The New York Rangers are amidst a tough playoff series with the Pittsburgh Penguins that did not start in their favor. The Rangers blew a 2-0 lead in the game and ultimately lost in a 4-3 triple-overtime sequence. Following just one bitter loss, the team was immediately left with ample insight on how to proceed. Learning from their mistakes will have to occur in rapid speed as the Rangers are set to travel to the Penguin’s home ice for Game 3.
The incredulous part about the Rangers’ loss was the fact the team came out of the gate more than ready. The Blueshirt team that took the ice for the second period and onwards was a completely different group. Pair their compromised performance with the leveled-up play from the Penguins and there rests the demise. The Rangers are back on home ice tonight but will need to make a complete transformation or the club will be left with an unsavory 2-0 record deficit in the series.
The Rangers know how to win; in fact, they stole several wins in the regular season, with major credit to Vezina-level netminder Igor Shesterkin. The silver lining is the Rangers know how to overcome adversity. They are a team who can win on the road, and play a very solid game against this familiar organization. The challenge they now face is, figuring it out while under the additional pressure of being in the playoffs.
Revert to a Simple Game
The Rangers players said it all season long — the team plays better when they can keep the game simplified. Defenseman Adam Fox echoed the notion following the loss, “After those first few shifts you settle in and treat it like another game. The first 10 [minutes] are usually the most intense, people are just trying to get in a hit or keep it simple. The longer the game goes, you’re just trying to keep it more simple… you’re trying to not make mistakes and keep it a little more simple but overall I don’t want to change too much,” (from ‘Adam Fox’s revival just what Rangers need against Penguins,’ New York Post, 5/4/22).
Fox was one of the few positive standouts from Game 1 and not just because he notched the first goal of the series. In fact, he looked better than he had for a while. The goal, by the way, was a crisp shot from the blue line that went in on the power play. As one of their luxury players, he will have to keep up his performance, and the other big names need to step up as well, especially the few with postseason experience.
Indeed running with a simple game does not mean the tasks are easy. Some of the items on their checklist will include maintaining physicality, sustaining a strong forecheck, taking away ice from the Penguins, and tightening up puck possession. The Rangers also had a difficult time entering the offensive zone, of course; the Penguins did not allow for unlimited entry right to the slot.
Thanks to the Penguins’ positioning, the Rangers were semi-guided into a nonstop passing style, which did not work. Even during the regular season the club had a tendency to over-pass, but dishing the puck was amplified in Game 1. The top line consisting of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Frank Vatrano will need to make more of a splash tonight and avoid getting “fancy” with puck movement. Both Kreider and Zibanejad assisted on Fox’s power-play goal, but Kreider later found himself on the board with a shorthanded goal assisted by Zibanejad in period two.
It seems the current circumstance is aligned with Vatrano in mind. The shoot-first winger also has excellent numbers against this black and yellow team; however, he had a quiet night during the series opener. For a trade deadline pick up with as much success as he’s had on his new team, Vatrano was the likely hero of Game 1, but alas, could not get it done. Regardless, his teammates should go into tonight adopting his shoot-at-the-net mentality.
It really boils down to leaning on lessons learned from the regular season for this young team. Their lack of playoff experience does not have to be a significant obstacle, only if they let it. As the team ended second in (arguably the toughest) division, the Rangers know the keys to win.
With backup to the backup Louis Domingue in net tonight for the Penguins, the Rangers can hopefully extend less effort towards scoring and more towards sticking to the basics. This is not said to undermine the threat that is the Penguins organization, certainly with their star power. Rather, Pittsburgh did not have to extensively modify their entire game in order to come out as the better team during the game, but this shows the Rangers are also capable of changing their approach.
Subdue the Penguins While Remaining a Threat
The veteran and experienced Penguins badly outshot the Rangers just through the first two periods with a 35 to 23 ratio. Yet, the real concern arises from a closer look at the numbers — 25 shots from Pittsburgh vs. the eight shots the Rangers were able to toss at the net in the middle frame alone.
This department in particular is where the defense will need to step up. For the first time in a while, the defense as a whole looked incredibly unsure. Keeping a barrier between the opponent and the last line of defense (a.k.a. Shesterkin) is crucial when the Penguins know they need to amp up the shot count in order to stand a better chance against him. Blocking the number of shots that reach the net is critical, for tonight and each game of the series going forward.
Both defense and forwards need to start each shift looking to be opportunistic, but the Penguins showcased how tight they can make their game. They will have to deploy a great amount of aggression in every sense of the word. Whether it be overt physicality, capitalizing on the limited mistakes Pittsburgh will make, drawing penalties, or generating turnovers. The largest takeaway from Game 1, is that the team will need to persist in doing the right things, the work that resulted in the 2-0 lead.
Much like how the Penguins have to babysit Kreider, the Rangers need to send back the same treatment to Sidney Crosby. Not only must the Blueshirts worry about stifling Captain Crosby, but his linemates, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are threats as well. Both Guentzel and Rust capitalized on the Rangers, the former with a pair of goals.
An added bonus would be if the Rangers can find themselves on the power play and display their success with the added man advantage. Yet, the team will have to disrupt the mental game of the Penguins further than letting them know they gave up a power play and shorthanded goal during the last meeting. As the series goes down the stretch, expect more mental mistakes to be made. Unfortunately, this goes for both teams, with little favor towards the inexperienced Rangers. Exploiting the Penguins’ weaknesses will be their best bet during these demanding matchups.
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Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.