Home ice — advantage or not?
It wasn’t so hot for the Penguins in Game 2 of this hotly contested Rangers-Penguins series.
And it was a frustrating 3-1 loss for New York in Game 3 at The Garden.
Which means that with Game 4 coming up on Seventh Avenue on Thursday night, blueprint changes for the Blueshirts will take on greater importance than ever.
If anything is to be immediately learned as to why the locals trail by a game in this series, it comes down to some head-shaking by Lady Luck, a disallowed Chris Kreider goal, a fortuitous — for the visitors – power play break and a defensive breakdown by the home club.
Apart from the uncertainty of home-ice advantage — or disadvantage — the somewhat surprising thing is that the Rangers are being thwarted in their attempts to move forward in the playoffs by backup goalies.
First, it was third-stringer Jeff Zatkoff who triumphed over the Seventh Avenue Skaters in the opener last week.
And if that wasn’t frustrating enough, second-stringer Matt Murray withstood a second-period shorthanded goal, by Rick Nash — putting New York ahead, 1-0 — to blank the home club thereafter Tuesday night.
On paper, at least, this was not the way it was supposed to be and that soon may be cause for an S.O.S. Or, at the very least, a tweaked game plan to cut down on the Game 3 mistakes.
The problems on Tuesday began with a game-tying Sidney Crosby power-play goal late in the second period and were further compounded when Matt Cullen orchestrated a third-period breakaway counter for the eventual game-winner.
Distressingly, the home club’s armory could provide 17 shots on the backup netminder.
“Our biggest issue,” explained coach Alain Vigneault,”was that we couldn’t make any plays with the puck. Whether it was breaking out of our end, going through the neutral zone or once we got in their end, we didn’t make enough plays.”
Not exactly a defensive powerhouse, the Penguins defused every Rangers assault after the Nash goal, making life a lot easier for Murray than had been expected.
“We need to play down in their end a lot more,” added Keith Yandle. “Everyone on the team wishes Game 4 is Wednesday and not Thursday so we can get out there and play.”
Looking ahead to Thursday’s match, the primary solace for Vigneault’s skaters was Tuesday night’s return of defenseman Ryan McDonagh, recovered from his injury.
“I felt fine,” the Captain insists. “Frankly, I was more worried about the team — and the series. We got plenty of energy from the crowd.”
No less heartening from the Rangers’ end is the fact that Nash’s shorthanded goal was a product of speed and hustle with hopes for more of that blend to come.
“Without question Nash was the Rangers’ best forward,” says MSG analyst Joe Micheletti. “The problem was that they didn’t get enough scoring chances and were not getting to the scoring areas. You have to give the Penguins credit for their defensive play.”
And what’s to be done about bad luck when two Rangers defensemen collide and Cullen gets a breakaway goal that proves to be the winner?
Now, Vigneault, McDonagh & Co. must go back to the drawing board.
“We have to put more pucks on the net,”‘ says McDonagh who had 22:48 of ice time and hardly seemed out of place.
Most disappointing at the time when it occurred was a first period called-back goal scored by Kreider; the result being a product of a Coach’s Challenge by the Pens’ Mike Sullivan.
On the one hand, it worked for the visitors, but could not be used as an excuse, and to the Rangers’ credit, was not.
“It was the right call,” Vigneault said. “It was early in the game and a lot of time left. That was not an issue why we lost the game.”
What’s the solution in Game 4?
“Getting more bodies in front of their goalie,” insists MSG Networks analyst Steve Valiquette.
It sounds simple enough, but execution is another thing.
Henrik Lundqvist says some tape-watching will help win Game 4. “We have to get in front of their goalie,” notes The King, echoing the prevailing sentiment. “We need a strong performance from every one of our guys.”
What’s done is done and now to a six-point plan for evening the series with a win in Game 4:
1. Put more pucks on goal; lots more. Whether it’s Murray, Zatkoff or Marc-Andre Fleury, the Rangers must make the Pitt goalie work — and feel uncomfortable. Murray had far too easy a night of it.
2. The Blueshirts must get to the “dirty” areas in the offensive zone much more often. Most of their quality chances in Game 3 came from behind the hashmarks. The Rangers must battle harder in the slot and in front of the net.
3. Shots, shots, shots and more shots. Without them, the attackers won’t get secondary scoring chances thereby enabling the Penguins to ease out of their zone.
4. Avoid needless penalties at all cost. After all, it was a penalty that cost New York the tying goal. More discipline is required on that count.
5. The compete level much be raised to high-grade intensity. That will result in winning more puck battles. Too many one-on-ones along the boards and in the corners went to the visitors.
6. Support the goalie. Lundqvist deserves more goal support and, on most nights, a 17-shot effort won’t cut the mustard; or win a playoff game.
This much is certain; these are not last year’s Penguins. Pittsburgh played a wise and admirable defensive game while cashing on the only two chances it needed. Then the Pens added an open-netter to wrap up the contest.
On Thursday, the Rangers get their chance to tie a series that has all the appearances of going either way.
Alas, we shall see what we shall see in what so far is a heart-throbbing tourney.