By Allan Muir
Funny how, after all that work, all those preparations, a game as important as the opener of the Stanley Cup Final could come down to a bad hop.
"In an overtime, you know, one shot could be a win or could be a loss," New York coach Alain Vigneault said in the wake of his team's 3-2 defeat in Los Angeles. "I mean, I look at [overtime in] the last game. In my estimation, we're probably going on a three-on-two and then the puck bounced and then we get caught [in our zone]."
That bouncing puck was fumbled, then poorly cleared, by the normally sure-handed Dan Girardi. A moment later it was on the stick of Justin Williams, who snapped it high blacker past Henrik Lundqvist from the low slot to seal the victory for the Kings.
And despite spending the entire third period in the defensive zone, that's really how close it was for the Rangers in Game 1.
A blown opportunity? Sure. But the math says New York only needs to win one game on the road to capture the Cup and, despite that particularly cruel trick played by the Hockey Gods, that one win might not be so far out of their reach.
Truth is, the Rangers made an awful lot of their own luck in the opener. And that meant there was an awful lot to like about New York's game. The quick start. The Cup Final-worthy goaltending of Lundqvist. The frightening advantage created by their speed. The opportunistic offense. A shutdown performance by their penalty kill. Even their ability to match the Kings in terms of scoring chances (an admittedly subjective stat, but one I had going 15-13 in favor of the Kings--not bad next to that 43-27 shot disadvantage).
And this from a game characterized by Vigneault as being plagued by too many B-level performances.
The Rangers have to be better to seize Game 2, but there's plenty to build on.
Here's what they need to do:
Don't think, just shoot: The Rangers came out firing from anywhere and everywhere on the ice in the first period, testing Jonathan Quick from all angles, but then got too choosy with their chances. That didn't work out too well. Blasting away is a good plan and not just because they need to get more shots on net. It's about creating second and third-chance opportunities through bounces, re-directs and deflections. Plus, you don't want to over-think your approach with Quick. Keep it simple.
Take chances: The most natural response in the wake of a game-changing blunder like Girardi's is to batten down the hatches and play it safe. The problem with that thinking is that against this Los Angeles team safe really is death. Their ability to control the puck demands an aggressive counter-attack. That means pressure the puck with two men when possible, anticipate the play and jump on any slight indecision. Getting, and keeping, the Kings on their heels is critical.
Make quicker, smarter decisions with the puck: The Kings did a terrific job bottling up the Rangers in their own end with an aggressive forecheck in Game 1. Breaking through that jam starts with the D and their puck decisions. The first option should always be the short, surgical dish, but they have to keep their heads up in case there's a chance to break a speedy winger like Carl Hagelin or Chris Kreider up the middle with a stretch pass. It'll help that John Moore returns to the lineup tonight. He's a better puck mover than his fill-in, Raphael Diaz, and his being a left-handed shot makes for better D-to-D passing with right-handed partner Kevin Klein.
Even things up in the middle: No doubt the Rangers need more from guys like Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash, but any success those guys have begins with puck possession created by their centers. The advantage the Kings have in the middle was apparent in Game 1, and not just in the circles. They're bigger and stronger, too. That means guys like Derek Stepan and Brad Richards will have to swing the tide with speed, guile and determination, starting with their play in the faceoff circle. And that means that Vigneault will have to work hard to get the match-ups that give his skill guys a chance. Not easy without the benefit of last change, but that's why he gets paid the big bucks.