With the season on the line tonight, Gerard Gallant will have to make the most important decision of his coaching career in New York thus far. If you were able to catch any of the four playoff games, you’ve probably witnessed some incredibly poor defensive play on the Rangers’ behalf. A lot of the team has underperformed in various ways, Zibanejad has been invisible, Fox appears to be a shell of the all-star player he’s been, Gallant is being outcoached, and perhaps most impactful Shesterkin has finally come down to earth and appears to be human.
There is plenty of blame to go around as to why this team is on the brink of elimination, however, the thing is none of those above-mentioned issues are easily repaired by sitting one player. Zibanejad is their de facto number one center, Fox is their number one defenseman, and without Igor, the team wouldn’t even be in the playoffs. There is no viable alternative for any of those players that would improve or give the team as good a chance at winning. That leads us to something that can be adjusted, Patrik Nemeth should not play in game 5.
If you exist anywhere on social media, you’ve likely seen a take or ten condemning Nemeth’s play. With the team getting thoroughly outplayed in game four, and much of game three everyone in the Rangers’ fandom was looking for a culprit to blame. A lot of fingers pointed Nemeth’s way and although unfortunate, the ire for the Rangers’ third pairing defenseman is a bit valid.
Taking his fourth minor penalty of the series in game four, Nemeth leads both teams with 8 PIM. Though the legitimacy of the officiating has been questioned by many, Nemeth does have a history of being penalized in the postseason and putting his team down a man at incredibly critical times. We only need to go back a year to see Nemeth take three penalties with the Colorado Avalanche in their series against the Vegas Golden Knights, contributing to Colorado’s collapse.
Nemeth is having a similar impact with the Rangers. In game four, New York grabbed the lead and was playing well until Nemeth’s high sticking penalty against Rodrigues’ happened. It was an irresponsible play by the defenseman and occurred away from the puck. The Penguins tied the game on the subsequent power play and grabbed onto the reins of the game and never let go.
It may be a bit harsh or unfair to pin this on the Rangers’ defenseman with the rest of the team having perhaps their worst game of the season but on top of this, his poor defensive play has left the already struggling Rangers team much more vulnerable. Momentum is an incredibly important and powerful thing in the playoffs and Pittsburgh has capitalized on their chances to take it away from New York time and time again.
If Ryan Lindgren isn’t available for game five, Gallant needs to replace Nemeth with Jones. Honestly, even if Lindgren is available, Gallant still needs to replace Nemeth with Jones. Zac Jones would be an immense upgrade on the back end, having legitimate puck skills and historically having been penalized far less in the NHL and throughout much of his career.
The decision to have Jones play over Nemeth should have been made after game three. Now being down three games to one, it’s blatant that what they’ve been doing has not worked. Not only is playing Jones over Nemeth an upgrade for the team, it would also allow the young defenseman the opportunity to get some important playoff experience. With all the other issues the team is attempting to play through, they can do themselves the favor and upgrade their defense by making this one simple decision.