The New York Rangers’ loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final hurt mightily. From the beginning of the season, the path was clear for this team – they wanted another shot at the Stanley Cup, with a chance to change the ending. For a few weeks in April and May, it appeared that they were going to get that chance. There was a feel of destiny around this Rangers team as they fought back from a 3 games to 1 deficit to beat the Washington Capitals in seven games.
But destiny is a fickle creature. In the end, this team came up short – and their flaws were exposed. If they want to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, they need to make some changes. The Lightning learned from the Capitals and took their playbook to stop the Rangers offense in its tracks. If the Blueshirts are to have any hope of drinking from the Cup, they need to understand what happened and take steps to prevent it in the future.
A Free-Wheeling Offense
The Rangers’ preferred way of generating offense is off the rush. They start with an up-ice pass from a defenseman, trying to break one (or more) of their forwards free for a quick strike into the offensive zone. The Rangers’ problems on the power play are directly related to this tendency, and should have provided a clue that all was not well. These kinds of breakouts will not work as well in a power play situation, as good penalty killers are usually in a much tighter defensive posture, leaving no seams for the attacking team to exploit.
Once the Rangers gain the offensive zone, they use motion and speed to create chaos and open passing lanes for one-timers. Again, in a power play, the defending team generally plays in a “box” or “diamond” formation designed to deny passes through the slot — which also flies directly against the Blueshirts’ preferred plan of attack. It’s no coincidence that the Rangers lost after teams adapted a “penalty kill” style of defense to use at even strength.
The Rangers’ Fatal Flaw
During the regular season, much was made of the Rangers’ speed. Indeed, it was a huge part of their success. But the playoffs are a different animal – players will tell you that once the playoffs start, almost all of the room on the ice disappears. While this is not an issue in itself, tighter checking games make it harder to play with speed and be successful. The Rangers’ speed game was well known, and their opponents devoted themselves to neutralizing that speed.
Washington came very close to being successful. In fact, they were less than two minutes from beating the Rangers in five games. They did that by clogging the center of the offensive zone, blocking shots, and keeping the play on the perimeter. If all the high-percentage shots are being blocked and only shots from the perimeter are being put on net, the only way to score is to outwork the defence in front of the net to screen the goalie and knock in rebounds.
That’s where the Rangers failed. They were never able to consistently push through the Lightning defenders to establish a true net-front presence. When Tampa Bay (also a speed team) adjusted their tactics to take away the front of the net, the Rangers continued to try and play the same speed game. The result was evident in game 5 and game 7 – the Rangers had a decent number of low-percentage shots, but very few scoring chances and no goals.
The very success that drove the Rangers through the regular season to the Presidents’ Trophy hurt them in the playoffs. They could not change their game when it was necessary. They simply continued to try the same passing plays over and over, never quite believing that they were no longer available.
Changes Are Needed
The Rangers need to change if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup again next season. Now that the book has been written on how to beat them, other teams will follow suit. Nothing stays a secret for long in the NHL. In order to counteract that, the Rangers will have to learn to play a “bigger” game – a game where they push through opposing defences with power instead of just finesse and speed. But how can that happen? In two ways: by altering their strategy and/or their personnel.
We’ve already discussed what needs to change strategically. The key question there is whether Alain Vigneault’s coaching staff can implement that change. It’s certainly possible that the Rangers can have regular season success next year playing the same game. But unless they show that they can learn to consistently manufacture scoring chances in a tight defensive game, their playoff results aren’t likely to get any better.
This brings us to personnel. The Rangers have some decisions to make regarding multiple free agents (both restricted and unrestricted), but their core should remain the same. Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin will almost certainly be returning, and after the Rangers re-sign Jesper Fast and J.T. Miller, there will be precious little cap space left (even without Martin St. Louis). It’s definitely possible that Cam Talbot will be traded. If that does happen, look for a stronger power forward to be heading the other way.
The Rangers had a ton of promise this season, but fell short. They were a better overall team than the overachieving group that made it to the Stanley Cup Final last year. They are just a player (or two) away from another run — if they can learn from this year’s heartbreak.