Coaches and players don’t want to talk about it. John Tortorella used to deny its very existence, abruptly ending press conferences at the sheer mention of the concept. But playoff fatigue, both mental and physical, can become a real factor as the postseason wears down a roster. And because of that, it would behoove the Rangers, just once, to make their lives easier in the earlier rounds.
It doesn’t look as if that is going to happen, however, after the Rangers dropped Game 2 Saturday of their first-round series against Pittsburgh. Now they head to the Consol Energy Center for Game 3 on Monday, with little hope of wrapping this up quickly. A split in Pittsburgh is always more likely, followed by more drama and trauma at the Garden.
This could all too easily become a replay of 2014, when the Rangers dragged themselves through seven games against the Flyers in the first round, alternating victories along the way. They then were forced to come back from the ledge to defeat the Penguins in seven, before beating the Canadiens in six.
“It’s a tough league,” Alain Vigneault said, when the Rangers were battling their way to the Finals last year. “Everybody that comes into the playoffs would like to win in four, but the opposition has a lot to say about it. There’s so little separating the teams now that it’s more normal these series are hard-fought and long.”
It has now been seven years since the Rangers won a playoff series in fewer than six games. History tells us this is the wrong way to go about winning the Cup. Only three teams have earned the title after needing 13 or more games in the first two rounds. Only the Kings, last year, won the championship after requiring 14 games in the first two series.
The Kings proved the exception to the rule, enduring a full slate of 21 games over three rounds before beating the Rangers for the Cup. It should be remembered, however, that the Rangers hardly had much of an energy edge in that series. They already had played 20 difficult games, themselves, to reach the Finals.
Vigneault’s Rangers have one advantage, if nothing else. The coach likes to roll lines, share ice time and avoid exhaustion as much as possible. But the defensemen do not get the same rest. Dan Girardi skated for more than 15 minutes on Saturday, with Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh not far behind. Only defenseman Paul Martin saw more time, as he helped Pittsburgh kill off one penalty after another.
The Penguins remain a difficult team to figure, and defend. They barely qualified for the final wild-card berth on the final day, scrambling for a victory over Buffalo. Yet there is outrageous, top-heavy talent that can create misery for any opponent.
“They’re a really good team,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “We can’t just look at what they did in the last couple weeks of the season.”
The areas to work on are fairly obvious for the Rangers, starting with special teams. Their power play was just one-for-seven on Saturday, their penalty kill was just two for four. They also failed to forecheck effectively until it was too late, giving Marc-Andre Fleury much of the night off. The Rangers’ total of three shots on goal in the first period was particularly telling.
From the looks of things, Vigneault will have plenty of time for adjustments in this series; more time than he wants. The Rangers have been a very tough out in the playoffs these past few years. The problem is, that they also have been very tough on themselves.
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