding a way to be the consistent really good player that we know he's capable of being.’’
With Denis Gorman