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Two struggling contenders face off as Rangers take on Lightning; Hayes a healthy scratch

Bobby Bevilacqua

rangers vs lightning faceoff 12-1

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

There are a lot of former contenders around the league struggling to live up to the lofty expectations set by the fans, the experts and reporters, and even the team itself. The Rangers (20-13-4) and the Lightning (18-15-4) are two of those teams.

Last year, the Rangers and Lightning squared off for seven games, battling for the title of Eastern Conference Champion. Things could hardly be more different now.

The Rangers have dropped to third in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington and the Islanders, winning just four of their last 16 games. Last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners are struggling to score goals, losing their fundamentals, and failing to play the same style that helped give them so much success over the last two seasons.

After winning the Prince of Wales Trophy last season, the Lightning have fallen apart amidst rumors of Steven Stamkos leaving and not signing an extension. They haven’t been scoring at the same incredible pace as they were last season, and are currently two points out of a playoff position.

The Rangers and the Lightning will be playing for the second time this season, and the last at Amalie Arena. In the first game, New York had their season-high nine game win streak come to an end, falling 2-1 to Tampa. Dominic Moore scored the lone Rangers goal but Ben Bishop had their number yet again, allowing just the one goal.

Speaking of Bishop, the 6-foot-7 netminder is having another solid season between the pipes, posting a 2.03 GAA and a .926 save percentage, already appearing in 30 games. Bishop started and won all three regular season games against the Rangers last season, including another four in the playoffs. He’s always been good against New York, and will be searching for his 16th win of the season tonight.

ben bishop

Photo courtesy of Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports.

Despite all of the rumors, Steven Stamkos is still having a pretty good season, with 16 goals and 12 points in 37 games. Last year, he torched the Rangers for seven points (2-5-7) in the three regular season games. He’ll always be a major factor in every game he plays.

Former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan is still down in Tampa, but he’s having a lackluster season, scoring just 13 points (5-8-13) this season. He scored four goals in the three games against New York last season, and he’ll be amped up for tonight’s matchup too.

Henrik Lundqvist is going through the worst stretch of his career, and not all of it is his fault. A lot of it has to do with the nonexistent defense in front of him, but nevertheless, it hasn’t been good. In the last 13 games, Lundqvist has been pulled five times, has a GAA of more than 3.60, and a save percentage below .900. He played well against the Predators, giving the Rangers a chance for two and a half periods, but wound up getting torched later on, allowing five goals on 35 shots. There was only one that he could really have been at fault for, but the play in front of him is what really needs to improve.

henrik lundqvist side profile good pic 11-25

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

In a surprising turn of events, Alain Vigneault decided to put Emerson Etem back in the lineup. But it wasn’t for the gritty winger Tanner Glass, or the sometimes struggling Viktor Stalberg. Instead, he will be in for Kevin Hayes, the second year forward that has just two points in December and hasn’t scored in 15 games.

The point production hasn’t been there, but according to AV, the problems stem much deeper than just not producing.

“I think we all have our tipping points, and I think Kevin has had an extra-long leash, especially considering [center Derek Stepan] was out for quite some time,” Vigneault told reporters after yesterday’s practice in Nashville. “But there’s just nothing going on. At the end of the day, we’re at the point now where we have to make some decisions in the best interests of the team.”

“In Kevin’s case, I think we made it clear our expectations about him and what we felt he could do were very high,” Vigneault said. “Obviously, he hasn’t lived up to that. Did we overestimate his possibilities? I don’t know, time will tell. But I do know that what I’m seeing now, and what we’re seeing now, is not good enough.”

When asked if he believed that Kevin Hayes had worked hard enough to get out of this rut, Vigneault said, “No, no I don’t.”

It’s a pretty bold statement from Vigneault, who normally doesn’t speak out against any of his players. Hayes was one of the team’s best players last season, but has struggled to make much of an impact this year.

kevin hayes skating 12-6

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Now I am a proponent for advanced stats, and they are in Hayes’ favor. His PDO points towards a slump and his possession numbers are okay, but the eye-test trumps all right now. He doesn’t have the same edge or aggressiveness that he showed last season. He’s somewhat lazy in his decision making, often turning the puck over at inopportune times. And there are games where he has absolutely no impact at all, despite constantly being put in positions to succeed.

Hopefully this is the sing of AV starting to crack the whip, and show that nobody is safe from the press box. But as long as Tanner Glass, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi continue to play no matter how crappy their play has been, nothing will change.

On the bright side, Emerson Etem gets back into the lineup. I really hope AV stops using Jesper Fast in the top six, and gives Etem a shot their because of his better offensive skillset. The young winger has three assists this season, and has been really responsible with the puck, with 6.5 takeaways for every one giveaway.

After a long slump towards the start of the season, Chris Kreider has been playing pretty well lately. In his first game out of the break, Kreider tallied two assists, and now has seven points (2-5-7) in his last 10 games. The team needs him now more than ever, so hopefully this is a sign of him breaking out.

JT Miller has been awesome lately. He leads the team in points (13) and plus/minus (+4) in road games this season, and is tied for the team lead in goals (6) and assists (7) on the road. He’s found the back of the net in three of the last four games, and has six points (4-2-6) in the last seven games. He’s my player to watch tonight.

The top line may struggle in possession sometimes, but they’re almost always scoring. Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello have combined for 83 points this season, led by Mats Zuccarello’s 30 points. I expect a good game out of them.

The Rangers and the Lightning will face off at the Amalie Arena tonight at 8 PM. The game will be broadcasted on NBCSN.

EXPECTED LINES

Rick Nash-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello

Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-Jesper Fast

Emerson Etem-Oscar Lindberg-JT Miller

Tanner Glass-Dominic Moore-Viktor Stalberg

Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi

Marc Staal-Dan Boyle

Keith Yandle-Kevin Klein

Henrik Lundqvist

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Posted on December 30, 2015, in Game Previews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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