Derek Stepan said it hasn't been a lack of effort that's hurt the Rangers over the last two games of their best-of-seven series against the Montreal Canadiens. Rather, the issues have been between the ears.
"I don't think we worked smart enough," Stepan told reporters after Monday's practice at The Garden, a day before the series resumes for Game 4. "I've been here for a long time. This group has worked extremely hard. We've put in solid work throughout the season and in the playoffs. No one is tougher on us than ourselves. We're working so hard but I think we need to work a little smarter. I don't think it's a lack of effort. I think it's a lack of brain power at times. "
The Rangers had difficult generating offense Sunday night in Game 3, as they registered just 21 shots - including 12 through two periods - on Carey Price, with just another 26 attempts either blocked or missed the net. In contract, Montreal had 29 shots on a goal and attempted 22 others.
That, too, according to Stepan goes back to the mental aspect of the game and not passing up chances to get pucks on net when they're presented.
Playoff hockey is often tighter and played with fewer risks than in the regular season. But forward Jesper Fast said the Rangers must look to create more offensively while still be responsible defensively.
"If it's a tight game you can't take too many risks, but also you've got to make plays," Fast told NYRangers.com. "We didn't have a lot of shots yesterday. We have to put more pucks to the net, more bodies to the net. We had a real simple game for their goalie last night. He didn't have to do a lot. That's where we really need to step up."
A lot has been said and written about the physicality of this series through its first three games. Game 3, though, was the lightest in terms of checking, with the Rangers out-hitting Montreal, 41-31. That's a change from Game 3, when the teams combined for 129 over regulation and overtime, including 74 by the Blueshirts.
That style is a deviation from the speed game the Rangers deployed during the regular season when the team finished fourth in goals for with 256 and fourth in goals per game with 3.09.
"We've been playing a certain style this season that's permitted us to get into the playoffs," coach Alain Vigneault said. "In my estimation, when we play it we're a hard team to play against. I think we've shown in this series that in moments when we play that way, we're a hard team to play against.
"From game to game, there's different things that a certain team might do that's making them harder to handle," Vigneault added. "If you make minor adjustments as far as making a read or puck decisions it could help your game."
Stepan said the Rangers must find the right level between playing the speed game that was the pillar to the team's success this season, and matching Montreal in hitting.
"We have to find the balance of being physical with that playoff brand of hockey, but also putting on what made us have success all year and that's our speed," he said. "Got to find that balance and we've got to get back to playing with speed."
Fast, who as part of the fourth line with Oscar Lindberg and Tanner Glass that Vigneault said has been the team's best, so it's up to the players to right the ship and beat their opponents shift after shift starting Tuesday.
"I feel like everyone is trying, but trying is not good enough right now," he said. "We need people to go out there and take responsibility. [We] need to be the better man out there. Whoever they're playing against, we have to be the better man."