For the New York Rangers, it shouldn’t take a lot of soul-searching to determine their biggest problem in the Stanley Cup Final: an inability to hang on to leads. If a two-goal lead were safe, New York would have a two-game lead in the series.
Twice now, the Rangers have taken control of the game and then given it right back, and nobody has been more culpable than the team’s top defence pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.
In Game 1, it was that duo which made the critical error on the Kings’ overtime winner. In Game 2, not only did it surrender the overtime goal, but it also made mistakes that directly caused Los Angeles’ third and fourth markers.
Let’s review those plays.
NHL.com’s replay captures the entire play leading up to the deciding goal in Game 1. Watching the video, we see Girardi whiff on his first pass attempt (causing McDonagh to jump up on the attack) and then give the puck away on his second try as he slides out of his position in front of the net:
The Game 2 plays are a little more complicated, as the Kings had possession in the offensive zone for a substantial period of time before scoring.
On the controversial third goal, the play began on a dump-in by Los Angeles forward Trevor Lewis. The vast majority of dump-ins never result in a shot on net because the defending team generally has a player close to the puck to retrieve it. In this case the Rangers did—Girardi:
The play here is obvious: Girardi (No. 5 for New York) passes the puck to McDonagh (No. 27 for New York) before Kyle Clifford (No. 13 for Los Angeles) can establish position.
Instead of that or playing the puck along the boards, Girardi flings it between McDonagh and the net as he takes the hit from Clifford. Neither McDonagh nor Martin St. Louis (No. 26 for New York) is prepared for this, and the puck streaks past them and ends up on the stick of Mike Richards (No. 10 for Los Angeles):
Fortunately for the Rangers, this isn’t fatal. St. Louis goes to the corner and breaks up the cycle between Richards and Clifford. Girardi joins him, and the Rangers have two men against just Clifford for the Kings:
The puck comes to Girardi, again under pressure by Clifford, and again he just throws the puck away in a hurry. This time it ends up on the stick of Justin Williams (No. 14 for Los Angeles):
The Rangers never regain possession. Williams took the lead in ragging the puck around the offensive zone while L.A. got some fresh forwards out on the ice, and a few seconds later, the Kings scored:
We can talk about goalie interference, or McDonagh handling Dwight King in front of the net, or the Rangers forwards covering the points, but the key defensive mistakes here were made with the puck. Twice, Girardi had possession (admittedly under pressure) and a chance to start a zone exit for the Rangers; twice, he turned it over to the Kings.
On L.A.’s fourth goal, the ugly turnover was on McDonagh rather than Girardi, and there was virtually no time between the loss of possession and the Kings scoring:
As with the third goal, the fifth started with a Kings dump-in that was mishandled by New York’s top defence pairing. McDonagh was the first man on the puck, pursued by L.A. captain Dustin Brown (No. 23):
This should have been all that happened, but McDonagh slowed as he approached the corner and simultaneously bobbled the puck. Brown took advantage of the opportunity to gain both possession and a step on the Rangers’ No. 1 defenceman:
Brown moved the puck back to Willie Mitchell at the point, and the NHL’s highlight of the goal fills in the rest:
It’s easy to highlight some plays in isolation and make a player or players look bad (although these are some pretty egregious mistakes for a series that is only two games old). That’s where statistics can be helpful, because they show the larger trend of events when a player is on the ice. In this case, the numbers confirm what we’ve looked at on video:
The Rangers are deeply in the red with their top pairing on the ice. McDonagh and Girardi have been outscored, outshot and out-Corsied in this series. They are playing tough minutes to be sure and getting the lion’s share of shifts against the Kings' top line centered by Anze Kopitar, but even so, these numbers are flat-out bad.
The simple fact is that it’s going to be awfully hard, if not impossible, for New York to win a Stanley Cup if it’s No. 1 defence pair is getting repeatedly taken out behind the woodshed by L.A.’s top line, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen two games in.
The really funny thing is that from the video, the mistakes being made here aren’t on great individual plays by Kings stars. For the most part, all we’re seeing is the Kings dumping the puck in and getting in on the forecheck. A defenceman of McDonagh’s calibre and with that much space on Brown needs to be able to get the puck away safely; ditto for Girardi facing Clifford.
The good news for the Rangers is that this really ought to be fixable.
McDonagh is a legitimate star in the league, a player who by and large excels at moving the puck. It’s not too much to expect that he can work out these wrinkles; indeed, it would be a surprise if these kinds of mistakes continued.
Girardi isn’t nearly as good a player despite the Rangers’ long-term commitment to him, but he is a 500-plus-game NHL veteran, and he has proven over his career that he’s a good enough player not to simply throw the puck away every time he sees a big fourth-liner skating toward him.
As veteran minor league coach Todd Nelson told me once, every player makes mistakes under duress, but the better a player is, the more frequently he’ll make the right play under pressure:
Girardi and especially McDonagh are good enough players not to be making these mistakes with regularity. They should be better the rest of the way.
If the Rangers are to have any chance at coming back in this series, they’ll need to be.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.