So the Rangers leave Montreal tied 1-1 in their first-round series, which really should have been 2-0 in their favor.
1. This game got away and was given away, but that’s the Rangers’ M.O. Since this run of playoff “success” began in 2012, they are 2-14 in games after taking a series lead. Which is why they’ve had to do it the hard way and play all those Game 7s. They have been two games ahead in a series twice in that span (vs. Montreal in 2014 and Pittsburgh in 2015).
2. Why? In many cases it’s desperation. I don’t think it was in this case. Let’s face it, honestly, the Rangers were involved enough, physically committed enough, emotional enough. But they didn’t finish the job … only 17 seconds short. And we’ll get into the whys and hows in a moment.
But going back to the desperation thing, you can go back to the beginning of playoff time – or at least back to the beginning of the 16-team tournament and the era of the bottom team not being a lot worse than the top team – and I’ve only been doing this since 1978, but more often than not, the victory goes to the team that needs a playoff game more than the other team needs it. The Habs needed it more than the Rangers did.
3. That said, the Rangers have had this habit, especially this season where they get away from what works. Which is, when there’s nothing there off the rush, chip it behind the opposing defense and go to work. Make them turn, make them work. Play in their end for a while. The Rangers did that for most of Game 1 and it sure worked. They were doing it in Game 2, also, forging the 3-2 lead. But they stopped doing it late in the third, and they didn’t do it at all in overtime, and the Canadiens were all over them because of it. The tying goal and winning goal were each almost inevitable. As Mark Messier used to say, “it’s like punting on first down.”
4. The Rangers do this, have done it, and especially have done it at home. They get rush-happy, and especially against teams that clog the neutral zone. If they don’t chip-and-chase, it’s going to put a ton of pressure on the defensive-zone play and the goalie.
5. Who, by the way, was about as good as a goalie can be in allowing four goals. Henrik Lundqvist has certainly rediscovered his “elite” game, hasn’t he? Was there ever a doubt (LOL)? He made 54 saves, some spectacular, many late in the game.
6. But he sure did give up a weird goal, that first one, when Brendan Gallagher crashed through the crease and took Lundqvist’s stick with him, snapping it at the shaft. The Rangers were completely unaware, apparently, of what had happened because they had several opportunities to get a whistle – shoot the puck into Carey Price’s chest or into the netting in the offensive zone or go offside or ice the puck or shoot it into the bench or commit a hand-pass. A very simple play could have stopped everything and allowed Lundqvist to get a new stick.
7. Instead, with no stick, he allowed the opening goal, getting little help from his teammates on the play.
8. Lundqvist’s following save on Paul Byron’s breakaway was massive or who knows what could have happened at 2-0, Habs, in that building? It could have unraveled.
9. That save allowed Michael Grabner’s steal from Nathan Beaulieu and beat Price on the breakaway to tie it. Different game. Odd to see consecutive breakaways by arguably the two fastest straight-line skaters in the game.
10. Gallagher spends more time in the blue paint than either goalie. But did the Rangers not expect that?
11. Then came a breakdown, Chris Kreider losing the puck in the neutral zone, two defensemen behind the net, no forward tying up the man in front, and Gallagher regaining the lead with an uncontested shot.
12. The Rangers, though, got back to work in the second. After a Montreal icing, another attempted icing (a tactic to get a breather for the tired defensive-zone players) was actually on goal. Lundqvist moved it to Nick Holden, who made a long pass to Jimmy Vesey, who chip-passed it to Rick Nash for the tying goal. Then Brendan Smith, with help from Kreider, won a board battle, Kreider went to the net to tie up a defenseman and distract Price, and Mats Zuccarello scored the go-ahead goal.
13. But as you know, the Habs charged hard, and the Rangers helped them do so by refusing to play in the offensive zone. The inevitable goal, with Price off for an extra attacker, started with Grabner’s failed clear. Holden chopped the stick of Tomas Plekanec in front, and wound up breaking his own stick, then couldn’t prevent Plekanec from scoring at the doorstep.
14. The overtime, for the same reasons, was all Montreal – though the Rangers had a few chances, one by Nash, on Price they had nothing sustained – and Alex Radulov scored from in close, with Mika Zibanejad unable to tie him up. So instead of a 2-0 series lead, it’s 1-1.
15. Alain Vigneault almost never makes changes after a win (he didn’t for Game 2) and almost always does after a loss (so I expect a change for Game 3 Sunday at the Garden). The obvious choice would be Kevin Klein for Holden, who was on the ice for three of the Montreal goals, with partner Marc Staal. It was probably a toss-up to play Holden over Klein the first two games, so it would be an easy choice to go with Klein for Game 3. I doubt there would be any other change.
16. By the way, you pretty much don’t expect a Papa John’s Night (scoring at least three goals) against Carey Price. But despite his rep, he’s 24-28 in the playoffs in his career.
17. Which brings us to the supposed “House of Horrors.” The Rangers were 17 seconds away from being 7-1 there in the postseason since the Moulson/Bell Centre opened in 1996. The best road team in the league is going to have to play some road games at home.
18. The Rangers have played a completely atypical physical style against the Habs through two games, and I do wonder – since it’s not in their DNA – if that will take a toll. I also think the statistician in Montreal has an itchy trigger finger and that the hit totals are a tad exaggerated (Rangers 119, Habs 108 through two games – Game 1 hero Tanner Glass credited with 10 hits in Game 2).
19. How about J.T. Miller, whose game is built for playoff hockey, taking on that monster Shea Weber. Kept him off the power play after Zuccarello’s penalty, after somehow he got an extra two minutes and Steve Ott, who got none, tried to decapitate him. There has been some, um, interesting officiating through two games.
20. Did you know? The three forwards the Canadiens acquired to beef up their team – Ott, Dwight King and Andreas Martinsen – have one single goal among them since the trade deadline.
21. I usually predict that a series will be 1-1 after two games, 2-2 after four, because, well, that’s the way most series go. Especially those involving the Rangers. I felt this would be 1-1 and 2-2. But it could have been 2-0, and then who knows. On the other side, I don’t think the way the Rangers lost Game 2 will have any bearing whatsoever. These guys have played so many games that they understand how momentum has zero carryover from one game to the next in a playoff series. None. The Canadiens could win Game 3, but it won’t be due to Game 2. It never works that way. Go ahead and look back at any playoff series – other than those in which one team dominated — and you’ll see. It takes a fair amount of experience to understand that.