NEW YORK—Asking around the NHL, you'll likely hear several of the same refrains when it comes to the tenants of playoff hockey. It's a doctrine ingrained in the skulls of every player that skates over the newly painted Stanley Cup Playoffs logo. You have to play physical to win and there's little space this time of year. It begs the question, however: if playing that style isn't to your strengths, what if you just didn't?
The New York Rangers, will likely not find out.
Through the first quarter mark of the season, the Rangers looked, and were rightly praised, as the team that was going to change the way lineups were built. They rolled four skill lines, and opponents—even the very good ones—couldn't keep up. They had re-invented the wheel and teams were adjusting to them. They were scoring what felt like a dozen goals per game.
Injuries forced them to somewhat abandon that strategy, but with a seemingly healthy roster, Alain Vigneault has opted for grind. It was evident the moment he scratched rookie winger Pavel Buchnevich, a regular occupant of the team's top-nine during that early success, who never found his way back into a regular role after early-season injuries.
Instead it's the rugged veteran winger Tanner Glass, who finishes checks, hits everything that moves, and spent his entire season in the minor leagues until a month ago, being trusted in the waning moments of the season.
It's partially that their opponent, the Montreal Canadiens have dictated the pace of play and are not allowing the Rangers to get to the middle of the ice—by defenseman Marc Staal's own admittance—and partially that Vigneault seems hung up on how hockey should be played, starting arbitrarily in early April.
“It's playoff hockey,” Vigneault said, when asked about his team's new emphasis on hitting. The Rangers finished the regular season ranked 16th with 1,715 hits, an average of 20.9 per game. Through three postseason games, they're averaging a whopping 53.3. For their part, the Canadiens jumped from 22.73 hits per night during the season to 45.66 in the first-round matchup. “It's physical and that's what you're seeing out there.”
When asked if his team is equipped to handle that, he admitted that finding a way to use their strengths is what they'll need to work on going forward.
“I can say to that this team right here now defensively are doing a real good job and we need to find an answer to be able to use our skill a little bit more,” he said.
One of the great strategic minds of war, United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd, developed the strategy known as observe, orient, decide, and act. He argues decision-making occurs in a loop and by processing that loop faster than your opponent, you can effectively cut them off and get ahead. The Rangers are chasing so far behind Montreal in that loop that they're about to be lapped.
Hockey, of course, is no substitute for the horrors of war, but any great tactician would tell you that letting your opponent choose the style of battle gives you an inherent disadvantage. It's a great way to get your king killed and in this case, the king is a dashing Swede with Hall of Fame stats and no Stanley Cup ring.
“We're not overthinking this game, we know our strengths, we know what we need to do to win and our whole focus is on that,” Montreal head coach Claude Julien said.
Staal didn't seem to think his teammates trying to finish their checks was going to hamper them offensively at all, but Dan Girardi, another long-tenured member of the New York Rangers blueline, one with hyperbolically more playoff experience than the rest of the league combined at this point, made comments that echoed Vigneault's.
“Hitting is a big part of the playoffs,” Girardi said. “It's a long series, it's a best of [seven], you've got to wear guys down. Especially all their top guys and their top D are playing 30 minutes a game. You have to make sure they have a hard night.”
But there's a multitude of ways to make sure opposing players have a hard night. Forcing them to be on their heels and play most of the night without the puck are certainly ways to accomplish that. Spending an entire night defending is exhausting.
On a seemingly innocuous play, Montreal forward Andrew Shaw went to chip the puck out and Girardi had a good chance to hold the blue line, with the forwards cycling deep. Instead, he trucked Shaw, the crowd cheering and the play went the other way. It was a good-looking hard hit, from a team that looked like it was going to struggle to cross the 10-shot threshold.
It was a shining example of trying to play a way to please some arbitrary hockey gods. Finishing your check is a good play, but not at the expense of ceding control of the blue line.
If the Rangers want to have any shot in this series, they're going to need to play to their strengths and their style, not the one that's helping Montreal win games. The one that requires some lineup changes and a tremendous leap of faith from Vigneault.