NEW YORK -- Two years ago, the New York Rangers made it to the Eastern Conference finals playing a distinct, rugged brand of hockey that reflected the personality of their fiery coach, John Tortorella.
Tortorella’s sharp tongue and demanding system have been replaced by the more affable, even-keel Alain Vigneault. There are no epic outbursts or profane postgame tirades.
If Vigneault is outwardly aggressive about anything, it’s his overzealous gum-chewing behind the bench.
The two coaches are more or less polar opposites, and their brands of hockey indicate as much.
The Rangers are still a successful hockey club, but in an entirely different way now. Whereas Tortorella’s clubs were a bruising, blue-collar bunch whose strict adherence to shot-blocking bordered on religious, Vigneault’s squad embraces speed and skill and opportunism.
Shorter shifts, fresher legs and less line-matching have amounted to a winning strategy for the Rangers, who have done well at rolling a balanced four lines with the best NHL record since March 28.
“Some players are capable of playing big minutes and the more minutes they play, the better they are,” Vigneault told reporters Friday. “Some of the better players, though, if you get them past a point it seems their effectiveness on the ice drops. So you as a coach has to figure out as the season goes on and as the years go on: who can play more minutes and who can’t.”
In Vigneault’s first season as head coach, the Rangers also finished the regular season as one of the top six teams in important puck possession metrics like Corsi and Fenwick (according to ExtraSkater.com) and asserted themselves as such in their series opener against the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night.
The Rangers gained a territorial edge early against the Flyers, pelting Flyers backup goaltender Ray Emery with pucks and testing his mobility post-to-post. They outshot Philadelphia by an overwhelming margin in the third -- 13-1. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time the Rangers allowed one shot or none in one period in a playoff game since May 7, 1994.
Defensively, they contained the Flyers' top line of Scott Hartnell, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek, holding the latter two players without a shot on goal, and they stifled a threatening power play that ranked first overall in the league with a road success rate of 25.2 percent.
Essentially, they controlled all facets of the game.
“There was no other thought than to keep controlling the puck and keep trying to get it behind them,” said veteran center Brad Richards, who led the way in Game 1 with a goal and two assists.
Chasing the play frustrated the Flyers; it wore them down as well.
“When you’re chasing the puck for the majority of the game, you’re going to end up losing a lot of energy,” Hartnell said on a conference call with reporters Friday.
That leaves Flyers head coach Craig Berube with his work cut out for him. Berube said Friday that he planned on making some tweaks to his game plan, possibly to his lineup as well.
But the key to Philadelphia’s success is less about minutiae or tactics, and more about will.
“We need to play better with and without the puck and that to me involves skating. We need to skate better,” Berube said.
Berube said the Rangers overloaded against the Flyers in the corners, allowing them to win countless puck battles. That doesn’t happen if the team is skating as it should.
Nor will the Flyers have to revert to the dump-and-chase approach if they can get their legs moving and activate from the back end.
“We make better plays coming out of our end and we will carry the puck in more,” Berube said. “It didn’t seem like we made very good plays coming out of our end. Our D wasn’t active on the rush. We basically had no choice but to put the puck in deep because we didn’t have numbers on the rush.”
The Rangers will likely try to execute the exact same game plan on Sunday afternoon, a strategy of which the Flyers are well aware.
Now it’s up to Philadelphia to adjust with the potential of a 2-0 series hole looming.
“We all know we can play better,” Hartnell said. “We just have to focus and get our energy back.”