Return of the King: Rangers’ Best Players Respond

What a difference a day makes. On Thursday, people were actively questioning whether Henrik Lundqvist should be starting in Friday’s Eastern Conference Final Game 4. Not the least of these was Larry Brooks of the New York Post. In a press conference on Thursday, he asked Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault whether Lundqvist would be starting Friday. Vigneault laughed and asked, “is that a question?” When Brooks assured him that it was indeed his question, the coach answered with one word: “Yes.”

The inherent silliness of those questions was exposed on Friday. After working with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, Lundqvist made some adjustments to his approach. Mainly, getting aggressive enough in his positioning to cover more space, but not so aggressive that he would leave himself unable to cover Tampa’s cross-ice passes. Armed with a better plan of attack, any lingering self-doubt from games 2 and 3 was gone. The result was classic Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist stopped chance after chance from the Lightning–many of these chances coming in bunches during the first two periods. At the end of the night, he had amassed 38 saves in a statement 5-1 Rangers win. The response should have come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Lundqvist, and these Rangers, over this playoff season. This is a mentally tough team that bands together and plays their best when pushed by opponents. That toughness starts with Lundqvist, and flows from the net out. The only puzzling thing about this response from Henrik and the team was that it took two undisciplined games in a row to light this fire.

This is a testament to the speed and skill of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They move the puck very well, and excel at causing chaos in the opposing team’s offensive zone. Any failure in coverage, no matter how small, will be exploited. But the Rangers have one of the best team defenses in the NHL, and they finally showed that in game 4. While the coverage was far from perfect, it gave Lundqvist more of a chance to see the puck and make saves.

 Nash and St. Louis Follow Suit

Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t the only Ranger to bounce back in game 4.  Both Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis have had trouble scoring this playoff season, but they both found the back of the net in this game. Nash had only scored a pair of goals in 15 playoff games, and St. Louis had none.

Nash has had chances in the playoffs, but was once again looking snakebit. He’s definitely been more of a physical presence this season than in the past two, but that hadn’t translated into goals.  Until 17:18 of the first period.  Nash took a beautiful pass from Kevin Hayes in the neutral zone and barreled to the net with a purpose, blowing by the Lightning defender and tucking the puck off the post and Ben Bishop’s skate to open the game’s scoring.  This was the kind of goal that the Rangers need from Nash–a true power forward move with the ability to finish. When Nash is on his game, he scores these goals regularly.

Not satisfied with just one goal, Nash added another goal from right in front of Bishop to close out the scoring.  He also assisted on Keith Yandle’s goal in the second period. The biggest knock against Nash during his time with the Rangers was that in the playoffs he changed his style. The regular season Rick Nash was a player willing to drive through the center of the ice with the puck.  In the playoffs, he played a more tentative game around the perimeter, with the predictable decrease in scoring. Not this year. Not this game. If this continues, then Nash will be a force to be reckoned with for the rest of the playoffs.

If Rick Nash was having a difficult playoff season, then Martin St. Louis was living out a nightmare. St. Louis has been unable to buy a goal this playoffs, despite having numerous golden opportunities. Additionally, he has been victimized by opposing teams over and over again–most recently in Game 3, where his mishandling of a Dan Boyle pass turned a Rangers 5-on-3 power play into a short-handed goal by Tampa Bay. He was looking every bit of his 39 years against the speed of the Lightning.

A third period Rangers power play gave St. Louis some redemption on Friday. Setting up in his “office” in the right face-off circle, he dropped to one knee and ripped a one-timer past Bishop for the fourth Rangers goal. Just like Nash’s goal, this was classic Martin St. Louis. He practices this shot time after time in every practice and morning skate. This is his bread and butter–and this time it came through for him.

It’s not just the fact that Nash and St. Louis scored that should give Blueshirt fans some hope–it’s the way they scored their goals. Both Nash and St. Louis played to their strengths and scored the goals that come naturally to them. They finally look like the players the Rangers need them to be. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Rangers best players are now playing their best games: Lundqvist, Nash, and St. Louis sent a message on Friday night. In game 5 on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be the ones responding–but the Rangers have now regained home ice advantage. This series has become everything we thought it would be. What happens when both of these teams play their best hockey against each other?  We’ll find out soon enough.