The Tampa Bay Lightning are the new Stanley Cup champions. Just winning the Cup is hard enough, but Tampa Bay won it in some of the most unusual circumstances in the history of the league. Young teams like the New York Rangers could learn a lot from the new Cup champions. They have a lot of youth and still need to do a lot of learning, so there’s no better time to learn how to win than while watching someone do it. Here are a few things the Rangers should be taking notes on as they look to become a contender.
Better Control of the Blue Line
One of the biggest causes of the Rangers’ defensive struggles was their poor play at the blue line. Far too often, they would just let an attacker walk right into their zone along the boards with next to no opposition. This essentially allowed opponents to set up possession for free. They would then pass the puck around to create offensive opportunities and pick the spotty coverage apart.
The Rangers had the fourth-worst Corsi for percentage in the league at even strength at 46.73%, according to Natural Stat Trick partially because they allowed the third-most high-danger chances against. Their strongest defender was arguably Adam Fox, but that is not exactly a bad thing. He was solid and still has a ton of room to improve.
Looking at Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning did an excellent job of using their control of the blue line to stifle the Dallas Stars’ offense. Through two periods, the Stars managed only eight shots on goal. It is very hard to win games while mustering up that little offense. The Lightning had a defenseman and a backchecker angle the puck carrier to the boards just before they entered the zone and forced them to either dump the puck in or the defense forced a turnover. When the puck was dumped in, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was able to stop it with ease, the other defender would pick it up and the Lightning had an easy zone exit.
As far as this working for the Rangers, Igor Shesterkin has shown the ability to play the puck well when needed. The best kind of defense is one that does not let opponents get any kind of offense going in the first place. Luckily for the Rangers, prospect K’andre Miller did an excellent job controlling opponent zone entries for the Badgers at the University of Wisconsin.
Being More Aggressive on the Forecheck
Despite all the talks about how the Lightning was a skilled team, they showed they are more complex than that. Yes, they have a ton of firepower in guys like Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, but one of their most important lines was the third line of Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde. That line was a revelation on the forecheck, always going in hard and creating turnovers. They did an excellent job grinding out their opponents and preventing them from forming much of anything in the way of a breakout. The line also chipped in for 33 points, which is excellent production from a third line.
The Rangers really need to take notes on how aggressive Tampa was if they want to keep dumping the puck in as often as they do. Far too often the Rangers would dump in the puck and lazily try to put pressure on the defender who grabbed the puck. They need to be more aggressive, apply more pressure and force turnovers. A good forecheck does more than just create turnovers; it can wear down the other team and help establish offensive zone possession.
Learning to Come Back from Defeat
This might be the most important thing the Rangers need to do. Before winning hockey’s ultimate prize, the 2018-19 Lightning suffered one of the most embarrassing losses in recent history. They tied the record for most regular-season wins in a season with 62 and then were promptly swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets, a wild card team that just won their first series in franchise history. They learned from that crushing defeat and used it as motivation; they did not want to suffer the embarrassment again.
The Rangers slid into the play-in round this season but were promptly swept by the Carolina Hurricanes. They were entirely outplayed, outworked and were the first team to leave the bubble as a result. The stakes were not as high, but it is still a crushing defeat given how the Rangers have been so successful against the Hurricanes in the regular season for so long now. This is only one defeat compared to the several years of coming up short for Tampa, but the Rangers need to use their series against Carolina to figure out what went wrong and how they can bounce back.
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There’s still a ways to go before the Rangers can truly be a contender, but this is the time for them to grow and learn. They still have eight players going into the 2020-21 season on entry-level contracts, barring one of their prospects making their NHL debut this season. The Rangers will not be finding their way to a deep playoff run for some time, but they should be taking steps closer and learning. There is no team better to learn from than the guys who have already done it.
Currently a writer for the New York Rangers, University of New Hampshire alumn