At the peak of the New York Rangers' struggles in the regular season this year there was a prevailing ideology the Rangers were somewhat mailing in the regular season to rest themselves up for the playoffs. Outside of the obvious holes in that particular hypothesis, it was also used as a defense for the players themselves.
Once the non-analytical community admitted Dan Girardi and Marc Staal were struggling the defense then turned into: "Well they'll be ready for the playoffs" or "just wait until you see playoff Girardi." Game One was a pretty good indication that both thoughts aren't in the realm of logic or, more importantly, reality.
The Rangers got smoked Wednesday, and at the top of the list of problems was their recently anointed top pairing of Staal and Girardi. It got so bad the duo was briefly relegated to the third pairing -- bumping rookie Brady Skjei up in separate matchups against Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin -- before Alain Vigneault talked himself out of it and put his two most expensive defenseman back at the top.
At 1-0 in the series the Rangers truly do need to feel some pressure; if they don't already, that is. Being down 2-0 to the Penguins would put New York in a pretty enormous hole; requiring a sweep at home ice to tie the series for a Game 5 in Pittsburgh. The Rangers have been an awful road team this year, so the opportunity to try and swing where the series is and when is an important one. Before the game I talked about how the Rangers being the road team allowed them to go into this series with lesser expectations up front. Sweep both games on the road? Awesome. But realistically splitting the home leg was the idea. Bring it back to MSG at 1-1 and then win both games there to really put your foot on the throat.
That would require a pretty dramatic turnaround from where we are now, though. And it would also require Vigneault to do something he hasn't done all year: Dramatically adjust his lineup.
Vigneault made his bed here. And while you need to cut him some slack because he didn't build this team, his deployment and lineup decisions leave a majority of the blood on his hands. He either doesn't recognize problems quickly enough or notes them but never tries to fix them. It's been a staple of his coaching this year. Despite the mounds of evidence, Girardi and Staal have been utilized as top-four defenseman all year, at any cost. That needs to change, and now.
Dylan McIlrath has been rotting away in the press box for months. The regular season was a perfect opportunity to rotate him in and out of the lineup to give Girardi, Staal and Dan Boyle rest at the very least and a permanent role (which he earned) at best. Instead he sat and watched. And watched. That didn't just stunt his development. It didn't just destroy his confidence. It didn't just take vital information away from the Rangers when they need to negotiate with him this summer since he's and RFA. It did all those things and more; mainly making McIlrath a question mark in the moments where you might need him.
Throw Away Your Logic For The Playoffs
The time to fix the problems of the regular season are gone. Let's try to enjoy the playoffs through rose colored glasses ... for as long as we can, at least.
Rather than developing him to see what he had (which by all accounts was a surprisingly solid defenseman) Vigneault passed him over in favor of inferior veterans. Which means in the event McIlrath is needed (be it injury or a lineup adjustment) he's not nearly as prepared as he could be. That's on the coach, but it's also something that can't be fixed right now.
What is evident is Girardi and Staal are not prepared for this series themselves. Staal strung together a few games of really good play, but that evaporated quicker than a drizzle on hot pavement in Game One. Girardi has been the team's biggest straggler all year, and yet his role never changed, his play was never called out and he was never scratched. That has to change for Game Two.
This is an uncomfortable conversation. I get that. Girardi is probably one of the nicest/best guys in the room. He (deservedly) wears a letter. He's a leader who leads by example, is a warrior willing to put his actual health on the line for the team and will do anything to win. There are few players with more positive intangibles than Dan Girardi. And he's a guy who has done so much good for this franchise in the past to boot.
The rub here is hockey isn't just about loyalty to guys who have helped the team in the past. It's not about repaying someone today for something they did yesterday. Throw hockey into a pot and boil it down and you're left with one ingredient: winning. This is a business, run by money, orbiting around winning -- since that moves the needle more than anything else. The goal is to get to the Stanley Cup and then to engrave your name on it. Only the best get to do it.
So yeah, this is uncomfortable. It was uncomfortable in the regular season too, but the playoffs have a way of shining the spotlight just a little brighter. Everything is under the microscope, with even the smallest things viewed and dissected a million times.
This has gone on long enough.
Ironically enough, unless Vigneault adjusts, it won't be going on much longer.