Through two games, the Rangers and Canadiens are all tied in this first round best-of-seven Atlantic Division series. The underdog top wildcard from the Metropolitan Division could easily be in the drivers seat up two games to none. Instead, they find themselves returning home to MSG for a huge Game 3 tomorrow night following a stirring Habs’ comeback with Tomas Plekanec and Alex Radulov playing the heroes in a tough 4-3 overtime loss on Friday.
They wasted a heroic 54-save effort from Henrik Lundqvist. The King did all he could to give his team a golden opportunity to steal Game 2 at Bell Centre. He made 35 saves in the second and third periods. But it wasn’t enough due to old hat Plekanec finding room in front of the net to deflect home a Radulov pass with 17.3 seconds left forcing overtime. A play that could’ve been prevented had Nick Holden not been busy slashing Plekanec and breaking his stick. What if he defended properly? The Rangers would be two up coming home.
The bigger question is why coach Alain Vigneault opted to go with Holden and Marc Staal for that fateful final shift of regulation. After old reliable Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi came off, Vigneault could’ve sent out Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith. A tandem that had been the most effective. Particularly with Skjei and Smith playing playoff hockey by roughing up the very aggressive Habs. But for some reason, they remain the third pair while Staal and Holden continue to be loyally trusted to a fault. They were on for all three goals against during the first 60 minutes. How will Vigneault play it when the series shifts to Broadway Sunday night?
While those are tough questions the coach better answer, it doesn’t fully explain the mysterious disappearance of a few key players from their young core.
In particular, they need more from Chris Kreider, who has been visible for the wrong reason. He doesn’t have a point so far and only registered four shots against rival Carey Price. This isn’t previous years. It was Kreider who led the Rangers in goals with 28 during a career season that saw him post his first 50-point season with 53 points. He hasn’t done a good enough job in front of Price. He needs to make life more difficult on the Montreal goalie.
Game 1 of 2014 can’t be in his mind. It wasn’t his fault Alexei Emelin tripped him sending him flying into Price, who was knocked out for the rest of the Eastern Conference Final. The 25-year old Kreider must be a factor the rest of the series. That means getting in on the forecheck and generating more offense with linemates Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. The top line hasn’t been great only in on one goal with Stepan setting up Smith’s one-timer that Zuccarello banked in off his shin for a 3-2 lead late in the second last night. They must be better when Vigneault can dictate the match-ups with the final change.
Kreider was guilty on Montreal’s second goal when he mishandled a Holden pass causing a neutral zone turnover. He didn’t hustle back as Paul Byron scored with Staal and Holden in no man’s land. Defense isn’t his strong suit. But skating and stick handling are. He could’ve done a better job. In overtime, he also took a bad penalty slashing the stick out of a Canadien in the offensive zone. The Rangers penalty kill bailed him out. The power forward must have more of a positive impact. He can impose his will and be a factor offensively. They can’t win without him.
He’s far from alone. Kevin Hayes hasn’t done much either. Centering the third line with Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller, the third-year playmaking pivot has looked tentative. A quality big man with great puck possession skills, Hayes is an unselfish player who likes to get his teammates involved. His line started well in the first period getting the puck in and cycling effectively. But while both Grabner and Miller were more active, Hayes took a back seat to the rugged style being played. He isn’t known for physicality. But he can be more aggressive.
There were moments Hayes could’ve looked for his shot but didn’t. It’s not his first instinct. But when you’re on the power play and in a prime position, take what they give you. “Shoot The Puck! Barry” used to be the old moniker by former Rangers broadcaster Bill “The Big Whistle” Chadwick. Sometimes, Hayes needs to take what they give him. Also without a point and four shots, he can’t have a repeat of last year when Vigneault benched him the final two games in a lopsided first round loss to Pittsburgh. He’s got to make things happen.
Hayes’ linemate Miller also can play better. Sure. He’s been noticeable battling the Canadiens on the forecheck while finishing checks and getting involved during scrums. Most notably, when teammate Zuccarello took an uncalled cheap shot from Montreal goon Steve Ott. That led to Miller stepping in before Habs’ defenseman Shea Weber took matters into his own hands by pummeling the Rangers’ forward.
The 24-year old Miller also posted career bests with 22 goals, 34 assists and 56 points while leading the team in shorthanded goals with three. His style is perfectly suited for this series. He gets the jersey dirty and doesn’t back off. However, the Rangers need him to score. He’s a very gifted offensive player in that he can both finish due to his quick release and set up teammates due to his vision. He can’t be without a goal or assist in the next two games. If the Rangers are to snap their five-game home playoff losing streak, they need Miller to produce.
Another young player who must be much better is Mika Zibanejad. In Game 1, he got a couple of looks but didn’t finish. Centering the second line with Jimmy Vesey and Rick Nash, the former Senator needs to be more assertive. He has five shots so far but no points. Zibanejad also was just a tad late taking Radulov on the OT winner in front. He didn’t tie him up.
When Rangers GM Jeff Gorton traded popular Blueshirt Derick Brassard to Ottawa in exchange for Zibanejad and a second round pick (Brendan Smith), it was with the thought of dumping Brassard’s salary and no-trade clause to take on a younger player with promise. A right-handed shot, the 23-year old Zibanejad finished the regular season well scoring twice and tallying two assists in the last three games. After missing two months with a broken leg, it took the young Swede time to find his game. He showed improvement down the stretch winding up with 14 goals and 23 assists in 56 contests. That included four power play goals and 11 power play points.
There’s no denying his talent. Possessing a lethal shot from the off wing, he can one-time the puck giving opposing goaltenders trouble. Thus far, he’s been MIA. He got one chance in Game 2 but fired right into Price. There also was a frustrating fake one-time pass across that never had a chance for Zuccarello with the puck hopping over him. Sometimes, simple is better. He should’ve taken the shot. As a player who centers Vesey and Nash, Zibanejad can’t be invisible. He must be a factor. If that means Vigneault shifts Miller to the line and moves Vesey down to Hayes and Grabner, so be it.
In order for the Rangers to advance, they need more out of their top nine. They haven’t gotten enough consistency. Nash showed up by scoring on a breakaway off a nice touch pass from Vesey due to a good breakout from Holden. The one positive from the much maligned skating defenseman. Grabner has scored in both games. One into an empty net sealing Game 1 and last night when he beat Price on a breakaway going to a backhand off a great deke. Zuccarello has a goal and has been in the middle of everything. He can still be better as can Stepan, who was on point in a interview this afternoon.
It’s interesting to note what he said about the final 10 minutes of the third period and overtime. He discussed how they tried to hang on and make the hard plays while playing too safe in sudden death. The last half of the third wasn’t good enough. The Rangers didn’t forecheck at all. They were content to protect a one-goal lead and sit back. It resulted in an 18-9 advantage in shots for the Habs and a ridiculous 33-12 edge in attempts. The Rangers also iced the puck seven times. Fifteen face-offs were in their end compared to just one in Montreal’s end.
That won’t get it done. A word of friendly advice to Vigneault. Don’t play it too safe. He should know better. It cost him against the Kings in the 2014 Stanley Cup Finals. You can’t be too conservative. His team was guilty of that and got burned. Listening to Stepan and Ryan McDonagh, lesson learned.
Now, the pressure shifts to the Rangers. They haven’t been a great team on home ice. When the puck drops for Game 3 at The Garden, that must change. As must the play of those key young players. All need to be better.