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Rangers defense stymies Lightning in Game 1 win

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

NEW YORK - Coach Alain Vigneault believes defending well will ultimately lead to quality scoring chances for his New York Rangers.

While the goals haven't come in bunches during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Rangers have certainly done enough defensively to provide the impetus in the opposing end while stalling some of the top offenses in the Eastern Conference.

The Rangers exhibited one of those sterling defensive performances once again Saturday in a 2-1 victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden.

Game 2 is Monday at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The win was the 13th straight one-goal decision and ninth 2-1 game the Rangers have played in the playoffs. They are 7-2 in 2-1 games.

"At the end of the day, they were first in offense [in the regular season] and we were third, so we weren't far behind but a lot of our offense comes from defending well," Vigneault said. "Good defense will lead to offense and against such a skilled and powerhouse offensive team, I think we need to defend and that's what we did."

Against the Lightning, Vigneault opted to have his top defense pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi matched against the white-hot line of Tyler Johnson centering Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.

McDonagh said a big part of the success defensively stems from the fact that players did a good job in managing their ice time.

"We were able to play strong and fast because we were fresh rolling our lines, we made good decisions with the puck and didn't turn it over too much," McDonagh said. "We talked about trying to make them play the whole length of the ice; not give them odd man looks. We did a good job with that."

Johnson, Kucherov and Palat entered the best-of-7 series with a combined 17 goals and 31 points in 13 playoff games. Though Palat scored his fourth goal of the postseason on a power play early in the third period to tie the game 1-1, the Rangers' defense certainly did the job 5-on-5. The Lighting had 19 shots with the teams at full strength.

"We have to look a little more at our 5-on-5 play and see how we're going to generate more from that," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Tampa Bay was 1-for-4 on the power play opportunities but generated only two shots with the man-advantage.

"Tampa Bay relies on their speed and their transition game and they're very offensive," Girardi said. "They have a ton of talent over there and it's hard to defend when they get it going, so we have to make sure when we have the puck. We have to make a play and make sure they have to come through all of us; play a 200 foot game."

Marc Staal
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 1
SOG: 7 | +/-: -4
Rangers defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Boyle got the assignment against Steven Stamkos and his linemates Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn. Stamkos was held to one shot, and Filppula and Killorn combined for five.

"It becomes a faster game when you’re making good decisions and having good structure so if it looks like a fast game that's a good sign for us," McDonagh said. "We played well, played with good support and did not turn the puck over."

Not one defenseman on the Rangers was charged with a turnover in the game.

In their first-round series victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Rangers held Evgeni Malkin without a point and limited Sidney Crosby to two goals and four points in a five games. In the second round, the Rangers held Nicklas Backstrom to two assists and limited Alex Ovechkin to three goals and four points in seven games.

Now it's all about containing Johnson and Stamkos (three goals, 10 points in 14 games).

"Defending Stamkos is like defending any of those top guys in the League," Staal said. "You have to take away time and space and be aware where he is in the neutral zone. He likes to ramp it up and get some speed so you just got to be close. You can't give him much room because he's got a great shot. He doesn't need a lot of time.

"He's like Ovechkin that way; he doesn't need a lot of time or space to get it off so you just got to be close and know where he is."

The Rangers have certainly benefitted from the play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, but the poise and confidence along the blue line has been evident. The Rangers lead all teams in the postseason with a 1.62 goals-against average; they are giving up 29.2 shots per game.

"I did think the pace [Saturday] was faster; there was a little more room but it tightened up as the game went on," Staal said. "They're a quick team and they like to stretch you out so you have to be careful of that. I thought when we took care of the puck we were able to play fast, get some turnovers on the forecheck."

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