Coming into their first-round series against the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers had one distinct advantage: their forward depth. In particular, the Rangers’ roster features more skill and speed up front than the Habs’.
The Rangers, however, have changed their game too much and gotten away from what makes them successful. As a result, they face a 2-1 series deficit that feels much more lopsided than that.
An Ill-Advised Change in Style
The Rangers are not an overly physical team, having finished with the 16th-most hits in the league during the regular season. The Canadiens had the 12th-most, but loaded up on size and physicality at the trade deadline by acquiring Steve Ott, Andreas Martinsen, and Dwight King. Adding those players to a club that already featured Shea Weber, Alexei Emelin, and Andrew Shaw gave the Canadiens an identity of physicality to go along with some speed up front (though not as much as the Rangers).
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said the right thing before the series with respect to the Rangers’ necessary style of play.
AV said #Blueshirts must play “fast, high-tempo hockey” against Montreal.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) April 11, 2017
What Vigneault said, though, is not congruent with how the Rangers have played. They have not been particularly fast and have not been able to generate much offense against the Habs, who are hard enough to score on as it is with Carey Price in net. Instead, they are playing into the Canadiens’ hands by embracing a physical style.
The Rangers have the most hits of any team in the brief postseason so far, with 160. The Canadiens have the second-most (139). This style does not suit the Rangers and is also a sign that they don’t have the puck enough. Further validating that is the fact that the Habs have had more shot attempts than them in each of the three games thus far. Granted, part of that might have been a result of score effects, as the Rangers held leads for large portions of the first two games, but it also held true in Game 3—a contest in which the Rangers never led.
The Rangers can’t worry about the physicality of the Canadiens. It is just going to keep them preoccupied and unfocused on their speed-based game. They need to be more proactive in pushing the play.
Only Minor Adjustments Needed
The only reactive adjustment the Rangers should make is to balance offensive-zone dump-ins with transition plays up the ice. When exiting their own zone on a breakout, sometimes the proper play might be to dump the puck in and forecheck heavily if the Canadiens are clogging the neutral zone and negating stretch passes. The Rangers can still leverage their speed game in plenty of other situations by forcing turnovers in the neutral zone or even in their own zone and pushing the puck the other way quickly.
Instead, though, the Rangers’ focus seems to be primarily on taking the body, which is not what made them successful in the regular season. If a hit helps retrieve the puck, then great. Otherwise, it will just take the focus away from getting the puck and making a play with it.
What the Rangers need against a stingy Montreal club are minor adjustments to their generally successful framework—not a complete shift in playing style.
Lack of Preparedness at Home
However counterproductive the Rangers’ gameplan has been in the series so far, the bigger problem in Game 3 was that they came out with an inexcusably lethargic and listless effort on home ice.
The Rangers were completely outplayed at Madison Square Garden, unable to generate any sustained offensive pressure. By the time they finally broke through on a Brady Skjei goal with about three minutes left, the game was already basically decided, as they ultimately fell by a final of 3-1.
Final scoring chances were 27-13 for Montreal, high danger chances 12-3, chances on net 18-4. Rangers got taken to school.
— Andrew Berkshire (@AndrewBerkshire) April 17, 2017
Having this type of performance in a single home playoff game is bad enough. What’s worse is that not only is it a continuation of the Rangers’ unimpressive play at the Garden during the regular season (they were just 21-16-4); it also adds to an ugly streak of home postseason contests over the past few seasons.
Last six playoff games at MSG:
— Rick Carpiniello (@RickCarpiniello) April 17, 2017
That adds up to a record of 0-6 while being outscored by a combined margin of 21-4. Yikes.
In numerous critical playoff home games dating back to 2015, the Rangers have simply not been prepared to play. That’s an indictment against Vigneault and the coaching staff. It’s one thing to lose. It’s another to be woefully unprepared.
It’s on Vigneault and company to make sure the club is prepared, as well as to facilitate the proper style with the proper tweaks in order to be successful. The Rangers need to play to their strengths and do so with the same confidence and intensity they seem to be able to ratchet up on the road but not at home. Otherwise, they could be looking at another early exit.