By Sean Hartnett
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Alain Vigneault is like the reliable fisherman out at sea who comes back home every day to his family with a good haul.
His Rangers family feels secure knowing he’s going to consistently be one of the most successful anglers on the ocean. He has tried-and-true methods that he employs time after time and largely gets results — but he’s never reeled in that career-defining trophy catch.
On Friday night in Montreal, Vigneault stuck to his principles by going into a defensive shell and got burned for it, as his team eventually relented and lost 4-3 in overtime to the desperate Canadiens.
With a one-goal lead and 10 minutes remaining in the third period of Game 2, the Rangers invited constant pressure and defended for their lives. They were pinned in their own end, outshot 18-9 and out-attempted 33-12 across the final 20 minutes of regulation by the Canadiens. Only once did the Rangers take a third-period faceoff in the offensive zone, compared to the 15 draws the Habs took in the Blueshirts’ end.
Thomas Plekanec scored the overtime-forcing goal with 17.3 seconds left in regulation. Vigneault made the questionable decision to send out struggling defense pair Nick Holden and Marc Staal with a minute left in the third, while the best-performing duo of the night, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith, did not see the ice for the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation. If Holden doesn’t break his stick trying to slash the stick out of Plekanec’s hand, the Rangers exit Bell Centre with a 2-0 series lead.
It was much of the same in overtime, as the Rangers defended and defended … and defended. The Canadiens eventually evened the series on Alexander Radulov’s winner late in the extra period.
There’s something that separates Bill Belichick from Dan Reeves and Red Auerbach from Jerry Sloan. At some point the history books will record Vigneault as either a safe pair of hands who guided the Vancouver Canucks and Rangers to Stanley Cup Final appearances and fell short, or the man who took the Rangers to the next level and lifted hockey’s ultimate prize.
Vigneault has been given the league’s generational goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, an all-around franchise defenseman in Ryan McDonagh, as well as two wingers who dominate all three zones in Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. He’s got a heck of a young core to work with in Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Mika Zibanejad and Skjei.
In addition, the front office has supplied Vigneault with the trade deadline pieces needed to help push this team over the top. The Rangers went all-in at the 2014 deadline in his first season in New York by acquiring Martin St. Louis, whose experience and immeasurable heart helped guide the Blueshirts to the Final. A year later, offense-generating Keith Yandle was acquired as a game-changing piece to their blue line. This spring, general manager Jeff Gorton parted with a third-round pick in 2017 and a second-round pick in 2018 to land reliable defender Brendan Smith from the Detroit Red Wings.
Here’s where things get a little dicey with Vigneault. He was given Yandle and largely wasted his talents on the third pairing and second power-play unit. Now, he’s relegating Smith — and for that matter the second-best defenseman on this team in Skjei — to the third pair.
Vigneault needs to tweak how he evaluates his defensemen and rethink the value of going to the shell early to protect third-period leads. Having Holden on the ice during crunch time after he had been mistake-prone for most of the first tow games is something that can’t continue.
There’s a problem with trust. Too much of it is a bad thing.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey