Henrik Lundqvist was able to put his team on his back in the last two games of the first round series against Washington successfully, as while the Capitals put pressure on the Vezina Trophy finalist, the goaltender's terrific play late in the series was enough to get New York to the second round.
However, facing a Bruins team with more speed and putting on more pressure in tight than Washington, the Rangers had their backs against the wall Tuesday night in Game 3 against Boston, the bend-but-don't-break strategy finally broke in a 2-1 loss.
Taylor Pyatt's goal put New York ahead 3:53 into the second period, and with the 1-0 lead, the Rangers' attack quickly became more passive,putting just 9 more shots on Tuukka Rask the remainder of the night. Although Lundqvist was able to weather a 14-shot Bruins attack in the second period with Boston getting some good scoring looks, the Rangers and Lundqvist finally yielded to the pressure, allowing two goals in the third to put New York in a 3-0 series deficit.
Tuesday's setback was the first time in 18 games this season - 16 in the regular season, two in the playoffs - that the Rangers had a second-period lead and lost, and also the first time in exactly two months New York had lost on home ice, snapping a nine-game win streak at Madison Square Garden.
Sitting back and playing with the lead is part of the strategy used under coach John Tortorella, who certainly will be facing some big questionsbarring an historic comeback in this series. Despite upgrading offensively in the summer and acquiring Rick Nash from Columbus in the offseason to bolster what was a sputtering offense, Tortorella's style didn't change with the lineup and the Rangers are still employing the same shot-blocking and defensive-minded strategy the team used the year before.
Lundqvist is a big reason Tortorella still uses the strategy, as he is quite capable of locking down a lead and holding down the fort even when there's little pressure from New York other than the opportunistic style the Rangers employ.
Of course, though, having a stellar netminder also would allow New York to open up the flow of the game with his talent and give the team the flexibility to open it up on an opponent and force a team to match the Rangers' talented forward corps. Sitting back limits what high-priced playerssuch as Nash and Brad Richards can do, and as a result, they have been nearly invisible in the team's playoff run this spring.
The Rangers' strategy is one that keeps them close the edge, as one goal or bad break can flip a series. After the Bruins broke through Lundqvist 3:10 into the third, the Rangers even got a huge break late in the third when a flipping puck that drifted above Lundqvist actually hit the goal line and bounced out. However, Daniel Paille was able to knock the puck in on the scramble for the game-winning goal, and one that likely spells another offseason of questions for a team that came into the playoffs with Stanley Cup expectations.
Against a team able to skate like Boston - and having Zdeno Chara to limit what chances the Rangers get with their limited offensive push - and with a more mobile defense than the Capitals put forth, the Rangers aren't getting the opportunistic chances they did in the first round. The Rangers are having more difficulty slowing down the Bruins' attack as well, and as Game 3 progressed, the ice became more tilted Boston's way.
After Lundqvist turned in his best performance in the series after two sub-par games in Boston, the Bruins didn't alllow the Rangers to grab momentum with pressure in the final frame, and likely delivered the decisive win of the series.
While it is true the 2010 Bruins are one of three teams to yield a 3-0 series lead, along with the 1942 Red Wings and 1975 Penguins, this Rangers team doesn't seem to be a candidate to become the fourth. The passive style certainly allows New York to weather some pressure, but the Bruinsare more vulnerable to a team that displays an aggressive attack, creating enough chances and pressuring an injury-depleted defensive corps. But New York isn't playing that style, and as a result, they're one loss from elimination.
The Rangers played their best hockey of the season when they pushed the tempo and played a more aggressive style, and that's how they played down the stretch to secure a playoff berth. Even in the first round, they were at their best attacking Washington, pressuring the Capitals' defense and Braden Holtby, and were able to advance. But in this series, the Rangers have tried to go back to the old formula, and between Lundqvist and a sputtering offense, and it has them on the brink.
Tororella's failure to adapt his style to his improved personnel is one of the reasons New York's facing elimination, as Boston is simply too fast and skilled to allow for a lot of opportunistic goals. And, the attack has been able to wear down the Rangers defense already feeling the wear of facing two talented clubs as well as their netminder.
The Rangers look to try and start a historic comeback Thursday night against Boston in Game 4, but the series may expose the flaw in strategy that has a talented New York club one loss away from a long offseason.