ST. LOUIS — During the preseason, forward Brandon Pirri had four goals and two assists and earned a roster spot with the Rangers. He also was a force on the power play, showing that he could be a piece to a puzzle which the Blueshirts were missing.
For years, the Rangers’ power play has featured pass-first playmakers with vision, but defensemen able to launch rockets from the point were hard to come by. Veteran Dan Boyle, whose career was winding down when the Rangers acquired him, didn’t really fit the role. Arizona’s Keith Yandle was brought in, and he did deliver 20 assists with the man-advantage last season before leaving for a long-term contract with Florida. Blueliner Ryan Graves, who unleashed a 104-mph slap shot in the AHL All-Star festivities last season, still needs time with the Wolf Pack to round out his game.
So maybe a shoot-first forward such as Pirri will work?
Enter Pirri, 25, who was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009, but didn’t find a niche there or in Florida or Anaheim, despite a quick release and accurate shot, and signed a free-agent contract with the Rangers in late August.
Coming into this season, the Toronto native had scored 49 goals in 166 games, an eye-opening number. Twenty came on the power play. Overall, since 2013-14, Pirri ranked 12th in goals per 60 minutes (1.31), behind luminaries such as Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Patrick Kane, Corey Perry and Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored 40 goals last season and was on the ice when the Blueshirts visited the Blues on Saturday.
Pirri’s preseason task, said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, was to play well enough to crack the team’s top nine forwards. His four goals altered Vigneault’s stance: Pirri made the club as a fourth-liner, which Vigneault initially envisioned as a traditional defensive unit, and as a power-play specialist.
With center Nathan Gerbe waived, Josh Jooris injured for most of camp and Oscar Lindberg sidelined until November after offseason hip surgery, Pirri was tabbed to be the pivot between Michael Grabner and Jesper Fast on that line.
“I played center my first four years as a pro, but Florida needed me on the left side,” Pirri said, shrugging off whether he had enough experience in the pivot. “I’ll play wherever they tell me.”
On Thursday, Pirri started at center at Madison Square Garden and left with the Broadway Hat, awarded by his teammates after a stirring debut. At 13:41 of the first period, his heavy shot was too hot to handle for Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak and Grabner deposited the rebound for a 1-0 lead. Later in the period, he just missed, hitting the crossbar on the power play.
In the third, with the score 3-2, and John Tavares in the box, Pirri slid down into the slot and Chris Kreider snuck him a backhanded pass through traffic and, left alone, didn’t miss on what turned out to be the game-winner.
In all, the Rangers attempted 73 shots: 39 on goal, with 19 attempts blocked and 15 misses; that turned out to be 15 more attempts than the Isles. “They pounded pucks on their power play, 12 shots,” said Islanders coach Jack Capuano. “That was the biggest difference.”
Pirri, who played just 10:57, but 3:58 on the power play, was part of it, but deflected some of the attention. “It’s awesome when things are going good,” he said. “Internal competition is a good thing because it drives us each to get better every day. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who is playing the minutes, as long as the team is winning.”