It has been a trying time for the New York Rangers both on the ice and off. In the midst of a stretch that had seen them go just 1-3-2, with all six being decided by one goal, on-ice disappointment translated to off-ice disarray. Yet, in the midst of adversity, an unlikely hero stepped up, righting the ship in Monday evening’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins at one. That unlikely hero: Kevin Rooney.
Rooney would score a gritty goal at the net-mouth on a delayed penalty call, paving the way for a third-period surge that saw the Rangers grab (and hold onto) a 3-1 win. Rooney’s second goal in as many games proved his worth as he meshes with fellow fourth-liner Brendan Lemieux. Together, the duo has three goals over the past two outings, creating havoc in the opposing zone.
The first nine games have seen head coach David Quinn manipulate the lineup almost nightly, looking for line combinations to gel during this rough stretch. Despite who has been placed on their wing – it was Jonny Brodzinski Monday night – both Lemieux and Rooney have been visible in this mini-series with the Penguins.
Sure, the 3-1 win saw the Rangers’ big names contribute, a necessity for this squad’s success moving forward. Goaltender Igor Shesterkin moved past a questionable first-period goal, stopping 25 of 26 Penguins shots in his best game this young season. Artemi Panarin added another three points, scoring an empty-net goal with 0.3 seconds left on the clock, and Chris Kreider added a power-play goal, his fourth of the season.
But it was the contributions of the fourth-line, those which show up on the score sheet and those which do not, that allowed the Rangers to escape an ugly first 40-minutes even at one.
The Little Things Make a Big Impact
The Rangers’ penalty kill jumped to 14th in the NHL (79.4%) after a perfect six-for-six performance against Pittsburgh. Rooney has played a pivotal role in that penalty kill’s success, stabilizing the unit and working hand-in-hand with Brett Howden. In the seven games that the Massachusetts native has played this season, the Rangers have killed off 81.4% of their penalties (22-27).
Of course, this all cannot be attributed to just one player, but it is evident that Rooney has a knack for the shorthanded spotlight, scoring four of his 11 career goals while his team was a man short. He fills the shooting and passing lanes efficiently, managing to take away the opposition’s time and space without losing his defensive positioning. The glam and the goals may get the majority of the spotlight, but his effectiveness in all three zones should not be overlooked, especially in the Rangers’ 3-1 win on Monday.
His partner in crime on the fourth-line, Lemieux, has been equally as effective during the play’s 5-on-5 portion. He continually wins puck battles on the forecheck, pestering defensemen and using his physicality to separate man from the puck. The goal or assist column often does not reflect Lemieux’s contributions, but the third-year Ranger has developed into the ideal fourth-liner for New York.
There are lapses in judgment where bad penalties earn him an unwanted trip to Quinn’s doghouse, but over the last two games against the Penguins, we have seen just how potent Lemieux could be on a night-in and night-out basis. He proved his effectiveness when his linemate scored by possessing the puck around the zone for most of the shift before Rooney scoring. Although he did not get a point on the play, Lemieux was crucial to the Rangers’ first tally.
The twosome was rewarded for their effort, playing in the closing moments of a one-goal game, defending against some of the NHL’s highest quality talent in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They succeeded, giving the Rangers their first regulation win when they possessed a one-goal lead in the third period this season.
Consistency Is Key
Despite the incredible fortitude displayed by the Rangers’ roster during their third victory of 2020-21, the question of ‘can they pile wins together?’ remains. The big stars will have to step-up in and build off this momentous win, but the role players are truly pivotal, especially with Filip Chytil and Colin Blackwell’s injuries.
Rooney and Lemieux need to continue their stellar play, holding the fort down against what will surely be a hungry Washington Capitals team on Wednesday night. The Capitals, coming off their first regulation defeat of the season, will test the Rangers in ways they have yet to be tested so far. Defensively, the Blueshirts will have to be stout, with their forwards helping out in their own end every shift.
For the Rangers’ their fourth-line could be the key for turning around a slow start to the new campaign, and these last two meetings with the Penguins have shown glimpses of optimism regarding their sustained success.