This series wasn't lost in Game 3 Monday night at Madison Square Garden. For the New York Rangers, it was lost in Los Angeles, where Alain Vigneault essentially told his team, "I don't trust you enough."
If there was one overriding criticism of Vigneault's seven winning-but-Cup-less years as coach in Vancouver, it was that he was too conservative when his teams got a lead—that he changed his team's style too much to the detriment of his skill players.
As Thomas Drance deftly pointed out at CanucksArmy.com, the Canucks had the NHL's third-best rating in the advanced statistic of "Fenwick Close" when trailing by a goal. When up by a goal, they were 11th-best. Similar numbers were found for the previous couple of years. Drance wrote:
What this suggests is that when the Canucks need to catch up on the scoreboard, they have the raw talent to be a super elite hockey club. But too often they deploy a conservative defensive shell when they're in the lead, and that conservatism is counter-productive. Alain Vigneault's conservatism on this end is like an NFL coach punting on fourth-and-one from the opponent's forty yard line late in a one score game.
Vigneault's Rangers of the regular season were much the same. According to ExtraSkater.com, the Rangers were eighth in the league in Fenwick when down by a goal, at 55.6 percent. Up by a goal? The number plummeted to 47.9 percent.
But, hey, it's more understandable why coaches get more conservative with a lead in the regular season. They've got to stockpile those points, even if it's just one, to get into the playoffs. There are 82 games, and you can't go full tilt all the time.
But let's take a look at the numbers from Games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles. The Rangers came out flying in both games, stunning the Kings with their speed and building leads in the process. Know-it-all pundits who picked the Kings to breeze in the series were starting to squirm in their seats quite a bit. But you could start to see it soon after Carl Hagelin's great short-handed goal that gave New York a 2-0 lead; the Rangers seemed to get more conservative all of a sudden.
They got 13 shots in the first period, nine in the second and a pitiful three in the third, going on to lose in overtime. By Game 2, they seemed to have learned their lesson. Don't sit back. Go right at 'em for 60 minutes.
Well, they did for two periods anyway. After outshooting the Kings in each of the first two periods (22-20), the Rangers put seven on Jonathan Quick in the third. The Kings got 12 shots, tied the game up and won in double overtime.
In the playoffs, the Rangers' Fenwick when five-on-five, up a goal, is 47.3 percent, according to ExtraSkater.com. Five-on-five, close, the Fenwick is 51.9 percent. The numbers make it clear: The Rangers let the other team have the puck more when they take a lead. They have the puck more when a score is tied.
Now, the Kings' Fenwick when up by a goal isn't pretty either, at 47.2 percent. But two things: (1) The Kings haven't played with the lead much in these playoffs, and (2) they're a more conservative team to begin with, so going into a defensive shell suits their style better. The Rangers were just too schizophrenic in L.A. They came out with that fun, wild, free-wheeling game to get a lead, where all their forwards seemed to be playing the way that suited them best.
But then they morphed into a sit-back, dump-and-change team. The Kings seemed tired and on the verge of writing off both of those first two games at times, but when the Rangers got all conservative, the thought bubble over the heads of Kings players seemed to be, "Oh, OK. You want to let us still have a chance? OK, we'll oblige."
Alain Vigneault is a fine coach. Just 10 days ago, I sang his praises for the work he's done in getting the Rangers this far. But a Stanley Cup is still not on his resume, and that doesn't appear to be changing with this series.
As fans in Vancouver could tell you, and what Rangers fans seem to be learning now: Vigneault seems to want to fix what wasn't broken too often in games. He gets too conservative. You get a lead—why not try to extend it? Go ahead, rub it in.
Vigneault's style seems to be, "Whoa there, let's not get too ahead of ourselves" with a lead. His players and fans just want him to say, "Let it ride, man!"
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him @Adater.
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