New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault might want to shoot off a thank you email to someone at the NHL for scheduling two off days between Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Vigneault and his coaching staff need as much time as possible to prepare for the Penguins now that they have center Evgeni Malkin healthy and in the lineup, and have proven that they're unafraid to put him on the same line with fellow center Sidney Crosby.
Crosby and Malkin played together in 5-on-5 situations for 11 shifts totaling 6:48 of ice time in Game 2 on Saturday, according to war-on-ice.com. They also played together for one 4-on-4 shift and each of Pittsburgh's five power plays.
The Rangers won 4-2 to even the best-of-7 series at 1-1, but Vigneault admitted it was a challenge to adjust to the line juggling Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was doing with Malkin in the lineup for the first time since he sustained an upper-body injury on March 11.
Video: Lundqvist, offense shine as Rangers even series at 1
Game 3 is Tuesday at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m. ET; USA, SN, TVA Sports, MSG, ROOT).
"For us, their lines had been pretty consistent prior to Malkin coming back; each player had a specific role so it was probably easier for us to prepare," Vigneault said. "Even though they had a lot of success the way they were, it was a little easier for us. Now with all the different line combinations that we're seeing it makes it real challenging for us, because of players playing different roles, to prepare accordingly. It makes for a lot more work for us coaches at this time and then passing that information on to our players."
The biggest challenge is the most obvious; the Rangers have to prepare to counter the Penguins' usage of Malkin and Crosby on the same line without defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi available to them for Game 3.
McDonagh (right hand) and Girardi (undisclosed) are day-to-day, but they're not expected to practice Monday and it's unlikely either will play Tuesday.
In the past, McDonagh and Girardi were the Rangers' shutdown pair against Crosby and/or Malkin. In Game 2, the task fell to Kevin Klein and Marc Staal, who did well considering Malkin and Crosby weren't major factors at even strength, nor did the Penguins score an even-strength goal.
Holding them down again is a daunting challenge even if the Rangers can theoretically get the matchups they want after stoppages with the last-change advantage that comes with being the home team.
"I mean, you've got two of the best players in the world," Vigneault said. "They're tough when they're not playing on the same line. When they're playing on the same line, you can just imagine the challenge that makes for our players."
Vigneault said the Rangers expect to have defenseman Raphael Diaz in practice Monday now that the Hartford Wolf Pack have been eliminated from contention to make the Calder Cup Playoffs in the American Hockey League.
Diaz, a veteran who has played in 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games, spent the entire season in Hartford. Vigneault didn't rule out using him in Game 3 if he wanted to have a more attack-oriented lineup, but he also seemed to like what physical defenseman Dylan McIlrath brought to the lineup Saturday in a minimal role.
McIlrath had a strong first period, playing seven shifts totaling 4:41 with four shot attempts. He played 10 shifts totaling 4:26 the rest of the game, but the Rangers were protecting a lead and seeing a lot of Crosby and Malkin in the third period.
"I thought Dylan played alright," Vigneault said. "Both him and Brady [Skjei] are being thrown on a big stage and there's a lot on the line. I thought they responded well. Both young men gave us some important minutes, and hopefully as they continue to play they'll get better also."