24 Observations From Game 4 … and Beyond

So the Rangers go back to Montreal in a 2-2 series. Difficult to believe, isn’t it, that except for two players, that was the same team that played Game 3?

Thoughts:

1. That wasn’t a different team in Game 4, a 2-1 win, but it was most certainly a group more intent on competing, in executing, in doing the dirty things needed to play in the opponents’ end. It started right off the bat too. The Rangers had a good solid start, hitting all their checkmarks. Kevin Hayes won two draws, got a shot on goal, and his line kept the puck deep and made Montreal defend. Not a huge deal, but an important tone-setter, given what happened in the third period and OT in Game 2, and the entirety of Game 3.

2. Before we get too deep into analyzing, remember that this is how it goes: The Canadiens didn’t think they did nearly enough, or played nearly well enough, in Game 4. See, the loser of pretty much every playoff game feels that way and the winner feels quite the opposite – the Rangers, in this case, deserve to forget that Shea Weber hit the post with a shot that could have forced overtime and who knows what? Just as the Habs weren’t thanking their lucky stars when the Rangers failed to hang on to a lead with 17.3 seconds left in Game 2.

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3. So it’s 2-2, and it could be 3-1 Rangers. Too bad they tossed Game 3 into the mix.

4. Alain Vigneault made some lineup changes – Nick Holden and Pavel Buchnevich in, Kevin Klein and Tanner Glass out – and shuffled his lines and defense pairs. Change is usually good after a playoff loss. These worked out. I thought Buchnevich, in his first Stanley Cup playoff game, did a good job, even getting an earful from the sideshow that is Steve Ott. Hopefully, Buchnevich didn’t understand much of it.

5. I guess, too, that The Garden crowd got sick of hearing how quiet it is. Because for Game 4, it was pretty good and loud most of the night as the Rangers snapped a six-game, home-ice playoff losing streak.

6. The Canadiens survived the Rangers’ early surge and slowly got back into it. Henrik Lundqvist made a huge save on Andrew Shaw’s breakaway in the middle of the first. It could have been a disaster for the Rangers, who struggled on home ice this season. Coming off the Game 3 debacle, going down 1-0 there, well you can only imagine.

7. Instead, Lundqvist’s enormous save allowed Jesper Fast to take advantage of an Andrei Markov cough-up, squeezing a shot through a surprised Carey Price, making it 1-0 Blueshirts. Lundqvist, by the way, now has a .944 save percentage in the four games thus far.

8. But at the end of the first, as the Habs had their feet under them, then came a bizarre sequence and a tying goal. First of all, with both teams changing, there were six players on the ice for each team by the time the goal was scored. Chris Kreider was one of the guilty parties on a poorly-timed and poorly-executed change. Brady Skjei, who otherwise had an outstanding night and has been one of the best Rangers in the series, stood up a man in front of the bench, but therefore got caught flat-footed. Derek Stepan was several strides behind the play and on the resulting 2-on-1, Holden blew a tire and fell down, making it 2-on-none. Torrie Mitchell hit the empty net for a too-easy goal. Radulov with the assist.

9. Early in the second, though, Ryan McDonagh made a smart, decisive pass down low to Rick Nash behind both Habs defensemen. Nash – the Rangers best forward by a mile in the series – slipped it under Price for the 2-1 lead. Earlier, Nash had run over Price, disallowing a goal and ending up in the penalty box for goalie interference.

10. With the lead, the Rangers’ Harlem Globetrotters act began. On a 3-on-2 break and a 3-on-1, Mats Zuccarello over-passed it, one of those with a chance to shoot from the slot. Kreider over-passed one as well, but the Rangers did enough right in terms of defending and managing the puck to make the lead stand up.

11. Did you know?: The Rangers’ last 10 home wins have all been by one goal, eight of those by 2-1 scores.

12. I thought Jimmy Vesey was really good again and has been a force in this series. Nash too, as usual. How about defenseman Brendan Smith, who took a beating and played a tremendous game on the No. 1 pairing with McDonagh? And of course Skjei and McDonagh, too.

13. But the Rangers, if they’re going to win two more in this series, are still going to need much more out of their top forwards. This was a step in the right direction. The Rangers have goals from Fast, Glass, Michael Grabner (2), Nash (2) and Zuccarello in this series. Which means none from Kreider, Stepan, Mika Zibanejad, and Hayes.

14. Another positive sign is that the Rangers’ penalty kill came up big in Game 4 after allowing a pair of power-play goals in Game 3. The downside is that the Rangers’ power-play, while somewhat better in Game 4, is 0-for-12 in the series.

15. Have you noticed that an icing followed by another icing is becoming a strategy? And a good one. Nash is one of the smarter players, and he does it. You ice the puck, you’re stuck on the ice and out of gas, you get the puck and fling it down the ice again. It gives you 10-15-20 seconds or more of a breather.

16. Another pattern, especially on the power-play, is to do that backward pass on the entry when they run into a wall of defenders. Drop it back to somebody coming with speed. Most teams do this now and I think it’s only a matter of time before some coaches see enough video and figure out how to jump the route, steal the backward pass and get a breakaway out of it. I’m actually surprised it hasn’t happened yet.

17. Speaking of goaltenders, I couldn’t be happier for Cam Talbot doing his thing now behind a top-quality team in Edmonton. Great guy. Shame the Robin Hood system and salary cap – take from the rich, give to the poor – forced the Rangers to trade him. The same system prevented them from trading him for something of value because they didn’t have the cap space to add something good.

18. If you don’t think Edmonton could come out of the West, you haven’t been paying attention.

19. Road-ice advantage update: Home teams won all three games Tuesday night. Which means home teams are finally over .500 in these playoffs, at 14-13.

20. Interesting watching Mike Babcock with the Maple Leafs. He’s one of the few coaches who at least attempts to cheat to limit the power-play chances of Alex Ovechkin in his left-circle place of business. Then again, Babcock still employs a box-style of penalty-kill, where his players aren’t chasing the puck like it’s a fire drill. Rare in today’s game.

21. So Monday night, four games, four OTs. Great stuff, right? And yet … Ottawa beats Boston on a power-play, partly due to a bad change by Zdeno Chara, but also because of a bad call, where one player absorbs a head shot, then gets called for the retaliatory punish.

22. Nashville goes up 3-0 on Chicago because of a late third-period goal on which Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford was prevented from stopping a puck because he was shoved away from his established position by a Predators forward. Easily and barely arguably goaltender interference. Yet, the coaches’ challenge proves once again how subjective that call really is.

23. Then Anaheim-Calgary went to OT, and eventually, a 3-0 Ducks lead in the series, largely due to a Nate Thompson goal that was redirected with a stick that was close to crossbar height and therefore close to illegal. None of the replays were conclusive, from what I saw, though Toronto’s Situation Room has other, better angles. The color guy on NBC was stating that it would be disallowed, based on what he saw. Nevertheless, it was called a good goal. But why? Was it deemed to have been knocked in with a legal height stick? Or, were replays inconclusive, hence the call on the ice (good goal) stood? Anybody?

24. I always predict any series will be 1-1 after two games, 2-2 after four, because most series are. So this one is, too. Also, in most cases, if one team is more desperate, that team usually wins. The Habs were more desperate in Game 2 and somehow won. The Rangers were more desperate in Game 4 and won. I imagine whichever teams loses Game 5 will win Game 6. So 3-3 after six?