By all accounts, Alain Vigneault lays into his players after an awful first period of Game 4 vs. the Penguins – and they respond by rallying to take a 3-1 series lead.
Alain Vigneault’s voice frequently carries from the Rangers’ bench all the way to an arena’s rafters during games. The coach directs traffic and stays intensely involved, calling for a “change” and urging his players to “skate” and use their “speed.”
Those three reminders often can be heard in a high pitch throughout the rink, and Vigneault’s players are obedient. They listen to him. They appreciate his support on the bench night-in and night-out, his cool and steady demeanor through the long season, his patience with their mistakes, and his understanding that hockey is not perfect.
They realize that their trust in his system, and in Vigneault himself, is a major reason for their success.
All of that probably explains why it was so effective on Wednesday night, after the Blueshirts’ disastrous Game 4 first-period in Pittsburgh, when Vigneault did something he rarely does. The coach entered the visitors’ locker room at intermission and – in so many words – he lost it.
“It’s the maddest I’ve ever seen him,” one Ranger said after Thursday afternoon’s practice at the Garden, declining to get into specifics. “He told us, obviously, that it wasn’t anywhere close to good enough.”
Another player understatedly described Vigneault’s intermission speech as “a little more aggressive” than usual. A third Ranger said frankly: “He definitely got us going.”
Vigneault’s players responded with a 2-1 comeback overtime victory to take a commanding three games-to-one lead over the Penguins. So they have an opportunity Friday night in Game 5 at the Garden to close out this first-round series, emboldened by a 13-1 all-time franchise record in best-of-seven series when holding a three games-to-one lead.
Coaches can only do so much. The players, such as Game 4 goal scorers Derick Brassard and Kevin Hayes, still are the ones who have to go out on the ice and execute whatever plan is set out before them.
Still, it’s always worth noting Vigneault’s involvement in the dynamic of the Blueshirts’ success, and it’s especially interesting when he resorts to seldom-used tactics – even if he refuses to acknowledge it happened.
“I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about,” Vigneault said Thursday afternoon with a smirk. “I do what I think needs to happen, and players can perceive it (or) interpret it the way they want. My job is to give them the right guidance.”
Vigneault’s predecessor, John Tortorella, of course, was no stranger to direct management. Tortorella had a ton of success on the Blueshirts’ bench, also, but his message didn’t carry as far at the end because there wasn’t enough tolerance accompanying the tough love.
Vigneault’s “clean slate” mantra to open his first training camp in the fall of 2013 told players that relationship would start fresh. He entered as a coach who commands respect and even some fear, but his honesty with players and unwavering steadiness through the toughest patches of the season make it that much more meaningful when he does speak up in an emotional moment.
“The message is obviously clear when that happens,” a Ranger said. “But we all knew already ourselves, too, that our first period (on Wednesday) wasn’t good enough.”
When asked if his typical patience makes motivation more effective through a rare tirade, Vigneault shrugged: “I would say everybody has their ways, and I don’t have a definitive answer for you on that one.”
The players only willingly discussed Vigneault’s Wednesday night talk to a point. Not all of them requested anonymity, but they all remained protective in tone and demeanor of the trust that the players and coaches have built behind closed doors.
They believe in Vigneault, who improved to 53-54 in his postseason coaching career on Wednesday night, passing Jack Adams, Bob Hartley and Bryan Murray on the playoff wins list for 19th place in NHL history.
And they know that even if he occasionally is directing frustration towards them one moment, he’s doing it for a reason, and he’ll be back out on the bench behind them to start the next period, having their backs.
Defenseman Keith Yandle, right wing Mats Zuccarello and injured defenseman Kevin Klein (broken left arm, day-to-day) all sat out Thursday afternoon’s practice for body “maintenance,” according to the team. Vigneault said Yandle and Zuccarello are expected to remain in Friday night’s Game 5 lineup and Klein is “50-50” to return from injury for the first time since breaking his arm on March 11 in Washington.
“Klein skated prior to practice,” Vigneault said. “He was a little sore from (taking slap shots on Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh), so we’ll see how he reacts or responds.”
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