Alain Vigneault tried to matched this ideology as best he could the first three games, even though the Rangers aren’t at all built to be that type of team. What’s worse, the Rangers skill players seemed far more focused on keeping up with Montreal’s antics and physicality than they were about playing their own game. As an example: Through the first three games Mats Zuccarello saw himself throwing 2.6 more hits a game than he did in the regular season. It just wasn’t working.
We’ve spent a lot of time lamenting the lack of adjustments from the head coach. But credit where credit is due, Vigneault pulled Tanner Glass out of the lineup and inserted Pavel Buchnevich after Game 3. (Note: In his three games Glass was far from the problem, but his inclusion did jam up any chance of running four skill lines and as soon as he came out of the lineup the whole mental dynamic changed. That doesn’t have anything to do with him as much as the Rangers changing their focus.)
Is it any wonder that once Buchnevich was inserted into the lineup and the Rangers went back to the ways they had been successful they reeled off three straight wins and won the series? When the Rangers had four lines of skill they were capable of running straight at Montreal, who simply didn’t have an answer. If not for Carey Price (and the Rangers stagnant power play) the Rangers offense could have done a lot more damage.
The gift of Montreal’s lack of speed did something else, too: It helped solidify Dan Girardi’s top-pairing role. I don’t want to take anything away from him, he was more than solid in this series and better than any of us could have expected. A big part of this was Montreal’s lack of speed top to bottom, but Girardi was able to keep his head afloat regardless. I do think Ottawa will pose a much bigger threat in this department, but if Vigneault does a little more adjusting and moves the Brendan Smith - Brady Skjei pairing up to the second slot it should make a big difference in a good way.
Without the defense letting the group down — well, without 4 of the 6 defenseman letting the group down — Henrik Lundqvist was able to mop up the mess and allow the offense to work themselves into form. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot there that has to be fixed. Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes are still without goals and Mika Zibanejad led the team with just four point in those six games. The Rangers scored enough goals to get by, but something tells me Ottawa is going to be a little more run and gun than Montreal was.
That means the Rangers need to remain true to what got them here. They need to stick with the speed and skill approach rather than trying to wind and grind the opposition down. Regardless of your thoughts on advanced stats, it’s pretty clear the Rangers didn’t do what they needed to do when they were focused more on being physical than playing the game that got them there.
Having a fourth line of Jesper Fast - Oscar Lindberg - Michael Grabner has payed itself off and then some, as well. Most teams aren’t equipped to deal with that much firepower on the final line, especially if the top guns start finishing as well.
Beating Montreal will be no easy task, but it’s possible. Earlier in the year the Rangers smoked the competition with their defensive issues and Lundqvist’s struggles. They did it almost easily, and it was a joy to watch. That team is still in there ...
That team has yet to show themselves yet, but I’m willing to bet the group that finished this series is the team’s best chance to get there. This team can be special, they really can. Working their way into the Atlantic bracket was helpful, but the Rangers forward corps is deeper than we’ve seen since probably 2014, if not even deeper. That’s what wins Stanley Cups as much as anything else. The depth.
The Rangers have more than enough of that.
So long as they keep playing it.