Hockey can be a funny game. Narratives rapidly manifest themselves and evaporate just as quickly, as momentum swings occur frequently yet still unpredictably.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs only enhance this phenomenon. The New York Rangers’ 4-2 first-round series win over the Montreal Canadiens is a prime example. Merely a week ago, the Blueshirts were down 2-1 after a listless Game 3 performance on home ice, and I was writing about how their ill-advised style of play and lack of preparedness—particularly at Madison Square Garden—had them in trouble.
Based on what transpired in Game 3, who could disagree? After that, though, the tenor of the series changed dramatically. Head coach Alain Vigneault, who has earned his fair share of criticism over the past couple of seasons, did some of his best work for the Rangers to date, making the proper adjustments and propelling them to the second round—with the clincher occurring on home ice, no less— after the club had seemingly hit bottom.
Speed and Depth
It’s no coincidence that the tide began to turn after the overdue insertion of rookie forward Pavel Buchnevich into the Rangers’ lineup. While the much-criticized Tanner Glass deserves credit for playing well early in the series, Buchnevich’s skill level gave the Rangers a deeper and more balanced attack that the Canadiens could not match. His presence on the reunited “KZB” line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad also helped ignite those two players, who connected for the overtime winner in Game 5.
More indirectly, New York had four dangerous scoring lines, while Montreal’s depth players such as Dwight King and Steve Ott simply couldn’t keep up, despite (or because of) the physical element they brought to the table.
That lineup change from Vigneault was one thing he got right. Another was how he coached the Rangers to stick to their speed and skill game while also appropriately combating the Habs when they clogged the neutral zone. After the disastrous Game 3, I called for the Rangers to focus less on taking the body and more on their strengths of speed and skill, and leveraging those properly to counter the Canadiens’ trapping style.
The key was to be able to adapt to different situations. Sometimes, dumping the puck deep and forechecking more aggressively would be the proper approach. In other situations, they could use their speed and transition attack to force turnovers and create additional offense that way. That is exactly what they did starting in Game 4, which was a complete 180 from Game 3.
Another way the Rangers were able to beat the Habs’ neutral zone pressure was with quick passing and speed from the very start of their breakouts from the defensive zone. These situations are more conducive coming off of line changes for both teams, when there is time to set up an effective defensive zone exit and offensive zone entry. This type of attack is more likely to cause defenders to back up instead of hold their ground at the blue line. Earlier in the series, though, the Rangers were not attacking with speed nearly enough.
This is how you beat the trap. Short pass to winger w/speed around F1. Catch F2/F3 flat footed. D1/D2 back tracking. More of this plz. #NYR pic.twitter.com/ufS4YH9fNB
— Dave Shapiro (@BlueSeatBlogs) April 18, 2017
These subtle yet critical changes allowed the Rangers to control the puck more, and the numbers illustrated that. After being out-possessed for much of the series, Game 4 looked a lot different, with the Rangers owning a stellar 58.1 percent Corsi-for mark during five-on-five play.
Besides making the necessary updates to their overall gameplan, on a more micro level, Vigneault and the Rangers also made effective in-game adjustments to counteract the Canadiens’ increasing pressure and desperation. While Vigneault and the team failed to make these types of adjustments numerous times in the past (Game 3 in this series, almost all of last year’s first-round wipeout against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Games 5 and 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015), they finally showed evidence of having learned from some of those mistakes.
In both Game 5 and Game 6, the Habs came out strong and dictated the play early on. Rather than letting the games slip away, however, the Rangers were patient and eventually took back control (it also helps the goaltender Henrik Lundqvist kept the Rangers in it during these early onslaughts).
One of the best illustrations of the Rangers’ gradual takeover is the Game 5 possession chart, as the Rangers slowly seized control of the game as it progressed and then dominated the overtime period before Zibanejad sealed the deal.
That OT doe pic.twitter.com/QbvTLN5wRc
— Josh Khalfin (@Josh_Khalfin) April 21, 2017
In the series-clinching Game 6, the Rangers came out a bit flat in the first period, with the desperate Canadiens throwing everything at them to try to stave off elimination. The Rangers knew they had to be better and that they could be. Mats Zuccarello stepped up during the first intermission to get his teammates going.
#NYR Mats Zuccarello stood up during the first intermission and told teammates to “rise up to the occasion” according to Marc Staal.
— Sean Hartnett (@HartnettHockey) April 23, 2017
Fittingly, it was Zuccarello who scored two goals in the second period to give the Rangers the lead for good. In that period, the Rangers got back to attacking the Habs with their speed, rather than solely reacting to what their opponent was doing. After being outshot 11-6 in the opening frame, the Rangers turned the tables with a 12-9 advantage in the second period.
In their first-round series victory, the Rangers made the right adjustments both between games and within games. After Game 3, they always found the style and level of play they needed before any game fell too far out of their control.
Having won three straight to eliminate a formidable Canadiens team, the Rangers should have some confidence heading into their second-round matchup against old friend Derick Brassard and the Ottawa Senators. That being said, the Rangers surely know as well as any team that in playoff hockey, things can change instantly, so they will need to stay on their toes and remained prepared to make small adjustments while not sacrificing their team identity.