Rangers coach Alain Vigneault (r.) and associate head coach Scott Arniel (l.) need their players to finish on the offensive end. They are averaging just two goals per game these playoffs.
So I’m excused from column duty today thanks to the busiest day sports day of the year approaching on Saturday, which means I can spend more time here dissecting what I saw – and what the Rangers saw and felt – during and after their last-second, 2-1 Game 1 defeat to the Capitals on Thursday night.
Coming out of Friday afternoon’s light, 20-minute practice in Greenburgh, here is what was seen and heard as the Blueshirts prepared for Game 2 on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at the Garden:
Alain Vigneault gave one of his best press conferences of the season on Friday, after having the overnight to process and review film of Game 1.
He took issue with the officiating, his own team’s lack of offense, his defense’s lack of contributions up ice, and again with the Rangers’ failure to play to the final whistle of regulation in Game 1.
“What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to learn from the games you play, and there’s definitely things we can learn from last night,” Vigneault said, just warming up. “(You) can’t stop playing on a play; that’s what happened on that last play.
“The standards have been set to what’s allowed as far as hitting from behind,” the coach continued. “(Alex) Ovechkin on (the Islanders’ Thomas) Hickey (in the first round), last night on (Dan) Boyle – we know what the standards are. Play up to those standards.
“What else did we learn from last night?” Vigneault asked rhetorically, though he knew exactly what else he wanted to say. “Their top line, I mean, I could say they had their ways with us, but they probably had more than two-thirds of their scoring chances. We need to do a better job against that line without a doubt. We need to, offensively – even though I thought we spent a lot of quality time, we created some good looks – one goal won’t cut it. We know we need to be better.”
Let’s take one issue at a time.
DISRUPTING THE CAPS, AND STOPPING OVIE
If there was anything that stuck out to me about Game 1, it was the fact that after the Capitals weathered an early Rangers surge, Washington looked completely comfortable the rest of the game. The Rangers never prevented the Caps from playing the way they wanted to.
Carl Hagelin said Friday that’s why it’s so crucial to score when your team starts fast. You can’t come up empty when you’re surging, because you know your opponent is going to respond.
“In this league, no one’s gonna freak out,” Hagelin said of how teams weather bad starts. “Guys are gonna be confident the momentum is going to turn. Last night in the first, they did a good job of not getting scored on.”
Hagelin agreed Washington seemed to settle in, and he said the Rangers should remain aware of exactly what their opponent’s plan is.
“We know how they want to play: They want their top line to get the goals and the other lines to play us 0-0,” he said. “We can’t let that happen.”
To limit Niklas Backstrom’s top line, Dan Girardi is supposed to be matched up head-to-head against Ovechkin. But on both Capitals goals, Dan Boyle was on ice as the right side defenseman and victimized by the Great Eight in the ideal mismatch for Capitals coach Barry Trotz.
Vigneault was asked whether Boyle’s being on ice in those situations was a “coincidence.” After all, it was curious that Boyle was on the second penalty kill ahead of Kevin Klein.
“It wasn’t coincidence,” Vigneault said. “Dan (Girardi) had been on the ice at the beginning of the penalty kill (against Washington’s second unit); the first goal was a (power play) goal. The other one there’s 13 seconds left or 11 seconds left, we’ve got a faceoff at the offensive blue line, we’ve got the people that we think can do the job. Obviously it didn’t work out.”
Girardi said after Thursday’s game that he thinks “we did a pretty good job on (Ovechkin)” but he would think that, because individually, Girardi did do a pretty good job.
The problem was Ryan McDonagh’s turnover to Ovechkin in the high slot in the second period, an earlier ill-advised McDonagh pinch in the neutral zone that sprung Ovechkin for a rush and shot down the right wing, and Boyle’s total lack of awareness on Ovechkin’s power play goal, as well as Boyle’s turnover before the game-winner.
“We tried to limit that line as best we could, but they were a factor in the game. They got both goals so obviously we’ve got to do a better job on them,” Girardi said.
When discussing the need for his defense to join the Rangers’ attack, Vigneault appeared to refer to McDonagh’s bad misread in the neutral zone midway through the first period, allowing Ovechkin almost in alone on Henrik Lundqvist before Martin St. Louis hustled back and cut off the angle.
“Obviously there’s times you’ve got to know who you’re out against,” Vigneault said, pointedly. “And at this point in time, I would say when 19’s line is out there, don’t do it.”
He said “don’t do it” with emphasis, as if he were speaking to his players.
