By Larry Brooks
April 18, 2016
The Rangers who won five playoff rounds the last two years did so with a fair amount of flash and dash and with their ability to skate, move the puck in a direct manner from Point A to Point B and transition from defense to offense as quickly as possible representing the primary tenets of Alain Vigneault’s first pair of New York tournament teams.
That got the Rangers so far — but only so far. For the case can easily be made the finesse-oriented Rangers were ultimately physically grinded down three bricks shy of the load by the Kings in the 2014 final, and even if that was not necessarily the case against the Lightning in last spring’s conference finals, it is indisputable the Presidents’ Trophy winners, a) had been softened up by the pounding laid on them by the Caps in the preceding seven-game series; and, b) were unable to get in on the forecheck and make life difficult for the Lightning’s susceptible defense.
But now, playing a speed- and skill-oriented Penguins team whose tires Vigneault gladly pumps at every opportunity, the Rangers are going about it differently in this first round that is squared at one-all entering Tuesday’s Game 3 at the Garden.
Now, no one is concerned about playing pretty or chalking up style points. Now, it is about extracting pounds of flesh. Now, it about making the Penguins pay the toll.
The Black-and-Blueshirts have returned to Broadway.
“The muddier the track, the more physical and chippy it is, the more we can wear them down, the better chance we have to win,” Marc Staal told The Post following Monday’s practice, which was probably the Rangers’ most animated of the year. “We’re committed to playing a gritty, hard game.
“Going down that road is going to give us our best chance of success in this series.”
The Black-and-Blueshirts created a fair amount of havoc both in the Penguins’ end and through the neutral zone the first two games on the road — and notably so in the Game 2, 4-2 victory — by limiting their more talented opponents’ time and space and thus minimizing their ability to get out into, and create in, open ice. Plus, the New York hit parade created a significant number of turnovers by the Pittsburgh D.
Had the Rangers adopted — or had been able to better execute — a similar game plan last spring, it is more likely than not that those twin 2-0 defeats to Tampa Bay in Games 5 and 7 at the Garden could have been avoided. By the way, home-ice advantage? The Rangers enter this one carrying an MSG playoff scoreless streak of 145:43.
“I don’t believe there is a difference in will from last year as much as that this is a bigger group up front that’s better equipped for a heavier game,” said Chris Kreider, who has certainly amped up his physical game. “Millsy [J.T. Miller] has a bigger role this year, same for Glasser [Tanner Glass], Eric [Staal] plays that game, Vik [Stalberg] brings it all the time, and Zuke [Mats Zuccarello] is healthy.
“We’re 100 percent committed to finishing checks and making it hard for them, equally as much to create offense as to disrupt their ability to create,” No. 20 said. “They’re very difficult to create against when they have the chance to get into their defensive structure.
“The more turnovers we can force all over the ice, the better chance we have to create off our own transition game. If we make it easy for them, it becomes a lot tougher for us, you know?”
Ryan McDonagh may be in for the Rangers and Marc-Andre Fleury or Matt Murray might be in for the Penguins. Vigneault might become Public Enemy No. 1 among a large section of the fan base by dressing Raphael Diaz rather than Dylan McIlrath if the captain does not play.
But personnel decisions aside, the Rangers must continue to play a relentlessly hard-edged game against this unique breed of Penguins that can fly. Must take away the time and space that are Sid Crosby’s, Evgeni Malkin’s, Kris Letang’s, Carl Hagelin’s and Phil Kessel’s best friends.
And, challenging as it may be, the Rangers must maintain their discipline and avoid retaliatory penalties even if the officials operate in as unabashedly a tilted manner as they did in Pittsburgh in Game 2 when Marc Joannette and Steve Kozari saw the game through black-and-gold tinted lenses.
The Rangers appear to be in a reasonably good place. They seem to feel as organically good about themselves as they have in a while. The series is in front of them. They can get this done if they strap on their hard hats and stay the course.
Game 3 on Tuesday: Black-and-Blueshirts back at the Garden.