The Pittsburgh Penguins have arguably the two best forwards in the world on their roster in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Talent like that can obviously become problematic, and Pittsburgh putting the two on separate lines really tests the defensive depth of whoever is facing them.
Fortunately for the Rangers, they have one of the best defensive centers in the entire NHL in Dominic Moore. Since Malkin is on the wing, and the Rangers play largely a man-to-man defense, matching Moore up with Crosby seems like a pretty good plan for stopping, or at least limiting, Crosby from doing what he does best. Though putting him out against Malkin is not a poor idea, either.
That's more or less what the Rangers did in Game One against the Penguins. Here was the distribution of playing time for Rangers' centers against Crosby and Malkin at even strength in that 2-1 win.
Not ideal in my eyes, but that's some pretty even distribution. At least one could say that Moore got his fair share of shifts against Pittsburgh's two elite players. There's a lot more to this, however. Of those three-plus minutes against Crosby and Malkin, roughly half of it came in the final 15 minutes of the game as the Rangers were protecting a 2-1 lead. That also coincided with Tanner Glass seeing very limited ice-time in the third period, and none in the final seven-to-eight minutes of the game. Instead, Alain Vigneault was putting Carl Hagelin, a great defensive winger, on a line with Moore and Jesper Fast. Zuccarello and Nash also saw a shift or two with them. Looking at the first two periods, Moore (along with Fast and Glass) really played majority of their minutes against Pittsburgh's bottom-six.
So what happens to the distribution of minutes against Crosby and Malkin in a game in which the Rangers are not protecting a third-period lead? For instance, in Game Two? This.
These numbers are slightly warped by the fact that the Rangers were chasing the game, and obviously Dominic Moore isn't going to be on the ice as much in those situations. Nonetheless, that doesn't even come close to accounting for the discrepancy. Rather, with Moore not being used in those late-third period "protect the lead" shifts, he, along with Glass and Fast, were consistently matching up against Blake Comeau, Brandon Sutter, and Steve Downie.
In fact, compare the usage of the fourth line last night versus Game Seven against the Penguins last season.
That seems like a massive waste. Comeau, Sutter, and Downie are all solid players, sure. But it's an absolutely bizarre way to use the best defensive forward on your entire team; akin to playing Ryan McDonagh against the opposition's checking line.
This usage hurts the rest of your forwards. That Pittsburgh line, while decent, would have its work cut out for them against the Rangers' top offensive weapons. It would also mean that, if Moore's line is constantly matched against Crosby or Malkin, then those two wouldn't be on the ice to help shut down Rangers' top scorers as they were in the first two games. I like Moore's chances of containing Crosby or Malkin far more than Maxim Lapierre's chancing of stopping Nash or Stepan.
The other end of the spectrum is that the current usage of Moore opens the Rangers up for exploitation. Whether on purpose or not, The Hayes line saw a lot of time against Crosby in both games, and the Rangers paid for it significantly in Game Two. Both of Crosby's goals came on the ice against Hayes, with him looking out of his depth in each instance. Hayes is of course a good player, but shouldn't be tasked with difficult defensive shifts at this stage in his development; especially with Martin St. Louis, who is reduced to purely an offensive player at this stage of his career, on his wing.
Hockey is a complex sport, with each shift building off of the previous one and dictating circumstances of the next one. At face value, the fourth line had a negligible impact on last night's game; the three players were neutral possession players and not much happened in either direction with them on the ice. But the circumstances of their playing time reverberate throughout the rest of the lineup. It's patently obvious that Alain Vigneault knows Tanner Glass can not be trusted in defensive minutes, and because of this Dominic Moore, along with a good defensive winger in Jesper Fast, is not being fully utilized. Moore has everything in his arsenal - skating ability, engine, and elite hockey IQ - to effectively shut down one of Pittsburgh's elite scorers. Alain Vigneault knows it, or else he wouldn't have given Moore that opportunity in key moments last season and in Game One this year. Unfortunately, the build of this year's fourth line makes it impossible for Vigneault to do so. In essence, the Rangers have actively limited the ability of their best defensive forward to do his job, and it cost them in Game Two. They either need to make adjustments or cross their fingers hard that it won't burn them the rest of the way.