“Because they had so many good looks last night,” Vigneault said of Backstrom’s line, “it was unreal.”
UNSETTLING THE SCORE
The Rangers were the third-highest scoring team in the NHL during the regular season at 3.02 goals per game. Through six playoff games, they are averaging only two on the dot, tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the lowest scoring average of any remaining playoff team. That includes just one goal scored in regulation of each of the Rangers’ last three playoff games.
So, what gives?
“I would say in playoff hockey, the more advanced, usually the harder it is to generate offense,” Vigneault said. “Goaltenders are getting better, you’re playing against better teams, but all that being said, we’ve had good looks that we haven’t capitalized on. We need to find a way to finish.
“Our guys are aware of that,” the coach continued. “You can talk about sticks being tight, etc., etc. We’ve got good personnel. We need some help from our back end. We need to get the job done.”
There are a few facets to the offense.
One major point of emphasis for the forwards on Friday seemed to be making better decisions on when to shoot, rather than passing or holding onto the puck and hoping for a better look. Associate head coach Scott Arniel had a conversation at the end of practice with Hagelin, Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller that addressed that topic in part.
“It’s about connecting dots, choosing when to shoot, when to pass,” center Derek Stepan said.
“We probably (got) too cute as the game went on,” left wing Chris Kreider said. “We were still getting zone time. It’s just a matter of getting pucks to the net.”
Kreider, the left wing with Stepan and Miller, had a pretty physical and assertive Game 1, but he couldn’t finish and – like all of the Rangers – that line had a hard time sustaining offense once they got into the zone.
“You see how well they (the Capitals) do when they get established down low,” Kreider said. “We have to do that same thing to them … Our cycle got stifled a couple times. That’s something we have to do consistently.”
Vigneault was asked, therefore, whether his players need to develop more of a “shot-first” mentality.
“I do think on the rush a lot of times that’s a good option,” the coach said. “It’s one of the options that we talk about, but we need also to get our back end here to chip in, find a way to get pucks through, find a way to get pucks at the net. We’re a good team when they’re jumping in the attack. We need to have them jump into the attack.”
The Rangers defensemen combined for 12 of the Rangers’ 32 shots on goal but were not involved enough to satisfy Vigneault’s expectations, particularly off the rush.
“I would say it’s as much about jumping in off the breakout to the neutral zone, in transition (when the) opportunity is there, you’ve got to makes some reads and know when you can beat their forecheck up the ice and get some good looks,” Vigneault said.
RUST? WHAT RUST?
The Rangers weren’t rusty to start Game 1. They actually took it to the Capitals early and simply failed to score thanks in part to – you guessed it – an unsuccessful power play. But Stepan suggested that the six-day layoff between Game 5 against Pittsburgh and Game 1 against Washington might have affected the Rangers’ “execution” offensively on Thursday night.
“The rest was definitely a good thing for our group,” Stepan said. “At the same time, maybe it showed a little rust in the execution on the offensive side of the puck.”
The word “rust,” however, clearly was not in Vigneault’s vocabulary when asked about Stepan’s comment.
“I’m not a player, so I wasn’t skating on the ice and I couldn’t say if they felt rusty or not,” Vigneault said, adding with a stare, “but they should not have been rusty.”
By the way, how’s this for rusty?
The Anaheim Ducks swept the Winnipeg Jets in the first round and waited around while the Calgary Flames took seven games to eliminate the Vancouver Canucks. Having not played a game in eight days, the Ducks took the Flames to the woodshed on Thursday night with a 6-1 beat down in Game 1 of their Western Conference second-round series.
The Rangers nearly started a full-scale brawl at the final buzzer Thursday night after officials didn’t call a penalty on Backstrom’s hit of Boyle before Joel Ward’s game-winning goal. Vigneault was screaming at the referees from the bench and then made his “standards have been set” comment regarding hits from behind.
The gamesmanship is on. When asked a follow-up about the officials, Vigneault responded: “I said last night I wasn’t gonna comment on the refereeing, and I’m not gonna do that. I just pointed out the fact that the standards are what they are right now. We’ve got to deal with them and move on.”
Kreider, when asked about the hit on Boyle, said: “I’m sure there are varying opinions on the hit, but at the end of the day it happened. It wasn’t called. It seems to be kind of the flavor of the week so far in the first couple of rounds. They’re letting the guys play. It’s consistent, so we’ve got to finish our hits, too. They’re definitely throwing their weight around.”
