In a hard fought seven-game series, sometimes it’s the tough decisions a coach makes that winds up being the difference. When they fell behind 3-1 to the Caps, the Rangers needed to adjust to come back for a second straight year in the second round making postseason history.
Those adjustments were made by second-year coach Alain Vigneault. Earlier in the series, I critiqued him for not tweaking his lines and making a change to his strategy. The Caps had success early in the series taking away the home run pass by clogging the neutral zone and standing up at the blueline neutralizing the Rangers’ speed. I also felt he needed to double shift his best players when the team was behind.
Ironically, in Game 5 Vigneault didn’t listen opting to roll all four lines. By that point, he had moved Dominic Moore up to center the third line shifting Kevin Hayes to the wing with Carl Hagelin. J.T. Miller was moved down to anchor the fourth line between Tanner Glass and James Sheppard. Interestingly, it was Miller who played a big role in the Rangers’ comeback. We’ll get to that later.
It was late in Game 5 on Friday night when the Rangers trailed the Caps by a goal. Curtis Glencross having chipped in his own rebound with 9:06 left. It looked like the fourth liner’s goal was gonna be enough to eliminate them in five. A result so disappointing that the coach and his players would’ve gotten roasted. But Vigneault never panicked opting to patiently wait for the right opportunity to send Henrik Lundqvist to the bench for an extra attacker. The irony is he never even got off when series hero Derek Stepan took a Keith Yandle outlet and then made a perfect drop for a wicked Chris Kreider one-timer that whistled past Braden Holtby with 1:41 left saving their season. Stepan would also set up Ryan McDonagh’s winner at 9:37 of overtime to extend the series.
The winning play doesn’t happen if not for some great hustle from rookie Jesper Fast. With Mats Zuccarello out, no player has stepped up more than Fast. Moved up by Vigneault to the Stepan line with Kreider, Fast has emerged as a key player. He’s a smart two-way forward who makes the little plays that help win big games. Prior to Stepan setting up McDonagh’s Game 5 winner, it was Fast who forced Glencross into a turnover. He then passed across for Stepan who faked and allowed McDonagh to do the rest. At the start of Game 6, Fast was in on Kreider’s goal 40 seconds in. He didn’t register a point last night but was reliable getting big minutes (21:24) in 33 shifts.
It was the play of the kids that allowed the Blueshirts to force overtime. The Caps kept handing them power plays between the end of the first and start of the second. But they were unable to take advantage until the final portion of their fourth power play. After the top unit with the struggling Martin St. Louis got nothing accomplished, it was the second unit that came through. Following a great keep by McDonagh, Miller took a feed and skated in drawing all four Caps and then centered for a wide open Hayes who tapped it in for the tying goal at 6:22 of the middle stanza. Hayes had his strongest game of the series skating in traffic and creating opportunities for Moore and Hagelin, who in OT was robbed by Holtby.
Miller was moved to the fourth line in Game 4. That’s when Vigneault decided he needed to have Moore in his top nine. An experienced and versatile player who consistently wins faceoffs, Moore also is a effective forechecker who can help generate a cycle. A heady player who is responsible defensively, he brought that little extra to the third line. In doing so, Vigneault banked on the speedy and skilled Miller to spark the fourth line. That strategy paid off in Game 6. When up 3-1, Miller combined with Sheppard behind the net to set up Dan Boyle for what proved to be the winner in a 4-3 nail biter.
Vigneault’s gutsiest move came during the third period of a tie game Wednesday. St. Louis was having a tough night. Unable to provide much offensively, the proud 39-year old future Hall Of Famer had a couple of bad giveaways that led to Caps chances. He also was no match for the dangerous Evgeny Kuznetsov one-on-one covering for a defenseman resulting in Kuznetsov blowing by him and nearly beating Lundqvist sending a backhand wide.
Vigneault could ill afford to have St. Louis out late when one mistake could have meant the series. So, he made the hard decision of sitting St. Louis replacing him with Miller on the Derick Brassard line with Rick Nash. Miller even took and won some key draws. He went 6-and-2 and was an asset in 21 shifts (14:56).
The coach also had to deal with a shortened bench following Brooks Orpik’s unpenalized hit that injured Dan Boyle. The Caps veteran defenseman left his feet at the end catching a prone Boyle who left the game in the third. That meant Vigneault had to rotate five defensemen. As usual, he leaned heavily on McDonagh who gave him over 29 minutes and recovered well from a coverage flap on Alex Ovechkin’s goal in the first. He blocked six shots while defending Ovechkin with steady partner Dan Girardi who was an unsung hero throughout. Kevin Klein also stepped up playing big minutes with Marc Staal.
Vigneault had to manage Yandle’s minutes because he was shaky in his end. However, he utilized Yandle the right way. As he had in Game 5 when he had the offensive defenseman out when his stretch pass led to Kreider’s critical goal, Vigneault sent Yandle over the boards following a stoppage with Girardi for Stepan’s key offensive draw. One that was won by Fast back to Yandle who fed Girardi for a heavy one-timer that forced Holtby to leak out a rebound right to Stepan, who deposited it for the series clincher.
When the Rangers needed to find a way to advance, Vigneault had the right personnel out. He chose wisely. He deserves credit for adjusting the team strategy. He was also responsible for getting them to chip and charge getting pucks behind the Caps D which allowed them to use their speed and get in on the forecheck. The Rangers were most effective working behind the net. They generated offense and turned the series around.
It paid off. All due to the coach who never panicked. Why would he? His team had been here before against the Pens last year. Having that experience helped them rally back. Having Lundqvist always helps. He tied Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy for the most Game 7 wins (6). Lundqvist improved to 10-0 at MSG in the Rangers’ last 10 elimination games. He also kept alive his odd May 13th Game 7 streak by making the identical amount of saves (35) as he had in ousting the Caps in 2013 and the Pens last year. As uncanny as it gets for the clutch goalie who saved his team in OT when they were on their heels.
So, the Rangers’ dream is still alive. They can still #ChangeTheEnding with the right coach at the right time.