by Paul West
In last night’s series-tying win, the New York Rangers looked as comfortable on the ice as they have all season against the Tampa Bay Lightning. During the regular season, one in which they otherwise stomped their way through much of the NHL, the Rangers got their butts kicked up and down the ice when they played Tampa Bay. And even in this series, the games and periods they’ve won have felt tenuous. Of course, one might argue that the team which recently obliterated the postseason record for consecutive one-goal game has hung on tenuously for some time; but this series has felt different. Normally, when the Rangers get as many scoring chances as they’ve gotten in the past week, they’d be blowing a team out. Instead, it seems like they give up two odd-man breaks for every one they generate for themselves. Henrik Lundqvist has indeed given up one or two ‘soft’ goals, but that’s largely because Lightning players camped out in front of his crease with startling impunity. Normally able to clamp down defensively when they get a lead, it seems no lead has been safe against the Lightning. They’ve cruise’controlled their way through multiple defenders, walking in on Henrik and picking which corner to shoot at. And it’s seemed like every time the Rangers have tried an outlet pass, the Lightning have read it, jumped it and converted it into a dangerous opportunity.
Until last night.
Last night, the Rangers continued the aggressive transition play that made them the third-highest scoring team in the NHL. But they rediscovered the defensive zone discipline and physical assertiveness that gave them the third-best scoring defense in the NHL, as well as best goal differential. They were assertive in front of both nets, protecting Lundqvist as he reminded his doubters why he’s still the team’s ace. Rick Nash, whose play has been far better than his scoring drought and detractors would suggest, broke through with the first multiple-goal game of his postseason career; he was fast, physical and assertive in all three zones. He looked like the player who re-emerged this season as one of the NHL’s elite scorers. Meanwhile, Martin St. Louis emerged from his relative slumber and spent the entire game in high gear. The Lightning were on their heels and out of sorts.
The difference? The Rangers finally seem to have realized that the Lightning are the only team they don’t want to challenge to a proverbial track meet.
The Rangers, for all their speed and scoring ability, are at their best when they’re balanced. In fact, this is what makes them the best team in the NHL; they can beat you in all three zones, and their outstanding transition game reflects both their solid defense and their downhill speed. When the Rangers are in rhythm, and their outlet passes are connecting, it’s because they aren’t scrambling around to chase people who’ve sprung leaks on their side of the red line. Their zonal discipline and defensive teamwork are the springboard for their precise transition attack. Moreover, because the Lightning are so dangerously explosive, the Rangers have incorporated another aspect: deep possession in the offensive zones and corners. Against less explosive teams, the Rangers can tic-tac-toe up the ice without fear of an opposing 3-on-1. Against the Lightning, it’s proven more effective to get the puck deep in the zone and cycle, while maintaining a presence in front of the net. The Lightning aren’t that deep defensively, and when they’re forced to chase the Rangers around in the corners, speed-size hybrids players like Nash and Chris Kreider are left with 1-on-1 matchups to exploit. They can bear down on Tampa goalie Ben Bishop with the same impunity with which Lightning players had previously stormed in on Lundqvist. This lets the Rangers capitalize on the fact that they’re better than the Lightning both defensively and between the pipes.
It’s only one game, and the series is still only tied. But in last night’s victory, the Rangers finally looked as if they actually knew how to beat the Lightning. If they continue to play the way they did last night, they might make it through this series and back to the Stanley Cup Finals.