By Sean Hartnett
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Facing an 0-2 deficit, the Rangers and, more specifically, head coach Alain Vigneault have a lot of questions to answer after they allowed the persistent Ottawa Senators to creep back in and pull off a double-overtime victory on Saturday.
The Rangers seemed to be in complete control after seizing the momentum during a second period in which they outshot the Sens 19-10. The Blueshirts entered the intermission ahead 4-2 and looked like a confident group that was ready to do whatever it would have taken to return to Madison Square Garden with the series tied.
What ended up happening was a total loss of composure by an experienced group that knows how to close out hard-fought games in the playoffs.
It’s unacceptable to give away a two-goal lead over the final 3:19 of any third period, let alone in the playoffs, yet the Rangers somehow did in an eventual 6-5 double-overtime defeat that will bother the red, white and blue faithful forever if this team doesn’t get its act in gear quick.
Getting specific, big questions need to be asked about Vigneault’s late-game deployments. He opted to pin his best-performing defensive pair of Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith to the bench for the final five minutes of regulation.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Rangers fans have been through this before. Vigneault made the same mistake in Game 2 of the Montreal series. He left Skjei and Smith on the bench for the final 2:30 of regulation, and the Canadiens went on to tie and eventually win the game in overtime.
It’s very hard to understand why Skjei was held to 22:18 of ice time on Saturday. He did everything possible on both ends to deserve a promotion rather than a continued relegation to third-pairing minutes and critical-situation benchings. Skjei finished the game with two goals, four shots on goal, two hits and two blocked shots.
Skjei, 23, became the first Rangers defenseman to record at least two goals in a playoff game since Brian Leetch netted a hat trick in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers back in 1995. Skjei leads the Rangers with four playoff goals, and is tied for third overall in the playoffs.
Yet Skjei remains low in the pecking order. Captain Ryan McDonagh (34:23), Dan Girardi (29:35), Nick Holden (28:11) and Marc Staal (26:24) saw more ice than Skjei, and Smith was the low-man at 20:44.
The Staal-Holden pairing has struggled with coverage and Holden made some awfully bad pinches on Saturday, especially on the game-winning goal. It’s confusing why Vigneault persists with this possession-deficient pairing. Staal and Holden spent the majority of their Game 2 shifts struggling to escape the defensive zone.
Vigneault opted to roll three lines in overtime and double overtime. Fourth liners Oscar Lindberg and Pavel Buchnevich were each held to less than six minutes of ice time. Every hockey coach speaks of the importance of rolling four lines in the playoffs, but Vigneault opted to trim his lineup as Saturday’s game wore on.
J.T. Miller and Jimmy Vesey were benched for long spells as Vigneault piled minutes on his top two forward lines. Lindberg finished Game 2 with a team-low 5:07 of ice time, yet he looked effective and energized during nearly every shift he took. Buchnevich made some glaring defensive miscues. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Vigneault turn to physical winger Tanner Glass in Game 3.
You’re seeing a Rangers team that continues to repeat the same correctable mistakes. The penalty parade in Game 2 was a carbon copy of the series opener, as was the Blueshirts’ costly puck management gaffes.
The Rangers — and especially their head coach — need to adapt. How many more times will Vigneault roll out the Staal-Holden pairing in crucial junctures and get burned before he makes a change?
It comes down to identifying your best-performing players. Skjei and Smith have been just that and deserve the lion’s share of minutes.
It’s time to take the training wheels off, Alain. Skjei needs to be unleashed.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey