NEW YORK — The chess match between Alain Vigneault and Jon Cooper began in earnest Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden when each coach submitted his starting lineup before the New York Rangers' Game 1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
Cooper declared first as the visiting team, sending out his dynamic trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. They have produced at prodigious levels for the Tampa Bay Lightning throughout the postseason despite their classification as a second line, so it was hardly a surprising move.
Then Vigneault got a little tricky.
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, the Rangers’ unquestioned top pairing that draws all the tough assignments, were on the ice for the U.S. anthem.
When Cooper went back to the Johnson line for the third shift of the game, McDonagh and Girardi were there again.
Vigneault decided that the biggest problem the Lightning posed was this threesome, not the one anchored by Steven Stamkos, one of the NHL’s deadliest scorers, who had 43 goals in the regular season and seven points in five games in the second round.
Dominic Moore's goal with two minutes, 25 seconds remaining that won the game will draw most of the attention, but the slight change to standard hockey strategy by Vigneault was the big reason the Rangers kept the Lightning off the scoreboard at five-on-five in an otherwise standard 2-1 victory, the seventh time the Rangers have won by that score in this postseason.
It was Marc Staal and the maligned Dan Boyle who had the job of silencing Stamkos, and that they did: Stamkos had just one shot on goal and a mere two attempts while playing on a line with Alex Killorn and Valtteri Filppula.
“It goes back to watching how they played in those series,” Vigneault said. “There will be adjustments on both sides as the series moves on here. But I felt going into today that that would be a good matchup.”
The numbers back that up: Stamkos (42.4), Killorn (35.9) and Filppula (35.9) had their ears boxed in even-strength shot-attempt percentage, according to Natural Stat Trick. And it was mostly Staal (54.1) and Boyle (60.6) doing the boxing.
There was a time in New York when Staal was the unquestioned No. 1 defenseman on the Rangers. He partnered with Girardi for years before a concussion kept Staal out of the lineup long enough for McDonagh to arrive on the scene and seize control of that position during the 2011-12 season.
This time, though, it’s Staal whom Vigneault has asked to shut down Stamkos.
“They have two such skilled lines, so you have to pick your poison there,” said Staal, who led all Rangers with 22:14 of ice time in Game 1. “I had a lot of shifts against him today. I thought, as a team, our backcheck was outstanding. It stifles him and doesn’t give him time to make plays. It makes the defense’s job a lot easier.”
Each of Tampa’s top two lines—the only ones that were truly dangerous Saturday—present unique problems. The Johnson line has quickness across the board and can be tough to control on counterattacks. The Stamkos line (which Filppula centered) has its share of speed but is built to cause havoc in front of the net.
Traditional thinking would say McDonagh and Girardi are better built for that type of game, but Staal showed he and Boyle can excel in the trenches, too.
“There’s definitely a different feel from line to line,” Staal said. “You have to be strong in front of our net. Killorn can get there and move some people around to create some space for Stamkos. A big part of their success in scoring goals is creating havoc in front of our net.”
The other side of the coin is that McDonagh and Girardi, while they kept the Johnson line off the scoreboard, had their problems at five-on-five.
Kucherov and Johnson each drew minor penalties against the Rangers, one coming against McDonagh in the neutral zone for high sticking. It led to Palat’s power-play goal, set up by Johnson, that drew the Lightning into a 1-1 tie in the third period. Johnson and Kucherov were at 50 percent in the shot-attempt battle, with Palat at 45.2 percent. That is pretty good for the Lightning, which were barely above 40 percent for the game.
It was just about a stalemate between Johnson’s line and the McDonagh-Girardi pairing, which is something the Rangers will take in a heartbeat as long as they are smothering Stamkos.
“I thought the Johnson line was the best line on the ice,” Cooper said. “They didn’t score five-on-five, but they got the big power-play goal for us. They got us back into it. I thought it’s good to match [McDonagh and Girardi] against them. That’s what [Vigneault] chose. And I guess they didn’t score five-on-five.
“So in their book, they probably did a good job. But I thought they were buzzing. They buzz like that, and they’re going to score some goals.”
They buzzed for 17 goals in 13 games over the first two rounds, making it impossible for Vigneault to treat them as anything other than the No. 1 threat Tampa had to offer in Game 1.
That leaves it on Stamkos to produce against Staal and Boyle. It's a somewhat dangerous ploy, but it worked to near perfection for the Rangers.
"They have home ice," Stamkos said. "They make that decision. We'll play whoever is out there."
All statistics via NHL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.