Chris Kreider (l.) and Derick Brassard are two critical pieces of the Rangers’ man advantage.
The Rangers’ power play went 13-for-103 (12.6%) in last year’s playoffs, including 2-for-22 (nine percent) in their five-game Stanley Cup Final loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
Friday night, entering Game 5 against the Penguins with a three-games-to-one series lead, the man advantage had been even worse (2-for-17, 11.8%) in this year’s first round.
So no, even if the Rangers found a way to eliminate Pittsburgh at the Garden on Friday and advance, those power play statistics would not be acceptable if Alain Vigneault’s team intends to win this franchise’s first championship in 21 years.
The Blueshirts are well aware, and they’re working hard on finding the answer under the direction of associate head coach Scott Arniel, based on two critical principles.
“Puck movement and motion,” Arniel said Friday morning at the Garden.
There is nothing revolutionary about seeking fluidity to improve a power play, but for the Rangers it’s become especially important against the well-structured Penguins, whose third-ranked penalty kill frequently clogs shooting lanes and stalls the Blueshirts’ set-up.
The priority, Rick Nash said Tuesday, should be for the Rangers to improve at “getting that first shot on net” early in the power play to get the Penguins chasing.
“In the first 10 seconds or so,” Nash said.
That requires winning the first face-off. The Rangers have held their own in that department, winning 50 percent of their offensive zone draws on power plays through four games (19-for-38). But they’ve failed to consistently generate shots, with just 24 on net in their 17 power plays, including just one in six minutes on Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 4.
There are several reasons for this, Arniel said, which returns to his key concepts of puck movement and motion.
Arniel said the Penguins are cheating towards the Rangers’ preferences, such as center Derick Brassard gathering the puck off the side wall looking for an open teammate. They are anticipating that the Blueshirts want to make one or two quick passes, then take that early shot that Nash said is so important.
Arniel said, therefore, while it might sound contradictory, the Rangers have to be ready for a Penguins defender to be in their preferred shooting lane, and they must respond by moving the puck immediately instead of hesitating or surveying the landscape.
There is a fine there between finding the open man for a quality shot on goal, and overpassing. Arniel said that’s why the Rangers have to remain in constant motion while connecting the dots with the puck. They can’t station themselves so stagnantly that Pittsburgh can easily anticipate where the next pass will go, and the pass has to be accurate enough that the shooter doesn’t have to turn his back to the Pens’ net and regroup.
“We want that shot, but they’re doing such a good job of getting in the lanes, sometimes it’s about making that one extra pass,” Arniel said.
The associate head coach also pointed out that the Penguins are refusing to commit one of their four skaters on the penalty kill to battling the Ranger, such as Chris Kreider, who stands parked in front of the net to create traffic.
Pittsburgh risks Kreider creating ideal traffic and positioning himself well for rebounds, but if Kreider stands idle and isn’t in motion to receive a pass and force the Pens to move, the Blueshirts’ advantage in numbers is somewhat neutralized.
Penguins coach Mike Johnston noted that the most important quality of penalty killing is the reads that players make when an opponent adjusts, or before a play is executed. The Rangers’ goal is to force Pittsburgh into making more frantic reads, more often, so they’re more likely to make a mistake.
“The most important thing is your reads,” Johnston said. “How do you read the game and how do you anticipate what’s gonna happen out there? … And it’s trying to stay one step ahead of their power play. The other night, they flipped their power play to more of a spread look, and we had to adjust. It’s trying to stay one step ahead. What are they gonna do next.”
Arniel and Vigneault, in the second period of Game 2, flipped their typical power play units with two defensemen in each group to seek a spark. They found it on Derick Brassard’s goal in that third period, but in Games 3 and 4 their new units combined to go 0-for-5.
The top unit boasts four forwards with Kreider, Brassard, Derek Stepan and Martin St. Louis, along with defenseman Dan Boyle. The second group features defensemen Keith Yandle and Ryan McDonagh, Nash, Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello.
No matter the personnel, though, what’s become clear is that it’s simply up to the players to execute. Earlier in the series, Stepan said some players were “gripping the stick” too tightly on the power play. Now they just have to get a grip, relax, and trust their playmaking instincts.
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