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Hartnett: Pionk Has Bright Long-Term Future

Sean Hartnett
October 24, 2018 - 1:26 pm
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On a night where Mats Zuccarello and Mika Zibanejad each scored twice, defenseman Neal Pionk really caught my eye.

If you’ve read my work closely or paid attention to my Twitter feed, you’ll know that I rate Pionk highly. Here’s why I believe Pionk has a bright long-term future with the Blueshirts.

Pionk has dressed for 35 games. That isn’t a huge sample by any means, but his intelligence on both ends of rink is promising. Not many 23-year-old rookie defensemen “get it” right away, but Pionk is ahead of the curve when it comes to his intelligence.

The Rangers defeated the Florida Panthers 5-2 on Tuesday – and Pionk demonstrated his two-way intellect throughout his 25-plus minutes of ice time.

You’ve seen the way that he can create separation from opponents when advancing the puck. He makes these subtle moves that get opponents to bite and then has the vision to set up teammates for high-rate scoring chances.

Pionk registered two assists on the night. Both were primary assists on the power play. He has now recorded six assists in the last three games. Through six games this season, five of his six assists have been primary power play assists.

On the defensive end of the ice, Pionk has shown poise and, at times, the savvy of a 10-year veteran. Early in the first period, Pionk got down on one knee and outreached his stick to deny Nick Bjugstad, who attempted to feed an open Aleksander Barkov on the far post.

He then rushed behind Alexandar Georgiev’s net and intercepted Barkov’s attempt to wheel the puck along the boards to his teammate. After gaining the puck, Pionk performed a controlled zone exit.

A theme you’re seeing throughout the season is head coach David Quinn’s trust in Pionk. Quinn is in the process of evaluating which players will become part of the core. His usage of Pionk suggests that the young defenseman could be an important piece of the Rangers’ future. Brady Skjei (23:15) is the only Rangers’ skater to receive more minutes per game than Pionk’s 21:53.

Quinn scratched Pionk for consecutive games against the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers in the middle of the month.

“He’s playing with a whole new level of confidence,” Quinn said. “He moves the puck quickly, he’s picking the right moments to get involved offensively, he’s really doing a heck of a job on the power play, defending. He’s really made a big jump the past two weeks.”

It appears that the decision to sit out Pionk for two games got the desired response. Pionk is playing to his strengths and proving his effectiveness on both sides of the puck.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS FROM TUESDAY’S WIN:

• Zuccarello has been one of the most effective Blueshirts in the early season. He entered Tuesday’s contest without a goal. He was doing a lot of the right things – but his shooting luck wasn’t breaking the right way. His two goals against Florida could reverse his scoring fortunes. Zuccarello has notched eight points (two goals, six assists) in nine games this season.

• Zibanejad recorded a four-point night with two goals and two assists. The 25-year-old center ranks third in the NHL with 40 shots on goal, first in the league with 18 power-play shots on goal and fourth overall with 106 face-off wins. Zibanejad put in a real dominant effort against the Panthers, he also contributed five shots on goal and four hits and led all skaters with 13 faceoff wins (13-for-21; 61.9%).

• Georgiev was in fine form after surrendering seven goals on 39 shots in first appearance of the season against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers’ backup made 36 saves on 38 shots against the Panthers. He stopped 29 of 30 even-strength shots. His brief, two-game stint spent with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack allowed him to see more game action and he looked sharp on Tuesday.

“He made some big saves in the second period,” Quinn said of Georgiev. “When we tied (the game) they had a couple chances to get ahead again and I thought he held the fort and allowed us to get some momentum. Obviously, our power play was productive. The fourth goal was a big one, too, to start the third and get that fourth goal certainly makes it a much more difficult uphill climb for them when you get that three-goal lead.”

Franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been dealing with an upper-body issue. Quinn stated that Lundqvist could have played on Tuesday. Since Lundqvist is 36, the Rangers will need to call on a quality backup to spell him when necessary. Georgiev looked a lot more like the confident goaltender who commanded a .918 save percentage in 10 games last season than the one who endured a tough outing in his first appearance. With Dustin Tokarski manning the net in Hartford, the Blueshirts could have turned to a more experienced option to back up Lundqvist – but the Rangers believe in Georgiev’s potential.

Follow Sean on Twitter -- @HartnettHockey