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Leonard: Rangers earn bounce by following Vigneault's plan

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Ryan McDonagh and the Rangers continue to plan great defense in front of Henrik Lundqvist.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ryan McDonagh and the Rangers continue to plan great defense in front of Henrik Lundqvist.

Before every Rangers game, Dominic Moore finds an area outside the locker room and practices his stickhandling in frantic bursts. So naturally his winning goal in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday afternoon went off his right shin.

Such are the breaks in close games – the only kind the Rangers know how to play in the playoffs – but in this case the Blueshirts earned that bounce on home ice at the Garden.

They earned it because they were prepared to, because Alain Vigneault coached a better game than Jon Cooper, and because the Rangers’ players out-executed the Lightning’s in a lopsided start to tilt momentum.

Wiping clean their strategies from the second round against Washington, the Rangers jammed the neutral zone on Tampa the way the Detroit Red Wings had in the first round to slow the speedy Lightning down.

New York’s defensemen stepped high to center ice when passes emerged from Tampa’s defensive zone, complementing their forwards’ stick work with a physical presence to pressure the Lightning forwards into split-second decisions and frequent giveaways.

“That takes their speed away,” defenseman Dan Girardi said. “When we’re up in their face and everyone grabs a guy, we can limit their speed and make them dump it in a bit more.”

Regaining possession, the Rangers’ defensemen made frequent diagonal cross-ice passes against the weakness of Tampa’s structure – “they played back a little bit,” Girardi said – sending the Blueshirts’ forwards into the offensive zone with speed.

“That’s just the coaches kind of showing us how to play, what they like to do,” said rookie forward Kevin Hayes (assist). “I thought our ‘D’ had a great game, getting the pucks out of their hands to the forwards.”

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop was incredible in the first period, so the Rangers’ start didn’t result in a commanding lead, and so began the slow march toward that familiar, nail-biting finish.

But get a good look at how this game started. It was exactly how the Rangers wanted to play. After two rounds of mostly fighting through their opponents’ preferred pace, Vigneault’s team dictated most of Saturday’s tempo.

“I think we made them a lot faster than they are, and they’re a fast team, so that really puts us in trouble,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said of the first period.

“To be honest, I don’t think we tested (Henrik) Lundqvist as much as we should have,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Not a lot of quality shots, not a lot of shots period.”

There were a couple reasons for that. First, the Rangers’ defense, as an entire unit, was exceptional.

Marc Staal was mean and in Stamkos’ face. Dan Boyle played arguably his best all-around game of the playoffs, as did Kevin Klein. Ryan McDonagh and Girardi continued their excellence from Game 7 against the Capitals. Keith Yandle had his hands full with ex-Ranger captain Ryan Callahan but kept the game moving.

And the Rangers defensemen hardly ever fed the Lightning’s transition game with turnovers.

“They have a lot of speed,” Lundqvist said. “If you lose the puck in the wrong areas, you’re going to see the speed even more. So I think we did a really good job of putting pucks in the right place, and that’s when you really slow them down a little bit.”

Second, Vigneault made the correct call in moving Martin St. Louis off of Derick Brassard’s line and replacing him with the bigger, puck-protecting Hayes. That kept the balance of his lineup intact and had three lines creating consistent offense – led by the hard-charging Jesper Fast – in contrast to a Tampa team that only had two units going in Game 1.

And the Rangers continued to show confidence in what Vigneault and his staff are preaching.

“You have to be able to rely on your team game and your team concept on nights where not everything is working for you,” Lundqvist said. “I think the system we have really gives (us) an opportunity to play at our best.”

Objectively, Vigneault is a terrific coach. This entire season, there are only two games that stuck out in which he did not have the coaching edge: A 3-2 Dec. 29 loss in Dallas in which he gave the Stars too much credit, and a Game 1 loss last round to Washington in which the Caps’ Barry Trotz maneuvered well around matchups.

Usually, though, Vigneault, who turned 54 years old on Thursday, proves as great an advantage to this Rangers team as the goaltender does. He has not yet won a Stanley Cup, coming one win short in 2011 with Vancouver and three short with the Rangers last year, which adds to the intrigue of this playoff run.

“Well, we had a day off and had a really good practice yesterday with a lot of energy and really good execution, (and we had) good meetings on our opponent,” Vigneault said of his team’s preparation.

His simplicity belies his success, but there is no easier plan to follow than one that is direct and proven.

They have a Presidents’ Trophy to back it up.

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