Just before defenseman Dan Girardi was helplessly flailing to clear the puck while on his knees in overtime, the New York Rangers had options and good ones at that. With Los Angeles Kings forwards in pursuit, had Girardi completed the pass as he intended to before the puck bounced up and over his stick blade, it very well could have been a four-on-two the other way and we're talking about a completely different series.
Instead, the puck took that bad hop, Girardi fell as he tried to clear it and the Kings ended the game with a Justin Williams goal to take a 1-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final. Though Girardi was left out to dry, Rangers players all were turning up ice in the hopes of generating a prime scoring chance. They may have been taking a risk by leaving Girardi on his own, but it was a well-calculated one. His first pass out of the zone is often pretty good and Girardi has made a few rather breathtaking stretch passes this postseason that led to goals. A simple bounce changed everything.
The Rangers are going to have to continue to take risks if they want to win Game 2 and the series. As the Kings showed time and time again throughout Game 1, when they are disciplined and playing their style of hockey, they are really difficult to beat cleanly. They almost have to make a mistake for the Rangers to get a good look at the net.
With the discipline the Kings showed throughout the third period in particular, the Rangers barely got any shots from the prime scoring areas. The middle of the ice was completely clogged with all five Los Angeles skaters patrolling the scoring-chance zone. That left the Rangers with few options for quality shots and led to turnovers on missed chances, blocks and giveaway passes.
New York will have to expect the Kings to play that way again, which is why plays like the one they would have hoped to make on Girardi's failed clearing attempt have to be a priority.
There may be no team in the league that can fly like the Rangers. With world class speedsters on their top three lines including Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, to name a few, the Rangers have weapons. You can't just be fast, though, and the Blueshirts seem to know it.
"I think both teams play with a lot of speed," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist mused Friday. "A lot of it is how you place the puck. You can skate into pucks. We've been using our speed a lot, especially during the playoffs, in a good way. I think we can keep doing that in this series."
With all the speed the Rangers showed, particularly in the first period of Game 1, head coach Alain Vigneault said Friday he believes his team can play faster, but that speed means nothing without the puck.
"Our guys need to manage the puck better," Vigneault said. "We can play a faster game and that's been one of our strengths."
Managing the puck better should include making dump-and-chase a last resort.
The Kings' defensemen are puck retrieval machines. They rarely were beaten to any of the Rangers' dump-ins, leading to very little sustained pressure in the offensive zone. That's the way the Kings want it, too. There are few teams that stack up the defensive blue line as well as the Kings, forcing even the most skilled players to dump the puck in fear of turning it over at the blue line. They're still turning the puck over, though, just in a safer place.
If the Rangers want to get more by way of possession and create more opportunities in the offensive zone, they're going to have to focus more on carrying the puck into the zone instead of making the "safe play" and dumping it. The Rangers have enough skill players like Zuccarello, Hagelin, Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash to carry it in more. The seams are there, but the Kings have an uncanny ability to funnel the play in a way that leads to dump-ins.
If the Rangers can play faster as Vigneault suggests they can, they can level the playing field against the Kings. They were only one goal away from a Game 1 win, so could that little boost be enough to win them the game this time? It's highly possible, especially if they get their transition game going.
Throughout the postseason, and to a great deal of success in the Eastern Conference finals, the Rangers have been excellent in transition. All of their top four defensemen -- Ryan McDonagh, Girardi, Anton Stralman and Marc Staal, along with likely-to-be-reinserted John Moore -- can make that all-important first pass that triggers a transition. They're also excellent at getting pucks along the walls and chipping it to a teammate for a breakout chance.
Without being hard on the puck in their own zone and that first pass, the speed is pretty much meaningless.
The Rangers have not yet played a series where their transition and rush didn't help them win a few games, but it has never been more important than it is in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Kings have the speed and the style of play to counteract the Rangers as a rush team. They just successfully shut down one of the better rush teams in the league in the Chicago Blackhawks, but if the Rangers are effective enough, their transition game is going to lead to offense, even against the Kings.
Here are three ways the Rangers can win Game 2 and get themselves back in this series before it heads to New York (beyond the obvious one of Lundqvist playing out of his mind to steal them a game).
Dominance in transition
With their speed and ability to move the puck, the Rangers have to find ways to catch Los Angeles' forwards in their zone. The Kings rarely over-pursue, but when they do, the Rangers must have the awareness to get the puck up to their own forwards as quickly as possible in hopes of creating an odd-man break.
Without being able to sustain much zone time in Game 1 and probably facing a similar struggle in Game 2, they have to find ways to create offense on the rush. They're more than capable of doing it.
The Rangers scored a short-handed goal off the stick of Carl Hagelin and the speedy Swede nearly potted another one in the last minute of regulation. New York's ability to counter as the Kings are spread out should continue to make their penalty kill the postseason's most effective.
The Rangers killed all four penalties against in Game 1 and own the second-best PK percentage in the playoffs, killing 86 percent of their disadvantages.
While penalty-killing prowess is good, the Rangers simply have to take advantage of their chances on the power play. They went scoreless on three opportunities in Game 1 against a Kings penalty kill that has been average in these playoffs.
The Rangers' speed could exploit some of the Kings' slower players, helping New York draw a few more penalties and giving themselves a few more chances on the power play.
If New York is going to beat Los Angeles, it can leave no opportunity wasted. The power play is a great place to start taking advantage.
This really can't be overstated. Safe hockey isn't going to cut it for the Rangers against a team as deep as their opponents from Los Angeles.
The Kings haven't always been the most consistent group this postseason, though. They've lost nine games, which proves their fallibility. Knowing that, the Rangers should be a little braver about taking risks and being aggressive.
That needs to materialize in forwards sneaking out of the defensive zone early for a long breakout pass, overloading the offensive zone a bit more and avoiding the dump and chase at all cost.
Taking risks may lead to more plays like the one that ended overtime in Game 1, but without taking those chances, the Rangers' opportunities for offense probably decrease. At that point, conservatism doesn't help them.
Also, if the Rangers are more aggressive on the ice, they could force more mistakes, which plays right into another strength of theirs.
The Rangers' opportunism was on full display in Game 1, particularly on Benoit Pouliot's first-period goal. The Kings manage the puck so well, but when they make mistakes with it, like Drew Doughty did on that first score for the Rangers, they have to pounce. This is something that doesn't happen very often, so when the opportunity arises to capitalize, the Rangers have to make sure the Kings pay.
That opportunism will also need to materialize when the Kings are unable to stack their blue line. If Rangers forwards can recognize those opportunities, they'll be able to get clean entries into the zone and possibly generate some sustained pressure in the offensive zone.
Game 2 is setting up to be a great one with the Kings looking to grab a stranglehold on the series and the Rangers hoping to head back to New York all even. As this postseason has shown anything can happen with these two teams and no two games will probably be alike. With so much on the line every game at this stage of the year, expect another entertaining matchup between the two finalists.