by Paul West
A lot has been made of the relative quiet of forward Rick Nash, but the New York Rangers‘ streaky play this series (and this season, but I digress) has more to do with dynamic factors that only tangentially relate to the superstar forward. If the Rangers are going to get the series to a seventh game–and if they intend to pursue a deep playoff run as they did last year—they will have to make number of a small but important adjustments.
Assert themselves in front of the net. The goal that won game five was a slam-dunk putback by Mike Ribeiro, set up by the Rangers’ failure to box him out in front of their goal. This happens too often, and Henrik Lundqvist will have no chance to show his greatness if this continues. Braden Holtby tends to leave loose weak-side rebounds that would result in Ranger goals if, say, Brian Boyle or Aaron Asham were posted up in front for rebounds. Too often, on offense, the Rangers seem flocked in the same direction–be it in the corners (where, to their credit, they have worked admirably) or behind the net (where Rick Nash’s reach, supernatural puckhandling and excellent vision would be doubly dangerous if a teammate were set up in front of the net). Setting up in front of the net has two key effects: stressing the opposing goaltender by forcing him to divide his awareness between the crease and the other parts of the zone, and thinning the defense by forcing them to allocate people and energy toward protecting their net. If the Rangers win, they’re going to have to get putbacks and make Holtby pay for leaving floaters dangling in the hashmark area.
End the over-reliance on the ‘dump and chase’ tactic. Here again, we find a reason why Rick Nash’s strengths aren’t being allowed to flourish. Nash is one of the best in the NHL at advancing the puck up the ice singlehandedly, through traffic; while he’s doing this, the Rangers should be filling passing lanes and/or camping out in areas where they can hammer home rebounds from Nash’s odd-angle wrist shots. Instead, the Rangers have relied far too heavily on attempting to outrace the Capitals to the corners. The Capitals are a downhill-playing, aggressive team that can be caught out of position by a good advance; exclusive corner-dumping plays to their strengths, as it allows them to freight-train into the corners, establish their physical presence and set up one of their favorite maneuvers: the long down-ice pass to the cherry-picking forward, set up by a turnover created in the defensive zone. The Rangers shouldn’t become exceedingly deliberate in their passing, but they do need to find ways to get the Caps off balance and stop them from feeling like they can take dead runs at our forwards in the corners and then dump the puck to a lingering teammate across the red line. This leads to the third key to a Ranger victory:
Match the Capitals’ physicality. The Capitals got away with veritable hockey murder in game five, especially in overtime; they hooked, held, grabbed and flat-out gang tackled the Rangers, and only rarely this series have the blueshirts bitten back. When they have, it’s often been in the form of frustration-driven slashes like the one that set up the Washington game-tying goal. This cannot persist. The Rangers need to match the Caps’ physical intensity and show that they won’t be easily bullied; their greater assertiveness will also translate into increased energy and will contribute to their success at controlling the front of the net. It will likely also get them more calls, as referees often–rightly and wrongly–respond favorably to teams that show greater aggressiveness in playoff situations. Last but not least, it will stop the Caps from taking advantage of the ‘whistle in pocket’ policy that striped shirts seem too happy to employ, not only in hockey, when regulation time dwindles.
If the Rangers can improve their assertiveness without resorting to chippiness and penalties, control the front of the net on both ends of the ice and mix up their march into the offensive zone, they can put the Capitals on their heels and swing the momentum back in their favor. They have the better goaltender, and it can be argued that they have more aggregate talent–and they are only a season removed from being one of the league’s top handful of teams. They only need to assert themselves to turn things back around. But if they fail to do so, they will fall to an inauspicious demise in front of the Madison Square Garden fans.
The series, and the Cup, are still within reach.