Rangers’ defensive depth aces stress-filled stretch


The circumstances were not particularly ideal for a listing Rangers team when Vegas’ Pavel Dorofeyev smashed his head into Jacob Trouba’s elbow off a late second-period faceoff at the Garden on Jan. 26.

The captain, who was not penalized on the play, was issued a two-game suspension by the Department of Player Safety that sidelined him from his club’s matches in Ottawa on Jan. 27 and at the Garden against the Avalanche Monday that bridged the All-Star break.

Trouba’s absence in the first one was compounded by the fact that Ryan Lindgren was also unable to go after having sustained an upper-body issue in the first period the previous night against Vegas.

So the Blueshirts, having gone 3-6-2 in their immediately preceding 11 games, were down two of their top four defensemen.

Into the breach stepped Zac Jones, who’d been a healthy scratch for seven of the previous eight contests, 18 of the previous 20 and 34 times all season. Into the breach stepped Connor Mackey, recalled from the AHL Wolf Pack for his first game as a Ranger after having signed as a free agent over the summer.

And into the breach stepped Braden Schneider, a staple on the right side of the third pair who moved up into the top-four alongside K’Andre Miller on what became a matchup pair.

Rangers defenseman Zac Jones (6) skates with the puck defended by Colorado Avalanche left wing Joel Kiviranta
Rangers defenseman Zac Jones (6) skates with the puck defended by Colorado Avalanche left wing Joel Kiviranta. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

Mackey was instrumental in the Blueshirts’ 7-2 victory over the Senators both with his play partnered with Adam Fox and by the energy with which he infused the team when he accepted Brady Tkachuk’s challenge to drop the gloves after leveling Tim Stutzle in the second period.

Trailing 2-0 at the time, the Blueshirts scored three goals within the five minutes that Mackey and Tkachuk were in the box. The 27-year-old, who played 16:27 while registering a plus-1 rating, received the Broadway Hat for his contribution before being returned forthwith to Hartford.

It was Jones who scored the final goal of that outburst as part of his 14:12 on the ice that represented his fifth largest complement of ice time this season. Monday, paired again with Erik Gustafsson, Jones racked up a season-high 18:07, with the tandem accounting for 25:33 over the two games while being on for two goals scored and none against.

Braden Schneider #4 of the New York Rangers shoots the puck against the Colorado Avalanche
Braden Schneider #4 of the New York Rangers shoots the puck against the Colorado Avalanche. NHLI via Getty Images

Schneider, the 22-year-old in his third season, has been paired with Gustafsson on the third pair most of the year, as he was paired primarily with Ben Harpur on the third pair last year and with Patrik Nemeth and Justin Braun on the third pair after being promoted from the Wolf Pack midway through 2021-22.

The righty has been locked in at third on the right side depth chart behind Fox and Trouba and seemingly will be for the foreseeable future. Nils Lundkvist took a look at the top-four logjam on that side — maybe even the top-six blockade that includes Schneider — and demanded a trade.

Schneider, who hasn’t been quite the physical force of his reputation, has been sheltered to a degree by head coach Peter Laviolette this year just as he had been by his previous NHL bench boss Gerard Gallant. Schneider averaged 15:29 of ice time as a rookie, 15:43 as a sophomore and 14:52 this year until the game in Ottawa.

But skating with Miller on what was the Rangers’ matchup pair against the Stutzle-Tkachuk-Claude Giroux unit, Schneider racked up a season-high 20:54 before getting 19:41 against the Avalanche that represented his second largest ice time of the season. His average has increased to 15:05 per game. With additional responsibility, No. 4 appeared more assertive.

The Blueshirts not only won the last two games (across 10 days) but they benefitted from depth guys turning in impressive performances under stressful circumstances. That augers well for the remainder of the season.

Schneider returned to his regular post on Gustafsson’s right side upon Trouba’s return and Jones was back in street clothes for Wednesday’s Garden match against a Lightning team that had gone 8-1 in its last nine games. The natural order was restored.

Except, that is, in net, where Jonathan Quick got his third consecutive start and second in three days while Igor Shesterkin backed up. Guess what? Kevin Weekes started the final game leading into the 2006 Olympic break and the first two matches coming out of the break while gold medal-winner Henrik Lundqvist backed up.

Wasn’t a goalie controversy then, isn’t a goalie controversy now.


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