The Rangers looked different from the first minute of yesterday’s 4-2 win over the Nashville Predators. It was a difference that reached far beyond the fact that the team decided to go with 11 forwards and seven D. It was the Rangers’ high effort level–their desperation for a win—that was so noticeable from the beginning of the game.
But, even after jumping out to a 2-0 lead at the end of the first period, the question still was, “could the Blueshirts sustain this for a full 60 minutes to seal the win?” The answer was not clear until the final minute of the game, when Jimmy Vesey potted an empty netter with 49 seconds left in regulation. Nashville had been coming on strong and Henrik Lundqvist was making incredible saves up until that moment.
The best thing about the game from the Rangers’ point of view was the complete team effort–less run and gun, and more of a solid all-around goaltending, forechecking, back checking, winning face offs’ effort. What stood out particularly, beyond the fact that Lundqvist consistently made the big saves, was the line of Vesey, Kevin Hayes, and Jesper Fast. Hayes and Vesey have been showing great chemistry since training camp, but they needed a complementary third forward to complete that line. Fast is definitely that player. In commenting on Fast’s recent return to the lineup after off-season surgery, Head Coach Alain Vigneault said, “[h]e’s a big part of the energy on the team that we can bring to games and I think that slowly but surely he is finding his rhythm.” Only back four games, Fast is just getting up to speed now. But combining him with Hayes and Vesey makes a quintessential “new NHL” third line—a grittier line with a high offensive upside. Although the term is not used much anymore (with the “new NHL” now being more than 10 years old), it is an excellent description of what a team’s third line should be. This line combined for five points last night, along with three hits and three blocked shots.
Lest you get your hopes up too high after yesterday’s win, however, know that there are still issues to be addressed (the team managed 18 giveaways, including two by netminder Henrik Lundqvist, and only 15 shots in three periods). But the defense looked much better. Blueliner Brady Skjei blocked six shots during the game and Nick Holden had five hits. And the strategy of dressing seven defensemen mostly worked (as Vigneault mentioned in his post-game presser, he dressed Anthony DeAngelo mostly for power play duties). Personally, I am in favor of anything that can be done to allow Ryan McDonagh to sit through the PP, but there is actually more to it than that. A stronger emphasis on D has been needed to start the season, with Kevin Shattenkirk playing more minutes at even strength than he probably should be. If McDonagh plays fewer minutes on the PP, maybe he can play more at even strength. We shall see whether this is tried (and if so whether it works) going forward.
Increased defensive emphasis takes some of the pressure off the big name forwards (eg, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider) to produce. Not that anyone should forget that Nash and Kreider have combined for only five points in nine games but, if everyone plays a well-rounded game, their natural talent will (hopefully) eventually convert to points. And then there is Filip Chytil, who is currently maturing in Hartford. Do not expect Chytil to be a savior, but he has the potential to be an Evgeny Kuznetsov-type player and that is hard to play down.
One more comment about yesterday’s game that is worth mentioning here has to do with the coach’s challenge (Rule 78.7). Early in yesterday’s contest, on the Rangers’ second goal, it looked like New York might have been offside. Many people were questioning Nashville’s decision not to use the coach’s challenge on the goal, but after the statistics on Rule 78.7 were released by the NHL this morning, it might give us a clue as to why the Predators did not take that chance.
Initiated in 2015 to give coaches a chance to challenge a goal scored after an opposing team has gotten an unfair advantage (either by entering the offensive zone ahead of the puck or because of goalie interference), by last year, the NHL owners felt that the challenge was often being used to delay the game. So, this season the Rule was amended so that a wrongly challenged on-ice call has a stiff penalty. Previously, being wrong resulted in the challenging team losing their time-out (the team had to have their time-out available to initiate the challenge). Now, if a team is incorrect in its challenge, that team is assessed a minor penalty for delaying the game. In its current iteration, the Rule does not a team to have its time-out in order to challenge a play, but if it does, it is no longer forfeited in the event of an unsuccessful challenge.
The statistics released today by the NHL indicate that there have been 32 challenges in 121 games thus far this season. Of those, the call on the ice has been overturned only nine times. Most of the challenges have been for goalie interference (19), and seven of the call overturns have been for that reason. Only two of the eight offside challenges were granted. One has to think that Nashville was aware of those statistics, and knew yesterday that the chances of winning a challenge on the Rangers’ second goal were miniscule. It must have been a strategic decision, at that point in the game, that the team’s chances of winning the game were greater if they did not risk being wrong, and thus on the PK to start the second period. In my opinion, having to make this calculation defeats the purpose of the coach’s challenge as it was intended but, yesterday, its overly harsh penalties were to the Rangers’ advantage. The Blueshirts definitely needed a break in their direction and, on this day, in Rule 78.7, they likely got it.