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Hartnett: Rangers’ Defensive Stalwarts Made Life Difficult For Crosby In Game 1

Crosby Finished Game 1 Without A Point And Was A Minus-Three
Marc Staal (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Marc Staal (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

The Rangers were rewarded for their urgency in overtime, when Derick Brassard notched the Game 1 winner at 3:13 into the extra period. Linemate Benoit Pouliot set up Brassard with a perfect feed and Brassard rang the puck off the post and into the net – giving the Blueshirts a 1-0 series advantage over the Penguins.

Pouliot had an excellent showing in Game 1 with a one goal, one assist performance.

It was certainly a big-impact night for Pouliot, but the biggest takeaway from Game 1 was how defensemen Marc Staal, Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi shut down Pens’ superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

ROUGH NIGHT FOR CROSBY

Crosby finished the opening game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals without a point and was a minus-three. Throughout the game, Crosby had little space to operate as Staal, Stralman, McDonagh and Girardi smothered him at every turn.

Staal expertly used his long reach to disrupt Crosby. He and Stralman did an outstanding job of taking away space from Crosby as they were often matched up against the Penguins’ captain.

Girardi contributed in all areas. He finished the game with two assists, three hits, four blocked shots and was a plus-one.  Girardi always leaves it all on the ice due to his willingness to sacrifice his body.

In spite of Girardi’s contributions, Pouliot’s excellence and Brassard’s game-winner, it was Staal who had the biggest impact in Game 1. Staal led all Rangers’ skaters with a lung-busting 26:03 in total ice time, both he and Stralman led the Rangers with 4:41 spent on the penalty kill as the Penguins finished the game 0 for 4 on the power play.

VIGNEAULT ON STAAL: ‘HE’S GOT ONE OF THE BEST STICKS IN THE LEAGUE’

Following Game 1, Rangers’ head coach Alain Vigneault heaped praise on the Staal-Stralman pairing.

“In Marc’s case, he’s got one of the best sticks in the league as far as taking space and time away and putting stick on puck,” Vigneault said. “He did a good job of gapping up against a player that if you give him any space and time, you’re going to be in trouble. Him and (Stralman) have found a way to compliment one other real well defensively in getting the puck out of our end. We’ve got two pretty good duos that we’re not afraid to match up against any line, so it makes it easier on the road to get the matchups you are looking for.”

BIRTHDAY GOAL FOR ‘BROADWAY BRAD’

Alternate captain Brad Richards turned 34 on Friday and marked the occasion by scoring in the Rangers’ 3-2 victory. Richards won a defensive zone face-off following a controversial offsides call that went against the Pens. Carl Hagelin chased down a loose puck in the offensive zone, beating Olli Maatta in the corner. He then shoveled a pass to Richards in the low-slot, as Richards patiently changed from backhand to forehand before beating Marc-Andre Fleury with a wrister.

Richards has enjoyed a strong playoff campaign after being relegated to press box during the final games of last year’s disappointing playoff run under former head coach John Tortorella. The veteran center has scored three goals and notched four assists for seven points through eight playoff games in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs and has become the go-to guy in the locker room.

The 34-year-old Richards has spoken with a confidence and belief that has swept through the Rangers’ locker room, he has acted the part as this team’s foremost leader on and off of the ice. Around this time last year, Richards was consumed by the uncertainty over his future with the Rangers and a damaged relationship with Tortorella. This time around, Vigneault has given Richards the space to be comfortable and figure things out on his own. Richards gone from openly questioning himself to playing the game and leading naturally. What a difference a year makes – and what a difference Vigneault makes.

RANGERS’ POWER PLAY STUCK IN AN 0 FOR 25 SLUMP

In Game 1, the Rangers’ power play did not show any signs of improvement. The Blueshirts went 0 for 4 with the man advantage, taking their power play slump to a dreadful 0 for their last 25.

Both power play units are struggling to generate the movement needed to pull defenders out of shooting lanes to gain opportunities to outnumber opponents in the low-slot.

Assistant coach Scott Arniel needs to simplify his power play if the personnel continues to struggle executing his 1-3-1 strategy. Judging by on-ice evidence, a simplification might remedy the Rangers’ power play woes. Nothing is coming naturally for the Blueshirts on the power play. They’re passing on clear chances to shoot the puck, instead trying to force the perfect play. Perhaps, it’s time that Anton Stralman and Marc Staal are inserted into power play situations.

All this team needs to do is generate consistent pressure on Fleury. If they can get pucks to the net and generate traffic, the rebound-prone Fleury will crumble under the pressure.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.