Boyle practiced Friday despite Backstrom’s hit to his head and said he “wanted to see how it felt, and I did O.K.” Vigneault’s response to Boyle’s status for Game 2 was: “As far as I know I expect him to be ready.”
Really, though, who would argue with replacing Boyle with Matt Hunwick and moving Klein back up with Marc Staal? I hope Boyle is healthy and O.K., and he’s had a great career, but he’s a defensive liability.
Here are Boyle’s comments from after practice:
“It’s a tough way to lose a game,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say.”
When you got hit, what happened?: “I was pretty dazed and confused for a while. I knew enough that it was a dangerous situation; I had to get back to the net. But I got my bell rung pretty good.”
What did you think of the hit? “I don’t think it matters what I think. I’m sure a lawyer can make a case for it being – it could go either way. He (Backstrom) doesn’t have a history of too much of that stuff. But either way, I don’t know. That’s up for everyone else to decide.”
Were you just trying to freeze the puck in the corner? “Yeah, absolutely. There’s just a few seconds left and that’s it. That’s what you try to do. But once he hit my head, there’s not much else I can do.”
Were you surprised/pleased you were able to skate today?: “Yeah. I could be a lot worse. I’ve been a lot worse (in the past). A couple of years ago I was in a much worse situation. I definitely wanted to go out there today and see how it felt, and I did OK.”
TIME FOR THE BIG FELLA TO BRING IT
The Rangers need more from their top players, especially Rick Nash. Both Nash and Vigneault were asked on Friday about Nash’s game and criticism of the Rangers’ star forward.
Vigneault asked whether Mike Milbury’s “marshmallow soft” comment about Nash bothered him: “Tough for me to comment. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Nasher’s been one of our key contributors all year long. He’s a good person, but like anybody that’s wearing the Rangers uniform right now, he’s got to step it up. It’s as simple as that.”
Vigneault on whether he’s bothered by negative outside perception of Nash: “Tough for me to answer what other people think about Rick Nash. I think the only thing that should be important to Rick Nash is what his teammates think about him, what his parents think about him and his close friends. But other than that, it shouldn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me what people say negatively about me. I know what I am, I know what my friends think, so I think Nasher should be the same thing.”
Nash, in which areas must you execute better?: “I think getting to the inside, getting traffic. They’re obviously a team that likes to box out the players. We’ve got to work through that and we’ve got to work to get our shots, too, get open lanes.”
Nash on if he felt he was getting boxed out most of the night: “I felt like there was some traffic in there a few times. When you get boxed out, it seems like they can step up and block the shots pretty early and they like to do that in front of their net, so it’s a matter of winning those battles.”
Nash on whether it was too easy for Caps goalie Braden Holtby: “He saw a lot of shots. A lot of it was from the outside. He’s a goaltender that works hard to finish his second saves.”
Nash on whether the opportunities are coming for him: “Yeah, they’re there. There’s not much room out there, so you’ve got to work for all your chances.”
THE END OF THE END
Kreider said of moving on from the heartbreaking ending to Game 1: “It’s behind us. When your head hits the pillow you think about it a little bit, but you wake up this morning and it’s back to work.”
Stepan said moving on “might be a little bit (different) because it’s such a tough way to lose, but I think it’s a good thing it’s a 12:30 game. We can get right back to it.”
Hagelin admitted part of what was most frustrating about Game 1 was that the Rangers had tied it late and felt overtime would favor them.
“If we go to overtime, we have the momentum and feel good about our chances,” Hagelin said. “We could easily be sitting here saying we have the win. But we don’t.”
Vigneault, asked whether that type of loss is harder to move on from, added: “For us, a loss is a loss in the playoffs. To tell you the truth, none of them, whether they be in playoffs or regular season, are easy to digest. What you’ve got to do is you’ve got to learn from the games you play, and there’s definitely things we can learn from last night” … (and on he went).
McDonagh was the only available Ranger to sit out Friday’s brief practice in Greenburgh. The team called it a maintenance day. Mats Zuccarello (likely concussion, out indefinitely) remained absent.
A LITTLE ADVICE
In Vigneault’s pre-game 10:30 a.m. press conference on Saturday, I would advise against asking the coach about whether Game 2’s 12:30 p.m. start can be an advantage. One of his players already answered it (Stepan above) and Vigneault already has been asked the question twice on Thursday and Friday, and he had the same answer both times: It doesn’t matter. Let’s play.
With Justin Tasch
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