NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have been getting the top defensive assignments for the New York Rangers for years.
In the opening round of the playoffs, they were asked to shut down Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals came in the second round.
In the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they have drawn “The Triplets,” instead of the more well-known line featuring star Steven Stamkos.
Scratching your head? Don’t. The line of Tyler Johnson, 24, centering Nikita Kucherov, 21, and Ondrej Palat, 24 has combined for 18 of the Lightning’s 35 postseason goals, and Palat had the Bolts’ only score on a power play in a 2-1 loss in Game 1 on Saturday.
“They’ve been their best line so far,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said Sunday, a day before the teams returned to Madison Square Garden for Game 2 on Monday night.
“Not to say that the Stamkos line is not a big threat also, but throughout their first series, Johnson’s line has been the more effective. So for that game last night we decided to go that way. Doesn’t mean we’re going to go that way tomorrow.”
Don’t expect a change. McDonagh and Girardi have been very good. They limited Crosby and Malkin to two goals — both by Crosby — and held Ovechkin and Backstrom to three goals in seven games — all by Ovechkin. Joel Ward was playing on that line in Game 1 when he tallied a late winner.
The other reason not to change is that Marc Staal and Dan Boyle were outstanding against Stamkos, Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn, limiting them to six shots, one by Stamkos.
Johnson was impressed playing against McDonagh and Girardi on Saturday.
“They can move, they can skate,” said Johnson, whose eight postseason goals lead the NHL. “It is always tough when you are playing against defenseman that can skate. They make smart plays and they are going to be a good matchup for us.”
McDonagh said the kids are quick.
“We got hemmed in our zone a couple of times,” the Rangers captain said. “We understand that they have some ability on the rush, that’s a big strength. With these guys too, their cycle game, their third guy gets lost up high, so we had a couple of looks where we got spread away from our net.
“We have to key on the high side guy so he can’t get off a good shot. They have great chemistry, too. They don’t need to see where a player is, they can throw it to an area and know he is going to be there.”
It’s the same with McDonagh and Girardi on defense. They communicate well, and they know instinctively when they can either jump into a play, or swarm and create a loose puck or when they need to back off and reset.
“Things happen quick out there and you have to trust your instincts and your structure,” McDonagh said Sunday. “It helps having good communication with your forward lines, too.”
Former Rangers and current Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman played the past three seasons in New York before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent. He was a top-four defenseman and got to watch McDonagh and Girardi do their thing.
“I think the key for them is they are usually go in with a really strong mentality, a lot of grit and determination to defense at whatever cost,” Stralman said.
“I think that is what makes them so successful. They block shots, they do whatever it takes for the team to win. They basically put it on the line every night.”
Lightning coach Jon Copper said his team has to control the puck better in Game 2.
“If you’re going to go into zones and be one and done like we were last night, we have no chance,” he said. “So we have to possess the puck more. It’s been a big part of the reason why we’re here, and if we’re not going to do that, it’s going to be a long night, short series.”
They also have to figure out a way to get the puck past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
“You want to take advantage of playing at home,” Lundqvist said. “But I see it also as just one game. Let’s get that one win (Monday). I don’t want to look at the whole series, or how this win sets up the series.”
NOTES: After missing the opener with an unspecified injury, Lightning C Brian Boyle did not practice Sunday. His status for Game 2 is uncertain. … Rangers LW Tanner Glass took a maintenance day on Sunday, but Vigneault expects him to play Monday night. … Rangers LW Martin St. Louis has not scored a goal in 13 playoff games this season. When someone mentioned that Dominic Moore scored the game winner off his shin guard in Game 1, St Louis said: “Maybe I should leave the stick on the bench and wear four shin guards.” … Both teams practiced at MSG Sunday and both teams allowed opposing coaches to watch each other’s workouts.
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