Rangers’ Defense Needs New Approach in Round 2

If nothing else, the Pittsburgh Penguins co-created a wildly interesting series in Round 1 with the New York Rangers. The series was of course forced to seven games due to the “no quit” mentality of the Rangers and the poorly timed deconstruction of the Penguins. Though it is by no means a deflection regarding the performance from either team, the Penguins were without their starting goaltender, Tristan Jarry, their backup goaltender, Casey DeSmith, for most of the series, and without their star captain, Sidney Crosby, for Game 6.

Not to mention their veteran top-line left-side defender, Brian Dumoulin with trade deadline acquisition forward Rickard Rakell were both out for much of the series. Yet, the Rangers were without several key pieces that damaged their chances of an all-encompassing, defensively solid performance as well. Despite the result, it sure showed.

Adam Fox New York Rangers
Adam Fox, last season’s recipient of the Norris Trophy, a member of the New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Though the Rangers cleared Round 1 and claimed the Game 7 win, the team’s defense is in desperate need of a recalibration. The Penguins will not be the toughest team the Blueshirts meet but the fellow Metropolitans certainly had their way with them. The Rangers deployed a system that simply will not be sustainable as their Stanley Cup race persists. With much credit to the Penguins, who displayed an incredibly intense effort defensively.

Indeed it was the Penguins who often emerged from the first period as the better team, even if the score did not reflect such, the Penguins generated chances left and right. The Pittsburgh team also broke up many chances the Rangers had before they could even materialize. Conveniently enough, the Rangers are familiar with their new opponent, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the style of hockey the team plays.

Takeaways From Round 1 Against the Penguins

By no means did the Rangers play a clean, dominating series against the Penguins. From what the regular season showed in addition was that the Blueshirts are not always pretty to watch, their wins sometimes do not come easy (think about all of the goal deficits), and their own production does not always come quick and easy. While it may not be visually pleasing to watch this team, they know that their success does not come when try to make pretty passes or highlight-reel-worthy goals but that does not deter them from getting wrapped up in trying to do that.

Indeed much like the first round, the team will need to keep their game simple at its core. Quick skating, a sense of urgency, and alertness will be needed from each player on the ice. Of course, it benefits the Rangers by being the youngest team in the league – their speed and stamina will be crucial in this series. As for their lack of experience, well, the young team did not let that get to them last round.

Related: 5 Matchups the Rangers Need to Overcome the Hurricanes

With all of that squared away, the defense must open this series strong and sharp. Ideally, a more aggressive, in-your-face style would make a world of difference for the Rangers in this matchup. The Rangers’ defense does not play much of a punchy game, the players do not go for the puck outright, they rather wait for a pass to be made and try to break it up then. The Penguins, on the other hand, were not patient with the abundance of Ranger passing and would go for the puck as it sat right on the stick in their own defensive zone.

It was clear the Rangers could not match the defensive intensity they were faced with. Not only that, but some of the defenders, like K’Andre Miller, who had a strong regular season, looked uncertain with the puck at times. His partner, Jacob Trouba, also had a rough series. His performance took a nosedive after he laid a controversial hit on Crosby, especially with taunts from Pittsburgh fans that likely impacted his mental game.

K'Andre Miller New York Rangers
K’Andre Miller, a young defenseman for the New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

But it was Patrik Nemeth who struggled most. Due to the carefully procured depth, the organization had a replacement for Nemeth in Justin Braun, a pick up from the trade deadline back in March 2021. The latter was substituted in later on in the series and it was clear from that point on, Braun is the better option. The fascinating part is that the last pair is half composed of rookie, Braden Schneider. The rookie, who did not perform quite up to his regular season peak, is in need of a solid partner, playoffs or not. Luckily enough, Schneider is accustomed to either partner and does not rely on Braun or Nemeth.

Then, there is the top pair of Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. This is where much of the hope lies for the Rangers in this series. Size is not a gift these two possess, but between the two, they do have a strong hockey IQ and physicality on their side. The former, who rightfully received the Norris Trophy last season, and the latter, a top shutdown defender will have to come up with a way to elevate their own game. It was widely noted that Fox did not quite look himself, it almost seemed as if he was putting much pressure on his own game and had difficulty sticking to the basics.

The main takeaway from the Round 1 series proved the Rangers will need to be able to overcome the overwhelming pressure at both ends of the ice from the opposing team. If it was not easy from Pittsburgh, it will not be more manageable coming from Carolina.

Keys to Successfully Defending Against the Hurricanes

Understandably so, the Stanley Cup Playoff race is not the time to integrate new systems, but this is a matter of adapting on the fly and being able to read your opponent. The Hurricanes are an extremely quick team and the Rangers will need to be on top of their every move to limit chances for this dangerous team. This also means that the club will need to be disciplined when it comes to taking penalties, though that was not the major issue for the defense.

Out of the 27 total penalties the Rangers took in the first series, 11 of those were taken by defensemen. The blue line cracked down after Game 1 in which all four New York penalties of the game were taken by their defensemen: Nemeth (who had two), Lindgren, and Trouba. After the first meeting, the defense limited blue line penalties to one or two a game. Though Game 6 was the exception, with none of the four taken by a defender.

Though the Rangers boast a strong penalty kill, the playoff series will come down to momentum. The Rangers will have to be very stingy giving the Hurricanes any sort of advantage and the Carolina skaters will be sure to deploy a fantastic forecheck. With forward Tyler Motte back just in time for the Rangers with two games to get reacclimated, this gives the penalty kill a massive advantage. The team is still without Barclay Goodrow, a source of grit and physicality that playoff hockey calls upon. Regardless of position, the Rangers will need defensive contributions from each skater without taking a shift off.

Though the defense will need to be sturdy, this is to make netminder Igor Shesterkin’s job easier by seeing less shots. The Vezina Trophy finalist is more than capable of making jaw-dropping saves, but if the Penguins could make Shesterkin look like an average goaltender, the Hurricanes can do even worse damage.

The Rangers are in for quite the series against Carolina. Their regular season record against the Hurricanes indicates that the smallest of details will make or break the series. The Hurricanes walked away with three wins in their regular season meet-ups and left the Rangers with only one – a shutout at the hands of a backup goaltender, Alexandar Georgiev.