The New York Rangers have found themselves in a 2-1 series hole, despite winning Game 1 and being up 3-2 in Game 2 with 18 seconds left to play.
Both games in Montreal were far better than whatever Game 3’s effort level was, although no one would consider those great games by the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist has been leaned on heavily (and has been brilliant), and left out to dry often. The defense has been as much of an issue as we thought they’d be, but it doesn’t matter with the offense being relatively nonexistent.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the Rangers — and the coach is at the center of this -- are playing a much heavier game in this series than they have been all year. Some people (who often refer to the Rangers as being too soft) demanded Tanner Glass be included in the lineup to add some grit.
Glass has been fine, in terms of overall play. The complain isn’t leveled at him, but rather the team’s approach to Montreal’s size and grit as a whole. The Rangers did not play a hard-hitting game in the regular season, they’re simply not built to operate that way. Before the first game, Alain Vigneault talked about how the Rangers had to play an uptempo speed game, even though he was removing skill for Glass (who again, this isn’t about).
It’s almost like Vigneault is far more worried about the Habs hitting the Rangers than he is about doing much else. The Rangers offense has been somewhat non-existent in all three games. Even in Game 2 where the Rangers scored three goals; one goal was accidentally deflected in off Mats Zuccarello’s leg and another was scored on a quick-transition breakaway by Michael Grabner. Throw in Glass’ mostly lucky goal and Grabner’s empty netter in Game 1 and, well, the Rangers haven’t done much.
We’ve focused on how much both sides seem to be hitting in this series, but it’s only out of character for one of them. The below is something I quickly put together showing the Rangers’ regular season hits per game and their playoffs hits per game.
The yellow highlights are Rangers skill players who are being relied on to do most of the heavy lifting in the series. The “difference” tab on the right shows how much more they’re hitting the first three games of the playoffs than they did in the regular season. All of them are throwing more than a hit more per game more, and some of them (Zuccarello and Hayes specifically) are playing a much heavier game than they did in the regular season.
The blue represents players who might not be as expected to do the heavy lifting on offense, but who have thrown far more hits. Brady Skjei is expected to provide offense, but as a defenseman I can’t claim his hitting increase is because of Vigneault since the puck is in the Rangers zone often. All the defenseman had pretty big increases, but again, you hit more the more you don’t have the puck.
It should also be noted that no Ranger has throw less hits per game in the playoffs than the regular season.
Hits are an interesting thing. Some hits are vital to separating players from the puck while others are because you don’t have the puck at all. Normally the team who leads the game in hits is down in possession metrics. You can’t hit when you have the puck.
Now, the sample size of three playoff games is small, but this is a pretty good reflection of the game the Rangers are trying to play against Montreal. It is, quite simply, not a game the Rangers are able to play the way they’re built. We’ve talked a lot about how the Rangers could ice an all-skill fourth line to run up against Montreal’s size and toughness fourth line to take the game to them.
Instead that group has been fighting their own battle, with Fast throwing more than 3 hits a game than he did in the regular season. Lindberg and even Glass are throwing their body around more as well.
Some of this is also a product of the Rangers not having as much possession as Montreal is. There’s a lot of factors to the Rangers throwing their weight around (or trying to) but anyone who thinks the Rangers have been effective in this series are lying to themselves. Talking about how the Rangers are “rubbing Montreal off the puck” or “being tough in corners” obviously isn’t helping, even though the Rangers are trying to do it. Without Lundqvist to save the team’s hide, the Rangers would be down 3-0 in this series.
The “toughness over skill” war continues. It will continue for a while yet, I fear. The Rangers clearly can’t keep this up and expect to win games, though. Montreal has been able to totally shut the offense down and remove any threat from their already elite goaltender.
Maybe Alain Vigneault will make some adjustments to add skill into the lineup. That won’t matter as much if the Rangers are still trying to be a top-heavy toughness team.
We’ll find out soon enough tonight. But the Rangers’ playoff lives might depend on that adjustment.