The New York Rangers stole Game 1 on the road against the Pittsburg Penguins on the shoulders of great defense and superb goaltending by Henrik Lundqvist. While Lundqvist is always the most important player for New York, the defensemen are what will propel the Rangers into the Eastern Conference Final.
The top pair of Ryan McDonaugh and Dan Girardi are obviously the leaders on defense, but they can’t be out there on every shift. The Penguins have five forwards on their team who scored more than 20 goals in the regular season, and eight players who scored at least 10 times. Few teams in the NHL match the raw talent and skill of the Pens, and that’s where New York’s depth on defense comes into the fold.
McDonaugh and Girardi are as solid as any defensive duo in hockey, but the second pairing of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman have played just as good, if not better, than the top pair this postseason.
Staal and Stralman were actually on the ice more than Girardi and McDonaugh in Game 1, with Staal leading the Rangers in ice time, playing 26:03. All four logged more than 20 minutes in Game 1, and coach Alain Vigneault is confident with either pair playing in any situation against any Penguins line.
Having that much confidence in two defensive pairs is especially important against a Penguins team that can score with all their lines. They also have multiple defensemen who can put the puck in the net. Pittsburg got 41 goals from defensemen in the regular season.
Stralman has been the most pleasant surprise for Vigneault and the Rangers. Fans have come to expect great play from Staal, Girardi and McDonaugh, but people rarely talk about Stralman.
The most notable thing people remember is Game 2 of the first round when Stralman had a subpar game and made a few costly mistakes. He rebounded and played extremely well in New York’s Game 7 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s carried that sound play into the next round, and the Rangers will need him to play well in order to limit the Penguin’s potent offense.
All six New York defensemen are experienced players, and all three pairs have good chemistry together. They need to continue to execute the things that were effective against Philly, most importantly blocking shots and playing well below their own goal line. As a whole, the Rangers team has to be feeling good after a road victory in Game 1.
New York will get the golden opportunity of taking a 2-0 series lead back to Madison Square Garden, where they have played great this postseason so far. Game 2 is set for Sunday night in Pittsburg.