CHICAGO – In the three games he played before coach David Quinn decided to sit him out, Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk had played well, but he didn’t have any points to show for it. Since he’s come back into the lineup, though, Pionk has been on fire, racking up six assists in the three games before the Rangers’ game against the Blackhawks Thursday night.
So, the natural question to the 23-year-old Thursday morning was, did sitting out those games play some part in what he’s doing on the ice now?
“Yeah,’’ Pionk said. “It’s definitely motivation. No one wants to sit out. I know it was a hard decision for the coach, but at the end of the day, you want to be playing, so it was one of those things where I sat out, watched the games, did the extra work and it’s something you don’t ever want to do again.’’
Pionk, who led the Rangers in ice time in each of the last three games, said that during his brief exile from the lineup he watched video with the coaching staff to pick out the things he needed to get better at – making the right reads on when to jump into the offense and how to be better defensively. And when he came back, he did so with gusto – which is exactly what Quinn expected would happen.
“Anytime you sit out, it opens your eyes, and you can handle it a couple ways,’’ Quinn said. “And I anticipated him handling it the way he did. Like I’ve said, he’s a guy we think very highly of, and I wasn’t surprised he came back and elevated his game and is playing at the level he is.’’
Pionk, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Rangers in 2017, came up from the minors in the final quarter of last season and showed what kind of player he could be for the Rangers. He played so well, in fact, that he made the U.S. team for the World Championships, and he said that time with the big club and at the Worlds was huge in his development as a player. He is playing so well right now that he has supplanted Kevin Shattenkirk as the point man on the first power play unit. And the power play has been good of late, producing at least one goal in each of the four games prior to Thursday, and producing two goals in two of the previous three.
Quinn wouldn’t attribute all of the power play’s recent success to Pionk, saying instead that the unit is playing faster, shooting more and in general just doing things better. But, he admitted, having Pionk back and playing well “certainly helps.’’
Pionk himself was modest when asked about his role in the power play’s recent success.
“I just give the puck to Mika (Zibanejad) and ‘Zucc’ (Mats Zucarello) and let them do the rest,’’ he said in an ‘’aw, shucks’’ kind of way. “They’re highly skilled guys, so if I can get it in their hands, and give them some time, they’re going to put it in the net.’’
Quinn has often made the point that the eight defensemen on the roster are all good players, and only six are going to play on a given night. That means two good defensemen are always going to be left out of the lineup, and there are going to be times when he will choose to sit down a defenseman who is playing well just to get a guy in who hasn’t played in a while.
The way Pionk is playing, though, he probably won’t be taking a turn sitting out again anytime soon.