The New York Rangers have played solid hockey over the last few weeks, and they are in a position where they are a strong favorite to make the playoffs. Playoff hockey is drastically different than the game played during the regular season, particularly because the stakes are that much higher in April, May and June.
The Blueshirts have had success this year because they have found chemistry with different groupings of players, and that is a strategy that bodes well for the regular season. However, Alain Vigneault decided to change things up when the Rangers skated on Saturday in preparation of Sunday's game against the Edmonton Oilers.
Via Andrew Gross, here are the lines:
#NYR "75 percent" lines: Carcillo-Stepan-Nash Hagelin-Richards-St. Louis Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello Boyle-Dominic Moore-Dorsett— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) March 29, 2014
As you can see, there are some familiar faces in new places, so could this line tinkering be a strategy for the playoffs?
In the playoffs, top defense pairings usually are tasked with shutting down an opponent's top line or top forward duo. This strategy is more useful when a team has a strong defense corps, and in the past, there have been occasions where the nullification of a top forward has spelled doom for a team.
What should Alain Vigneault be doing with his lines at this point?
The Bruins also had tons of depth, and there was always someone who could step in, so that helped motivate each player so they could keep their spot in the lineup. Right now the Blueshirts don't have a tremendous amount of depth, but it appears that Vigneault wants to get creative.
AV may be just trying things out, but tinkering with his lines makes sense. Think about it: If the Rangers went into the playoffs with established line pairings, what would happen if they got shut down? Odds are that Vigneault would try a different pairing of lines to try to spark the team.
If Nash were held to zero goals through the first couple of games, the Rangers would likely put someone in his place without disrupting the integrity of the lineup. The sudden switch could help the top line, but it could disrupt the success of other lines.
In the playoffs, time isn't a luxury, and tinkering with lines can cost you a game before things get worked out. This year, the Rangers have had success with the pairing of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot.
This line has remained together for most of the season. The same can be said about the duo of Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. Chris Kreider was a contributor on the line, but he is out indefinitely.
While these lines could go on to have success in the playoffs, wouldn't it be better if Vigneault found out that a combination of Nash, Brassard and Zuccarello worked, and a trio of Pouliot, Stepan and St. Louis could get the job done?
Certainly having more line combinations at his disposal makes sense, but Vigneault needs to find a happy medium. It makes sense to try things out now, but what if these machinations impact the Blueshirts' ability to clinch a playoff spot sooner rather than later?
Given the Rangers' current position, it is fair to say that they have some time to experiment, but if they go on a losing streak, it makes sense to go back to what was already working. Vigneault's newest creations appear to be a balance between normalcy and creativity, and there were two things that stuck out in particular.
Having Carcillo on the top line is certainly interesting, and he brings grit, an element that is very important during the playoffs.
However, Vigneault has been tinkering with Martin St. Louis, because the potential Hall of Fame forward has not executed since joining the Rangers. Vigneault tried him out with Nash and Stepan and left wing, but the Rangers' bench boss decided to put him to the right of Brad Richards, and the opposite wing of Carl Hagelin.
This line was given a chance once St. Louis was acquired, but he didn't stay on the line for an extended time period. Vigneault is trying to find a spot where St. Louis can contribute, something that the potential Hall of Famer realizes he needs to do.
Via Andrew Gross of The Record:
I’m trying to find my game. haven’t gone through this in a long time so it’s a little bit of unchartered territory, meaning I haven’t experienced that type of adversity in a long time. The good thing is the team’s winning (8-4-1 with him in the lineup). That’s always the most important so you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. That’s easier said than done. I’m a hungry guy. I’m a guy that maybe overthinks it and can be consumed by it.
The only line that remained together was the Blueshirts' fourth line, and that makes sense. The grouping of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett has been amazing the past few games, and it has provided offense and defense in spades.
Ultimately, Vigneault will likely start the playoffs with groupings that have a history of success, but he deserves credit for his attempts at tinkering. It is never a bad thing to have players who can play with anyone, because the playoffs are unpredictable.
If the Rangers can clinch a playoff spot before the end of the regular season, don't be surprised to see Vigneault tinker some more in order to prepare his team for the unpredictability that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.