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Rangers playing faster, better with Vigneault as coach

by Evan Sporer /

NEW YORK -- When Alain Vigneault was hired to coach the New York Rangers before the 2013-14 season, he wasn't taking over a rebuilding project. The Rangers had reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs the three seasons prior, and seven of the past eight.

There were areas in need of fixing and a coach was needed who preached a philosophy that addressed the Rangers' weaknesses. When they host the Boston Bruins in the Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN), it will be Vigneault's 131st regular-season game with the Rangers, and the difference since he took over has been night and day.

Under Vigneault the Rangers have blossomed into one of the better offensive teams in the League. New York is averaging its most goals per game (2.98) since it scored 3.05 per game in the 2005-06 season. Though it's team speed that paces the Rangers, it's their coach's system that, more than a season and a half into his tenure, has them running at top speed.

"It's no secret, and you see all the teams in the League that are capable of playing a high-pace game," Vigneault said recently. "They're all teams that have a five-man unit. When they don't have the puck, to get it back, whether it's in their zone, the neutral zone or on the forecheck, but when their transition game is there it's from a breakout, to the transition to the neutral zone to the offensive zone."

Though the players were asked to make changes in Vigneault's system, the group tasked with adjusting the most might have been the defensemen. Under Vigneault's predecessor, John Tortorella, the Rangers were known for their shot blocking and compact play in the defensive zone. Under Vigneault the Rangers remain stingy defensively, but defensemen are given the freedom to join the rush and contribute offensively.

"It's a tough thing. Obviously as a defenseman your mentality is to first make sure you're strong in your own end," said Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who leads New York defensemen in scoring under Vigneault with 60 points. "Take care of your own end and not give up scoring opportunities.

"It's everybody; all five guys as a unit working together out there."

What stands out is how quickly the Rangers are able to slash through the neutral zone after winning pucks in their end. But it's the small wrinkles and elements Vigneault has installed that have been the catalyst of the transformation.

"Possession time," Vigneault said. "It's all about having five guys working together. The [defense] is involved in the cycling, the [defense] is following in on the rush, forwards replacing defensemen when that happens.

"That's a big part of our game."

Many of the Rangers' smoothest skaters were on the roster before Vigneault arrived, among them McDonagh, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, and Mats Zuccarello. The ingredients have been there, but Vigneault has cooked up a plan filled with speed that can wreak havoc in all three zones.

"You might not be first on the puck, but you can get a lick on the guy, slow him down, slow that other [defenseman] down," McDonagh said. "It makes it harder for those guys to join up and sustain pressure. A lot of times we talk about trying to sustain pressure and it comes from the back end, pinching, keeping pucks in at the blue line, making opportunities there."

Even if the Rangers don't win a foot race, it's likely the third player to the puck will be wearing a New York jersey. From there the Rangers are able to create odd-man situations anywhere on the ice, or simply provide support for a 1-on-1 battle.

Ryan McDonagh
Defense - NYR
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 17
SOG: 70 | +/-: 10
"If you're a defenseman you go to close on a guy in the corner, hit him, separate him from the puck, you need another guy to be close there for support before their other guy comes in," McDonagh said. "That's an area we've talked about, staying real close in the [defensive] zone.

"It takes a little bit of time, but ultimately when you get those five guys working together, staying close, support, you get those little bump plays. Or if there is a little breakdown there's a guy close to support you."

With the Rangers winning pucks in those dirty areas, the notoriety and flash comes from their effectiveness in transition off the rush.

"We've got good skating [defensemen] on this team, and you see the good teams in the League have four-man looks, guys joining, and it's tough to sustain pressure if it's only three forwards against five guys in the zone," McDonagh said. "You need your [defensemen] to get involved to keep the puck in, or have a good pinch to give ourselves another good opportunity."

It's a system that allows players like Kreider to break out of the defensive zone at the first sign his team has gotten the puck. That's something Vigneault brought with him from the Vancouver Canucks to the Rangers.

"He likes straight offense; he doesn't hold his guys back offensively as much as [Tortorella] would," Montreal Canadiens forward Dale Weise said.

A member of the 2010-11 Rangers under Tortorella, Weise went on to play two-plus seasons for Vigneault in Vancouver before getting traded to Montreal, where he has faced Vigneault's Rangers 10 times, including games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"On offense they have a lot of guys who can open it up, so you always have to make sure you have a third man back as a forward and try to limit their odd-man rushes," Weise said. "It's fun. … We have four-man rushes all the time, the same as New York, so it's fun.

"We want to play offensively, we want to create chances, and obviously as a forward that's what you want to be a part of."


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