Kevin Hayes provides lone bright spot in ugly Rangers loss

Rangers rookie Kevin Hayes gives fans something to cheer about during Sunday's loss.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Rangers rookie Kevin Hayes gives fans something to cheer about during Sunday’s loss.

If there were a silver lining to Sunday night’s 3-1 Rangers debacle against the Oilers – and boy, it requires a lot of polishing to uncover the shine beneath that filth – it was the assertive play of rookie center Kevin Hayes.

Hayes had a team-high five shots on goal and the primary assist on Carl Hagelin’s first-period finish in probably Hayes’ best individual performance of his young career. On the other hand, he didn’t score on some of New York’s best chances, either, so he felt as much to blame as anyone in Sunday’s postgame locker room.

“I thought I played an O.K. game, but you win as a team and you lose as a team,” said Hayes, 22, a former first-round pick of Chicago’s who signed with the Rangers as a free agent this summer. “I mean, I’ve got to start scoring on my chances.

“It’s getting kind of, ugh, a little frustrating,” he added, grunting as if he’d just fired another wrist shot into the pads of Edmonton goalie Viktor Fasth. “You have that many chances and you don’t even score once. But, I mean, hopefully we just come back next game and have a better game and get a ‘W.'”

Hayes has earned the right to stay in the lineup Tuesday night when the Blueshirts (6-6-2), the early Eastern Conference 12-seed, host the Metropolitan Division’s first-place Pittsburgh Penguins (10-2-1). Sunday’s loss, however, was enough to make coach Alain Vigneault re-evaluate everything from preparation to personnel during the team’s off-day on Monday.

And be certain: They only had Monday off because the collective bargaining agreement requires it during the current stretch of three games in four nights.

“I felt prior to the weekend that we were on the right track. This game has a funny way of kicking ya right where you least expect it sometimes,” Vigneault said postgame. “After every game you evaluate your personnel. This weekend will be no different than any other game situation. We’re gonna evaluate our team, see where we are, see if we can make some adjustments, and go from there.”

Veteran forward Ryan Malone, a healthy scratch in the last two games and three of the last four, should dress against his hometown Pittsburgh team, which drafted him in 1999 and employed him through the 2007-08 NHL season. He should replace veteran right wing Lee Stempniak, another ex-Penguin, whose carelessness with the puck the last week led to Sunday’s third-period demotion (2:08 of ice time).

Vigneault gave heavier minutes in the third to rookie Anthony Duclair (5:35), with Hayes (6:20) and the motoring Hagelin (8:21). Duclair, though, finished with zero shots on goal and isn’t making enough of a difference offensively.

Whether this means call-ups for center/wing J.T. Miller or red-hot center Oscar Lindberg (eight goals in 12 AHL games for Hartford), who knows how large a shake-up Vigneault feels is necessary? But the Rangers’ first meeting with the Penguins is no time to be auditioning players for key roles. Their entire remaining November schedule, in fact, provides little relief.

Through Dec. 1, the Rangers will play 11 games in 21 days, including six against the top three teams in the East – two against the Penguins, three against the conference-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, and one against Montreal. They’ll also face the rival Philadelphia Flyers three times.

Meanwhile, New York’s best hockey team right now is the Islanders (9-5-0), at second place in the Metropolitan Division.

“It’s a tight race,” Henrik Lundqvist said Sunday night. “A lot of teams are playing well right now. So we need to raise our level. There’s no other way around it here.”

Defensively, John Moore is eligible to return from a five-game suspension for his Oct. 27 headshot on Minnesota’s Erik Haula. That should bump the overmatched Conor Allen back down to the AHL. But there are still Matt Hunwick’s turnovers to address, as well as Mike Kostka’s failure to make routine defensive zone plays.

Will Dan Boyle rush back a game or two early from his broken right hand? Injured captain Ryan McDonagh isn’t coming to the rescue until late November at the earliest.

It all feels like so much to overcome, though maybe it’s more important not to dwell and, like Hayes said, just sfocus on the next game. After all, Sidney Crosby will have no sympathy on Tuesday night.

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