One thing has become abundantly clear to most who closely follow the Rangers and don’t make a living needing access to the team and it’s head coach. Alain Vigneault has to go.
As a caveat to what comes next, teams and individual players tend to gradually decline in production as the season goes on. The physical taxation of an 82-game regular season is grueling, and it justifiably takes a toll on production rates. Good teams and good players are not exempt from this, but the best among them tend to mitigate that decline like riding a parachute to earth after jumping out of a plane, rather than riding an anvil. Insert ACME gif here.
But something has been particularly off with this trio since the start of the New Year. Miller, who had 28 points (ten goals, 18 assists) in those 43 games, scored just three of them over the Rangers’ final 20 games. Hayes and Grabner (6-15-21 and 13-7-20 over the last 43 respectively) also went ice cold down the stretch, both failing to score in the final 12 games of the season. Hayes had just two tallies in the team’s last 20, and Grabner had just one in that same stretch.
It’s true that the Rangers have effectively known their path to the playoffs since January. This made much of the second half of their season relatively meaningless or not very motivating. However, the lack of scoring, particularly by this collection of players who were so hot to begin the season, has been incredibly frustrating to watch as a fan.
In his previous playoff appearances, Nash was infamous for his lack of willingness to make a difficult play. He resembled more of a basketball player in that he would take the puck into the offensive zone, reach the top of the faceoff circle, and sort of “post up” by turning his body to the defender (and the net) to make a pass backwards or make a weak play towards the net.
Now, however, Nash has figured out a way to use both his superior size and “hockey sense” to generate scoring chances, particularly in the series against Montreal.
Still, despite the mitigating regular season series and the extended postseason absence the respective teams have encountered these last five seasons, there are still a number of key elements that should help predict the Rangers’ likely course to victory and by way of, their path to a third Eastern Conference Final berth in four years.
Though not in order of importance, below is a breakdown of what are likely to be the three keys to the series:
The season series between the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators doesn’t tell us much about their upcoming playoff match Ottawa won the series two games to one, but all three games were notable for who was missing from the lineup for each. Antti Raanta started two of the games for the Rangers, while New York was missing at least three of their regular forwards every game. Matt Puempel and Brandon Pirri played in all three games. The final game of the season series, the Rangers rested seven regular players, while Henrik Lundqvist was in his second game back following an injury.
Luke Skywalker he is not, but just two games into his playoff career, rookie Pavel Buchnevich has already brought balance to the Rangers’ lineup and helped take down the Montreal empire. While the Tanner-Glass powered Rangers fell pray to the Habs’ embrace of the Dark Side, in games four and five, the Rangers were able to deploy a more balanced lineup. In turn, they were able to utilize their speed and skill advantage to earn back-to-back wins to take a 3-2 series lead.
Perhaps Buchnevich’s impact is best measured in the play of the fourth line. As Arthur Staple wrote, “Alain Vigneault called it a ‘subtle little move,’ putting rookie Pavel Buchnevich in the Game 4 lineup and shifting Michael Grabner to the wing on the presumptive fourth line in place of Tanner Glass. What it allowed the Rangers to do was roll four lines pretty evenly throughout the 2-1 win Tuesday night at the Garden, and that speedy Grabner-Oscar Lindberg-Jesper Fast trio was effective once again.
“We’re confident that we’re going to play the right way.”
While not as brash as Mark Messier’s guarantee in 1994, the Rangers captain, Ryan McDonagh, expressed confidence in his team on Tuesday before game four against Montreal. Needing a win to get the Madison Square Garden monkey off of their back, the Blueshirts responded with their best effort of the series to earn a 2-1 win and tie the series at two wins apiece.
Look, Alain Vigneault, I know coaching a professional hockey team is hard. On your best night, you’re still playing against another top professional team with a world class head coach in opposition. And this is the Stanley Cup Playoffs! So everything is amped up, or so we’re constantly reminded. The game goes by in a whirlwind. One moment you’re up by a goal with just over a minute left to play, on the cusp of taking the first two games on the road in a best of seven series, then the next you’ve put your worst defenseman on the ice, the puck is behind an angry Henrik Lundqvist and you are 17 seconds away from heading to an overtime loss to tie the series. So in the future, maybe…you know, don’t do that.
Going into game two of the Eastern Conference Quarter-Final series vs. Montreal, the Rangers looked to win consecutive games after taking a lead in a series for only the third time since 2012.
To start, the pace of was much better than that of game one. The players at least pretended there was a puck on the ice instead of trying to just hit each other for ten straight minutes.
Henrik Lundqvist was serenaded with sarcastic “Hen-rik” chants in the Bell Centre, where he’s struggled in his career, to start the Rangers’ playoff run, but on Wednesday night, the chants did nothing to get the King off of his throne. He was sparkling, making 31 saves en route to a 2-0 win in the series opener. Thumper Tanner Glass’ surprising’ first-period goal, ended up as the game-winner.
The odds on Glass scoring the first goal of the playoffs for the Rangers were probably pretty slim, so drinks are on you if you placed that bet. Glass’ second-career playoff goal gave the Rangers the lead in a first period in which they were outshot 16-5. His line, with Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast, was excellent all night.