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Finding Value in Vigneault’s Lineup Mind Games

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NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers’ Game 5 loss was painful. Their second period collapse was disheartening. But the Rangers were revitalized by a tying goal from their captain and regained the lead with a goal by Jimmy Vesey – his first career Stanley Cup Playoffs goal.

In the final moments of the game, though, the Rangers found themselves in a 6-on-5 situation. The Senators scored with 1:26 left in the game, forcing it to overtime. Kyle Turris scored the game-winner, giving the Senators a 3-2 series lead after the Rangers rallied from their 2-0 deficit in this series.

The Rangers can attribute their Game 5 loss to inexplicable coaching. Brady Skjei did not play in the final 5:04 of the game even though he had a primary assist and was on the ice for two goals for the Rangers and only one goal against.

There is no justifying benching Skjei for Marc Staal, especially when the Rangers were trying to maintain their lead in the most important moments of the game. And Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneault’s defense of his decision, citing Staal’s “experience” and Skjei’s inexperience, is indefensible, especially when this same situation has occurred three times in the playoffs this year.

Moving past the inexcusable decisions on defense, the deployment of one forward was especially questionable: Tanner Glass. Prior to Game 3, Vigneault replaced Pavel Buchnevich for Glass, after playing Buchnevich for a scarce 5:47 in Game 2.

In Glass’s three games this series, he has been on a line with Oscar Lindberg and J.T. Miller, accumulating three assists. Although those assists are noteworthy, particularly for a player that has six points in 66 career playoff games, the accolades to belong to Lindberg – who has been exceptional throughout the playoffs

It is also worth noting that Lindberg’s defensive play has dropped in the last three games after playing with Glass. Coincidence? Through 10 playoff games, Lindberg was not on the ice for a single goal against. In Game 5, he was on the ice for two while playing with Glass.

Here’s where Tanner Glass’s play becomes a problem for the Rangers: he was on the ice for three goals against in Game 5. Glass is in the lineup for his defensive play and physical contributions. Vigneault’s doubts about Buchnevich’s abilities, particularly his defensive play, is why he is not in the Rangers lineup.

Had Buchnevich been on the ice when the Senators scored any of their goals against, it is unlikely that he would have been used in the rest of the game, let alone the series. Yet Glass can be on the ice for three goals against without his role in Game 6 being a consideration, even though he was the only player to be on the ice for three goals against.

For a player that contributes his defensive abilities, he certainly allows a high number of scoring chances, as represented by his 11.18 scoring chances against per 60, which is the second highest of the Rangers’ in the playoffs. His goals against per 60 of 3.05 is second only to Kevin Klein, who has only played in one game these playoffs. And Glass’s expected goals against per 60 of 2.68 is the fourth highest on the team.

data from Corsica.hockey

When the Rangers were trying to maintain their one-goal lead in Game 5, Glass was deployed, even though he was already on the ice for one goal against. Glass was specifically deployed with Zuccarello and Stepan. Why was Glass even on the ice in this situation? If the idea was to defensively shell, wouldn’t players like Fast or Lindberg, who have been the most defensively responsible players, be better options?

Isn’t the idea to not only maintain a lead, but to extend it in these situations? If so, wouldn’t a more offensively capable forward be preferable? Glass may have made offensive contributions in the semifinals, but they were not particularly skillful (one blocked shot, one dump in). There were certainly more offensively capable players than Glass available to Vigneault in this dire situation who could have helped extend the Rangers’ lead.

Not to mention that it was again Glass on the ice when the Senators scored in overtime to win Game 5 and take the series lead.

Moving into Game 6, Vigneault and the Rangers have to consider lineup changes. By utilizing Glass and seeing the effect he had on Games 3 and 4, Senators’ coach Guy Boucher countered the Rangers with Chris Neil. Neil, a veteran forward known for his physical play, had only played one game since the trade deadline. He replaced Ryan Dzingel, who was such an important player in Game 1.

Vigneault expressed that the Rangers would maintain their strategy, despite the Senators’ lineup changes. Initially, the idea that Neil would be replacing Dzingel seemed like a bizarre decision for the Senators.

Neil only played for 2:25 in Game 5. At 3:13 of the second period, Neil took two penalties: a minor for roughing, as well as a misconduct for his actions against Glass. Boucher’s decision looked even more bizarre, as Neil put his team down to 11 forwards.

Even though Neil barely played, his teammates credited his actions as their motivation. Turris explained how Neil “energized” the crowd and was their “most important player.” Boucher called his play “inspiring.”

The question remains: will the Senators use Neil again in Game 6? His play may not energize Rangers fans at Madison Square Garden, but it could silence them. Yet Neil did essentially put the Senators down a forward for the majority of the game. However, he was that “important” to the Senators that they may decide to use him again to balance out Glass.

The Rangers should counter the Senators’ usage of Neil, but not with Glass. Throughout the playoffs, Vigneault has tried to trick his opponents with his lineup. Each time, he has been fairly unsuccessful, since those choices have often been between Buchnevich and Glass. Even if Vigneault did not indicate who would be in the lineup until warm-ups or game time, his decisions were rarely surprising.

This is where Vigneault should use this strategy to his advantage: continue to act as if he will keep his lineup in tact with Glass, which may convince the Senators to use Neil again. If the Senators use Neil, Buchnevich is the answer for the Rangers.

Buchnevich has proven he can play with an edge and is willing to be involved in scrums after the whistle. However, it is unlikely that Neil engages with Buchnevich in the way that he would with Glass. Furthermore, Buchnevich’s creative offense and cerebral play would help the Rangers skate circles around Neil and the Senators. With Buchnevich, the Rangers would give themselves the advantage of rolling four skilled lines.

This is one of the few instances in which Vigneault’s mind games with the lineup would in fact be useful for the Rangers and convincing, since he clearly favors Glass.

For whatever it is worth, even if the Senators play Dzingel over Neil, Buchnevich is still preferable in the lineup since he could balance the offensive play of Dzingel.

The Rangers are now on the brink of elimination and their priority needs to be using their best lineup. With Buchnevich, the Rangers are a much more dangerous team. Playing Buchnevich was the turning point of their quarterfinals series against the Canadiens.

In order to rebound in this series, the coaching has to improve – starting with their lineup choices. The coaching cost the Rangers again in this series, and they are no longer afforded any second chances. Therefore, it is crucial that the Rangers’ coaches make the right decisions, which would include convincing the Senators to utilize a lesser lineup and countering with an intuitive forward: Pavel Buchnevich.

*All data is at 5-on-5 and is sourced from Corsica.hockey.