By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has shown himself to be a bench boss who is doubling down on veteran experience over the promise of youth. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who have followed the Blueshirts closely over the years. It’s been his go-to tactic come playoff time.
During the Rangers’ 2014 Eastern Conference championship season, Vigneault used Brad Richards for a team-leading 4:39 postseason power play TOI per game despite the veteran center only contributing five power play points. The Rangers’ power play went 2-for-22 in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final, but Richards continued to receive the most power play TOI in each game of the series until Game 5. By then it was too little, too late. The Rangers were eliminated in five games by the Los Angeles Kings, and Richards was bought out by the club in the offseason.
A year later, 2014 playoff hero Martin St. Louis ran into a prolonged slump at the end of the 2014-15 season that carried into the 2015 playoffs. St. Louis contributed one playoff goal in 19 games and finished the postseason with a 3.1 shooting percentage. It took a multigoal game by Jesper Fast in Eastern Conference Finals Game 3 for Vigneault to trim St. Louis’ minutes. Vigneault promoted Fast to 18-plus minute workloads in the final two series games, but the Rangers were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven contests. Fast would finish the playoffs with a 14.3 shooting percentage, and St. Louis retired at age 40 after a decorated career.
The NHL is trending in a direction, where youth and speed is winning over grizzled veteran experience. It worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lifted the 2016 Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh offered prominent roles to youngsters Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and most notably defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who was trusted with 21:31 TOI/GP last playoffs at age 24. Last year, the Penguins eliminated the Rangers in five first-round games because of their four-line speed, their quickness on the breakout and in transition and relentless pressure. The Rangers couldn’t handle it. Neither could the Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks.
This playoffs, Rangers fans are asking: How many times can a coach continue to be burned by his late-game decisions before he sees the light? Vigneault has benched rookie defenseman Brady Skjei at crunch time twice this series in games 2 and 5, allowing the Ottawa Senators to storm back from behind to force overtime and win both games. Skjei was benched for the final 5:04 of the third period in Game 5 on Saturday.
It was the same tactic that saw the Rangers lose Game 2 of the Montreal series in overtime. The Blueshirts were able to send the Canadiens packing in Round 1, but now they have their backs against the wall this time, trailing the Sens 3-2.
Skjei is having a monster of a series. He’s making all the right plays in the defensive end, leading the rush and generating offense. The 23-year-old is tied for the NHL playoff lead among defensemen with four goals and has recorded three points in the last four games, as well as five points in the last nine contests. Shouldn’t he be getting the Dumolin treatment – aka a reward for his fine play?
Instead, Skjei finished Game 5 as the low man in defensive minutes at 19:02 TOI. Marc Staal and Brendan Smith were on the ice when former Ranger Derick Brassard tied Game 5 with 1:26 remaining in regulation. Captain Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi were deployed when Kyle Turris notched the overtime winner.
Staal and Girardi’s legs have slowed with age and the amount of punishment absorbed by their bodies over the years. At ages 30 and 33, respectively, the veteran duo continues to be counted on by Vigneault at the most crucial of late-game situations, and the 55-year-old coach isn’t backing down from his belief in two players who have logged 224 combined playoff appearances.
“These guys have seen it before, and in the past, a lot of times they have responded real well,” Vigneault said when he was asked specifically about Staal and Girardi. “I put a lot of faith and trust in how they’re going to play in those pressure situations. That’s it. (I’ve) got a lot of faith in these guys’ abilities to get it done.”
Yet, statistics tell a different story. The Rangers’ goals against per 60 minutes is 1.89 when either Staal, Girardi or both are off the ice. That figure swells to 3.91 when Staal, Girardi or both are on the ice. (Stick tap to Ryan Lambert of Yahoo for these statistics.)
“Experience is good, but it’s only good if you’re playing well,” Vigneault said. “For whatever reason, we had quite a few that had an average (Game 5). It was not an appropriate time. There’s nothing we can do about it. What we can do is get ready for Tuesday’s game and make sure we have a real strong game.”
Vigneault is not backing down from his beliefs no matter the amount of fan outcry or valid points brought up by the media. He’s become the stubborn baseball manager who brings in his lefty specialist in late-game situations to face the lefty batter no matter what statistics or past experiences are telling him. The Senators are the muscular .350 left-handed hitter who is feasting off lefty arms, damaging the Rangers in clutch situations and looking to knock the Blueshirts out of the park.
It’s time to summon the “Skjei Hey Kid” to close out games.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey