Game 4 on Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Penguins was a rough one for the New York Rangers, who lost 4-2 and fell behind 3-1 in their best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round series.
The Rangers' effort level that night wasn't where it should have been, given the fact that it was a huge game on home ice at Madison Square Garden. I thought the Rangers were pretty listless. They didn't have it, but you've also got to give credit to Pittsburgh's defense, which has suddenly turned into the strongest part of an already-strong team.
That's the best defensive game I've seen the Penguins play in a while, and they did it playing five defensemen after Brooks Orpik was lost to injury.
People aren't talking enough about Pittsburgh's defense. The Penguins are known for star forwards such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, but their defense has been a force. Paul Martin has been great and Matt Niskanen has had an amazing year. He's about to become an unrestricted free agent, and the way he's playing he should be seeing dollar signs after every game.
Kris Letang is defying the laws of health right now. He has come back from a stroke and is playing even better than he was prior to having that unfortunate incident. He looks great. Robert Bortuzzo has played well and made a great stretch pass on Crosby's game-winner in Game 3. Remember that stretch play, we'll get back to that later.
Martin is the model for Pittsburgh's underrated defense. To me, he looks the way he did when he played in New Jersey, when he and Johnny Oduya formed a great defensive pair. That's where those two played their best hockey. After signing with the Penguins in 2010, Martin struggled but looked a lot more comfortable last season. This year in particular he has found his form. The same thing happened with Oduya. He wasn't the same player when he was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers. But since being dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks, he and Niklas Hjalmarsson are arguably the best second defense pair in the League.
Martin makes so many subtle plays right now. He's a guy who you don't recognize how good he really is until you get to play with him. He's looked great playing alongside Letang against the Rangers.
I also haven't recalled a Stanley Cup Playoffs that has had this many plays through the middle of the ice. To me, that's another downplayed theme this year in the playoffs. A couple of years ago it was the delay-of-game penalties in which pucks were shot over the glass. Last year it was all the too-many-men penalties. So far this year, the theme has been stretch passes and breakaways through the middle of the ice.
Everyone has been getting breakaways. Anaheim had two or three in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings, the Rangers have had several against them, and don't forget about the Montreal Canadiens against the Boston Bruins. Montreal is getting as many plays through the middle against Boston as it did against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. I didn't think that was possible.
That's not a knock against Tampa Bay, because they had an amazing season. But coming off of that series, Montreal's point of focus is to be disciplined and not get sucked into the silliness against Boston but also to be physical and really use their speed and quickness.
Montreal is not passing up any opportunities to race out past Boston's defense when the puck is turned over in the Canadiens' zone. It's game recognition, and they're seeing a trend there. The guys watch what is going on, the hungry players are watching other games. I talked to Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard this week and he's not in the playoffs right now but he's watching everything. That just puts it in perspective. The guys that are paying attention see that these breakaway opportunities are there.
If you're the team executing a lot of these stretch plays up the middle, you're putting the onus on the opposing team's defense to adjust. What are they going to do? It's all about adjustments. You definitely need your high forward to help, but it's about communication between your defensemen. Your D can't be parallel, even if they're backing up in the neutral zone. Sometimes it's good to have them a little bit staggered. One has to be a safety valve.
Coaches tell their defensemen to be there for each other, communicate. The goalies have to bang their stick to let their D know, guys on the bench have to be talking too. If you see a guy breaking behind your D, you have to let them know. Be involved, it's the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It's all about these small details. Little things like these make a world of difference when you're competing for the Stanley Cup.