Home, Home for the Rangers — But How Will They Play?

 

The words of coach Alain Vigneault should still be ringing in the Rangers’ ears as they look ahead to Game 3 of their war game on ice with the Penguins.

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AV was not fooling around before Game 2 when he put it to his players that he wanted the big guns to start delivering big goals. In other words, The Boss needed his the top-of-the-line Red-Lighters to generate more wattage.

Sure enough, they did what Vigneault demanded on Saturday afternoon at Consol Energy Center and must do a ditto on Tuesday eve at The Garden.

The coach was talking about the likes of Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider and, yes, even Derek Stepan who had the two-goal game in the series opener.

AV’s weekend message did not fall on deaf ears. Brassard, Zucchy, Kreider and the ever-dependable Keith Yandle underlined the coach’s scoring points in the 4-2 win. (By the way, it featured the Blueshirts originally rebounding from a 0-1 deficit.)

Better still, The Comeback King — alias Henrik Lundqvist — is instilling further hope for a two-straighter on Tuesday now that his first-game-injured eye is well-focused.

Henrik Lundqvist reflects on his return after recovering from an eye injury and talks about his performance in the Blueshirts' Game 2 win in Pittsburgh.

His Majesty Henny produced 29 saves, including all 26 bombs he defused at even strength. A healthy Lundqvist at home in Game 3 gives New York an edge for three reasons:

1. If less-experienced Pitt backup Jeff Zatkoff continues between the pipes, the Rangers will continue to solve him.

2. If previously concussed Marc-Andre Fleury belatedly returns to the Pens, he’ll be out of synch and conditioning.

3. No NHL goalie is more motivated at this point in playoff time than Lundqvist.

“Every save matters,” asserted Bank-On-Hank. “The first two games have been about taking advantage of the mistakes and the opportunities you get. In the second game we buried some and that made the difference.”

Well, just part of the difference because there was the matter of a meaningful lineup change. Injured defenseman Dan Girardi was sidelined and replaced by Dylan McIlrath whose eagerness to play hardly could be restrained.

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Vigneault’s insertion of Boom Boom McIlrath and ex-Minnesota hero Brady Skjei on the blue live provided the visitors with youthful vim, vigor and vitality.

It’s noteworthy that New York outhit Pitt 57-25 while Skjei registered his first career assist and McIlrath hardly looked out of place among the vets surrounding him.

“We played a physical game,” said Stepan, “and slowed them down a little. In the end, there was less time and space for their top-end skill guys.”

The Returning Hulk, Evgeni Malkin was one of those skill guys. But the damage wasn’t done by the large Russian nor was it Sidney Crosby who delivered the blows. Phil Kessel beat Lundqvist twice on the power play and made things interesting in the final minutes.

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No matter.

Even with Malkin, Crosby and Kessel at the top of their game, the Rangers return to Seventh Avenue playing with house money and could take the series lead if they play their cards right. That will require the following:

1. Lundqvist maintaining his big-game performance. He had a .935 save percentage against Pitt in Game 2. More of the same will demoralize the Pens.

2. Maintaining the same winning lineup and that includes McIlrath and Skjei on defense. Dylan was strong in front of Lundqvist and even managed a couple of good blue line shots. One word describes Skjei’s game — poised. No defenseman was a minus in Game 2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

3. Good, old-fashioned hustle that resulted in New York outworking the home club in the Penguins’ offensive zone, forcing turnovers along the boards while opening up passing lanes in front of the enemy net.

4. More Nash as we saw in Game 2: It was Big Guy Rick who stood in front of Zatkoff drawing attention from multiple Penguins defenders on Yandle’s vital goal.

5. J.T. Miller to the fore. His nickname could have been Mr. Ubiquitous in Game 2. He was here, there, everywhere and emerged with three assists, three hits and a plus-3 rating.

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6. In the absence of captain Ryan McDonagh, Brassard is acting like the heart of the Rangers. Apart from his three points, his work ethic set a positive tone for the team.

7. If Zatkoff does play on Tuesday, the Rangers should shoot glove-high. That’s his weakness now.

Not that everything is ginger-peachy on the Seventh Avenue side.

For one thing, the Penguins succeeded in suckering the Rangers into penalties and got their two goals on power plays.

Better Blueshirts penalty-killing is in order and that means more aggressive pursuit of the puck; rather than merely viewing the rubber.

Finally, as reader Gus Vic notes, “The Rangers must continue their good neutral zone play, limiting the Penguins’ speed options.”

Plus, there are plenty more torpedoes in the Rangers’ arsenal that could explode on the Penguins in Game 3. Manning those missiles are Nash and Eric Staal.

If you believe in the Law of Averages, they’ll be firing flak at either Fleury or the faltering Zatkoff.

Coach Vigneault need not tell his lads what to do this time around. They learned well in Game 2.

And, in case you thrive on stats, consider this: the Rangers have won each of their last five playoff games when trailing in a series, dating back to Game Five of the Second Round in 2015 against the Capitals.

But, as The Maven says, Stats-Schmats, all the Blueshirts have to do is follow the Game 2 Script. Get a few goals, some hustle and muscle for The King and Henrik will take care of the rest.