By Sean Hartnett
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Playoff series are often won by desperate teams with aggressive mentalities.
The rugged Montreal Canadiens have dictated play throughout the majority of their first-round series against the Rangers, but they left a window open when they let that mindset slip in the third period of Game 5. The Habs became cautious and the Blueshirts took advantage, eventually winning in overtime and grabbing a 3-2 series advantage.
For too much of this series, the Rangers have played overly conservative and passive. Why should they? They’re a faster bunch and can roll four legitimate scoring lines. The Canadiens do not possess that same electric team speed, nor do they have four-line scoring punch. They shouldn’t be able to beat this Rangers team skill versus skill.
If the Rangers continue to effectively roll out 12 forwards that don’t let up they will win this series.
Attack, attack, attack, attack.
If the Rangers play with an aggressor’s mentality on Saturday night at The Garden, this series isn’t going back to Bell Centre. By aggressive, I don’t mean through intimidation tactics like hunting the Canadiens down with wild, reckless checks. The Rangers can’t allow the emotions of Game 6 to drag them into a street fight.
Steve Ott, Brendan Gallagher & Co. will do everything in their power to get under the Rangers’ skin, to draw the Blueshirts into playing their game instead of playing that track-meet style that made New York such a dangerous offensive team during the regular season’s first half. It’s all about quick retrievals, quick-strike counter-attacks and sustained pressure.
“Our thought process and mindset coming into this year has been to play fast,” alternate captain Derek Stepan said earlier this season. “Obviously, we have added some skaters who are fast, and our emphasis is to be fast. When we’re moving our feet, we have success.”
The Rangers won Game 5 by playing pedal-to-the-metal hockey in the third period and overtime. Mika Zibanejad ended up being the OT hero, but it could have easily been any of the 12 Rangers forwards or any of their six defensemen. Each line that hopped over the bench produced major pressure on Canadiens goalie Carey Price. It came wave after wave.
New York outshot Montreal 9-3 in the extra frame, before Zibanejad netted the game-winner at 14:22. Montreal head coach Claude Julien admitted that the Rangers “were hungrier than we were.”
Under head coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers have been a tough team to beat in late-series games. In Game 5-7 of a playoff series, the Blueshirts have won 11 of the last 16 contests, dating to Game 7 of the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2014. That was Vigneault’s first playoff series on the Rangers’ bench.
Earlier this series, the Rangers were the team adjusting to Montreal’s physical playing style. They were bending themselves to awkwardly fit a rugged persona that isn’t their strength rather than dictating play through their speed. The Rangers focused on playing the body rather than moving the puck with efficiency and accuracy.
The Rangers playing to their strengths is something the Canadiens do not have the skill to match. Wearing their opponents down through brute force shouldn’t be the goal. Instead, the Blueshirts should grind the Habs physically and mentally by forcing them to play on the heels in their own end, and not give them a sniff of the puck.
The more time a team spends defending, the more gassed and ill-disciplined it is going to be. The Rangers will put this series to bed Saturday night if they smother the Canadiens with unrelenting offense.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey