Rangers Must Get Back to Basics with Line Combinations in Stanley Cup Final

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterJune 12, 2014

Kathy Willens/AP Images

NEW YORK — The Rangers dodged a fatal bullet in Game 4.

More appropriately, Henrik Lundqvist stepped in front of 40 of them and served as the world’s greatest bullet-proof vest in a 2-1 win.

It wasn’t a surprise that the Kings fired their best shot of the series in an attempt to take out the Rangers; it was a surprise that New York coach Alain Vigneault was willing to supply extra ammunition in the form of well-meaning but ineffective lineup changes that required Lundqvist and a pile of snow to go above and beyond the call of duty.

A case can be made—and it has been made, ad nauseam—that the Rangers played well enough to win each of the first three games, but the puck luck wasn’t on their side. It’s a flimsy argument for explaining the squandering of two-goal leads in Games 1 and 2, but it has some merit when analyzing the loss in Game 3.

No matter how you parse the argument, there’s no denying the Rangers played well in those games. Well enough to win? That’s another question, but they weren’t starved for scoring chances.

That Vigneault elected to alter his four lines so drastically for Game 4, even with the coach himself advocating the Bad Bounce Theory for why his team was on the brink of elimination, is what is so surprising. And although New York found a way to win Game 4, the experiment did not work.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 11:  Brad Richards #19 of the New York Rangers battles for the puck against Tyler Toffoli #73 of the Los Angeles Kings during Game Four of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Madison Square Garden on June 11, 2014 in New York City. (Phot
Scott Levy/Getty Images

If Vigneault does not go back to what has brought the Rangers this far, it’s only a matter of time before the Kings put this series to bed.

It’s understandable why Vigneault felt he needed to break out his chemistry set.

Brad Richards had been getting speed-bagged by every Kings line he was matched against. While it wasn’t the sole reason New York was losing games, it was a detriment to the overall goal of winning.

The slow-footed Richards was not only losing the battle defensively. In fact, his inability to keep up was dragging down speedy linemates Martin St. Louis and Carl Hagelin.

Perhaps looking to spark a team that looked like a death-row inmate walking the green mile, Vigneault dropped Richards to the fourth line with Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett. The invaluable third line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot remained intact. Hagelin found himself on a wing with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, while Dominic Moore centered Chris Kreider and St. Louis. 

Hagelin-Stepan-Nash was one of the Rangers' better lines last season when they played together in Tortorella's final season

— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) June 12, 2014

"I haven't been where I need to be this series, so my ice time has been lower," Richards said to reporters Thursday. "We're trying to win games, to get to a chance to win a Cup.

"If you're down 3-0, you know, there's something that has to change sometimes. Just talk to the new linemates, go play."

The Rangers won the game, sure. But the line combinations did not work.

Unless those four lines as they were comprised in Game 4 contain a magical power to stop the momentum of pucks on goal lines, Vigneault needs to get back to what has been working so well for several months.

For three games, the battle of the Corsis was relatively even between the two teams. The Rangers actually held a 144-142 edge in five-on-five shot attempts, although the Kings had the slight advantage in the first two games while New York dominated Game 3 but fell victim to a lights-out Quick.

Five-on-Five Corsi battle, Rangers vs. Kings
Game 15246
Game 27368
Game 31730
Game 45937

The Kings slammed the Rangers in five-on-five shot attempts in Game 4, holding a 59-37 edge at even strength and 35-23 edge in five-on-five close.

Relatively speaking, the Richards line was the best of the bunch, with the trio hanging around the lower-40s in shot percentage. The Moore line was wreckage, although it created the one true even-strength goal for the Rangers, as Pouliot's strike came seconds after a power play expired. Stepan (28.6), Nash and Hagelin (32.1) were absolutely pummeled.

All of this happened with Vigneault having the last change in Madison Square Garden. What are the Kings going to do to these four lines when Darryl Sutter gets the matchups he covets at Staples Center?

Vigneault sounded noncommittal Thursday about sticking with the same combinations for Game 5:

"You know, for half of the game I was pretty pleased with how, at both ends of the rink, we were able to defend and generate some good chances. The second half of the game, I thought they had a strong push. Our goaltender permitted us to hang on and find a way to win that game. If there are enough positive signs from that game for me to not make any other changes, stay tuned (Friday) at 5:00 and find out."

The NHL is a results-oriented league, but if Vigneault fails to realize the Game 4 results were in spite of his line combinations, there will not be a Game 6.


Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

All statistics via NHL.com.