by Paul West
After starting off on the right foot with two wins at the Bell Centre, the New York Rangers dropped Game Three at home in painful–literal and figurative–fashion. Not only did they lose in overtime on freakish bounce that went off the upper body of Alexander Galchenyuk; they lost playmaker Derek Stepan to a broken jaw. Stepan’s jaw was broken on an ethically questionable hit by ex-Ranger Brandon Prust, for which Prust wasn’t penalized but was later suspended for two games, and the incident resulted in chippiness for the rest of the game. It also resulted in verbal chippiness in the ensuing days, in which Montreal players questioned the severity of Stepan’s injury (he has since had surgery, and the time of his return is uncertain) and there was speculation about retaliation. This is playing into the Canadiens’ hands, as they’re trying to morph the series into the slugfest they won against the Boston Bruins. Normally a speed-predicated team, Montreal seems to realize that the Rangers are able to beat them at their own game–so they’re changing their game, adopting the tactics of teams like the Bruins and Ottawa Senators, which is to slow the Rangers’ attack by throwing them off mentally and bullying them around the ice. They’ll need emotional fuel to do this, and their anger at losing star goalie Carey Price in game one seems to have provided it. The problem is, the Rangers don’t need to be fueled by anger. In fact, anger tends to be counterproductive for teams and players who rely on speed, skill and timing. The Rangers have become a far better version of their Tortorella-coached manifestation, partly because of increased assertiveness and physicality. But their physicality has mostly been of the clean variety: “whistle to whistle, don’t get involved with the other stuff,” as coach Alain Vigneault recently quipped. If the Rangers begin headhunting in the corners or charging around center ice, looking to settle the score or prove they won’t be pushed around, they’ll lose the crispness and fluidity that has marked their development into a multidimensional threat since early in the season. They’ll also lose the team discipline that has allowed them to remain an excellent transition team that turns saves and blocked shots into downhill rushes.
The Rangers’ recipe for Game Four needs to be the same one that got them here: shot blocking, discipline, aggressive transitions and clean, aggressive forechecking. Their retaliation needs to take place on the scoreboard, so they can make their long-awated return to the Stanley Cup Finals.