With the Rangers doing exactly what they needed to by defeating the Canadiens in Montreal, the home-ice advantage has shifted to New York. Although the Blueshirts have been poor at home this year, the playoffs are a whole different animal. This playoff series is now a best-of-five with three home games and two road games. Can the Rangers pull it out and pull off the “upset”? If they hone in on these few keys to the series, there is a great chance that they can.
Lundqvist Needs More Defense
No sugar coating this one, Henrik Lundqvist needs more defensive help if the Rangers plan to stay in this series. Nick Holden and Marc Staal had an abysmal Game 2 paired together, including conceding a goal with 17 seconds left on the clock.
After an egregious missed Shea Weber cross-check on Michael Grabner while Grabner attempted a clear, Nick Holden lost his stick trying to contain Tomas Plekanec in front of the net. Plekanec would take full advantage of a stickless Holden and tip the puck home to tie the game late. This is just one of the many bad plays that cost the Rangers a chance at going back home up 2-0.
To give an idea of how many shots the #NYR defense was bleeding: this is the only game Lundqvist has faced 50+ SOG that wasn't a 2xOT game
— HockeyStatMiner (@HockeyStatMiner) April 15, 2017
Henrik Lundqvist has played 118 playoff hockey games. This is the first time in his career that he’s faced more than 50 shots in a game that didn’t go to double overtime. That in itself is scary and may warrant a defensive adjustment from coach Alain Vigneault. Will a change help? Probably not.
What could help, however, is Holden-Staal getting fewer minutes in favor of Smith-Skjei and McDonagh-Girardi. Brendan Smith and Brady Skjei had a great game, ending up positive in terms of shots for/against at even-strength in a game where the Rangers were outshot by 20.
All in all, it’s necessary for the Rangers to make adjustments. That starts with coaching. The coaches must embrace the fact that they have legitimate top-four defensemen that need to play big minutes. Brendan Smith was added to the roster to eat up big minutes and improve the Rangers’ defensive core. With Smith getting the second-least amount of minutes on the Rangers defense Friday night, something has to be done.
Stop Conforming to Montreal’s Style
The Rangers looked brutally tired after the second period of Friday night’s 4-3 loss. Nobody will argue that. That is a direct correlation between the way the Rangers played from start to finish. Instead of playing the skilled, speedy style of hockey that benefits them as a team, they played physical and tough to match Montreal. There’s nothing wrong with finishing checks, but there’s absolutely no reason to give up scoring chances just to lay the body.
Take the Paul Byron goal as a direct example of the need to play smart hockey, not more physical hockey. Both Holden and Staal feel the need to follow up and play physical behind the net, completely abandoning the slot. If Staal had either outmuscled Brendan Gallagher (like he should’ve) or used his stick to take the puck, this play wouldn’t be a problem. Instead, Staal gets beaten and leaves open a passing lane. Byron gets wide open and finishes Gallagher’s feed for a virtually unstoppable goal.
Long story short, the Rangers have shown that they have the ability to outclass Carey Price and the Canadiens. Game 1 was a great example of playing a smart game, not conceding many chances, and capitalizing on their own opportunities. You won’t see the Penguins outhitting the Blue Jackets, but you will see them creating more chances with speed and skill. This is the same situation that the Rangers can flourish with.
Get Leads Early, Stay Strong Late
The Rangers are not very good at scoring first in recent games, scoring first twice in their last nine games dating back to March 26th against the Anaheim Ducks. Statistically, the team that scored first in the 2016 season won 67% of the time. There was not one single team under .500 after scoring first over an entire 82 game season. The Rangers got the lead early in Game 1 and never looked back. They need to replicate that as much as possible and the wins will come flooding in.
The Rangers need to come out strong and stay consistently tough through the entire game. Obviously, if they had played a complete 60-minute game both offensively and defensively, the series would be 2-0 going back to New York. Sadly, that’s not the case, but it’s not a big deal if they can win home games. That’s a big if, for sure, but the potential is there for great things to happen as long as the Rangers start strong and finish stronger.
All in all, this is a team that can beat anyone in the league. The regular season matchup records don’t matter in the slightest. With one of the best goaltenders in the league keeping the Blueshirts close, anything can happen. Expect them to come out flying out of the gate in Game 3. Hopefully, keeping it that way for the entire game. If they can cut out the mistakes and score early, big things could happen with this Rangers team.