Commentary

Dynamic Pens duo giving Rangers fits

Updated: May 9, 2014, 5:22 PM ET
By Craig Custance | ESPN The Magazine

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- It started with a turnover, as so much of Pittsburgh's success did in Game 4 against the Rangers. New York defenseman Anton Stralman attempted a pass up ice that was intercepted in the neutral zone by Evgeni Malkin.

The turnover allowed Malkin to gain the offensive zone with possession and control, finding teammate Sidney Crosby across the ice. Crosby's pass back was deflected but somehow found Malkin's stick, and a 360-degree spin later the Penguins had a 1-0 lead in a critical game at Madison Square Garden.

It was just one goal, but it highlighted so many things the Rangers are struggling with as the Penguins seize this series. Neutral-zone turnovers. The speed of Malkin and Crosby. Allowing the two stars to operate in the offensive zone with too much space. Forwards who aren't coming back with enough urgency to help their defensemen. And, finally, the raw talent of two all-world players making plays like a spin-a-rama backhand to beat Henrik Lundqvist.

So far in this series, which shifts back to Pittsburgh for Friday's Game 5, the Rangers haven't had an answer for Dan Bylsma's decision to load up his top line with Crosby, Malkin and Chris Kunitz. Part of the reason is that there simply isn't one.

"Those guys are the best in the league. Right now, they're playing real strong," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said after Thursday afternoon's practice. "It makes it challenging for our whole group to try and contain them. I don't think you can stop players like that; they're going to get some looks, they're going to get some chances, and they definitely are."

In Game 4, Crosby, Malkin and Kunitz dominated possession. When Crosby was on the ice at even strength, 79.4 percent of the shot attempts were controlled by the Penguins, and Malkin (78.4 percent) and Kunitz (76.9 percent) weren't far behind, according to ExtraSkater.com. When you get that much zone time, good things are going to happen -- typically a puck ending up in the back of the net.

But looking at the goals Crosby and Malkin scored in New York, there's at least hope for the Rangers that they're correctable. On his goal, Crosby somehow got behind everyone on the Rangers before receiving a stretch pass from Robert Bortuzzo to score on a breakaway in Game 3. That's easy enough to solve. Malkin's goal doesn't happen if there isn't an ugly giveaway to set off that chain of events.

So, the message coming from the Rangers after their Thursday practice was that their errors can be fixed and they fully intend on doing that in Pittsburgh.

"We didn't throw the kitchen sink at them," Rangers forward Brad Richards said. "We know what we did wrong pretty much all over the ice. Easily fixed on our part."

As a team, the Rangers' goal is to cut down on the errors that led to Pittsburgh's scoring chances. Then it comes to making adjustments on Crosby and Malkin when they do try to gain the offensive zone. Part of the challenge is the different looks they're giving the Rangers in this series.

"Throughout the game, they'll make adjustments," defenseman Ryan McDonagh told ESPN The Magazine. "Sometimes they'll bring everybody back and Malkin and Crosby will swing real low, so it's hard as a defenseman to try and get your gap. Other times, they try to sneak behind you and post up and spread you back that way."

The solution?


"Collectively, as a unit of five, we have to make a good read on if they're going back. Try to move everybody up a little bit, stay in their face, so they don't make the little passes in their own zone with them kind of winding it up," McDonagh said. "They have good chemistry playing together for quite some time. They realize when to slow it down, bring it back, or try and catch us sleeping with a long stretch pass."

McDonagh, who appears to be playing hurt, is correct in that the job of slowing down Crosby's line can't fall completely on the shoulders of just the defensemen. It's going to take improved play from all five skaters on the ice. That said, his coach made it clear that the Rangers expect more out of McDonagh if they want to climb back into this series.

"Ryan hasn't had, he'd be the first to say, a playoffs to his expectations and to ours," Vigneault said. "He has an opportunity [Friday] to change that. Obviously, he hasn't played very well."

The Rangers have been physical with Crosby in this series at times, with the Penguins noticing Marc Staal's crosschecks to his head. With the desperation growing, that physical play is only going to intensify. Especially in front of Lundqvist.

"You have to make that place hard to come around," Staal told ESPN The Magazine. "Make them think twice before they come near the crease. It's not going to be any free ice. Try to do as much as you can, legally. You want to get in [Crosby's] face, try to frustrate him. Try to get under his skin if you can. That's the biggest thing."

The other big thing is preventing Crosby from entering the zone with speed. That means fewer turnovers and tightening up the defense in the neutral zone. Crosby and Malkin are going to make great individual plays on their own, the Rangers can't afford to do anything to assist them moving forward.

"You have to make them get the puck out of their hands," Staal said. "You have to make [Crosby] dump it. You have to make him go get it. If you don't do that, he's going to make plays. It's two of the best players in the world on one line. When they're going, they're tough to handle."

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