LOS ANGELES – Alain Vigneault can’t exactly be blamed for keeping his lines intact in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final: The New York Rangers built two-goal leads before losing in overtime in both contests.
Then Jonathan Quick happened in Game 3; and with the Rangers staring into the abyss of elimination, Vigneault finally tweaked his lineup.
After cleverly hiding that fact in warm-ups by skating his Game 3 combinations, the Rangers dropped Chris Kreider from his line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, with speedy Carl Hagelin taking his place.
“Anytime you lose three in a row, it’s good to change something. It’s good for all the individuals on this team to play with new players and get some fresh air,” said Hagelin.
The line was matched up against the Los Angeles Kings’ top line with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, who were scoreless in the game. Hagelin, Stepan and Nash generated 10 shot attempts and five shots on goal for the game, with Stepan picking up a secondary assist on Marty St. Louis’ goal for their lone point.
Nash said Hagelin-for-Kreider was a bit of a wash as far as what they provide to the line – although, admittedly, he was more familiar this season with Kreider.
“I played all year with Kreider. He’s a great player, has all the skills. But when you’re losing, they want to change things up,” said Nash.
Stepan said the transition was an easy one: “They both can fly. I think they have similar games at times. There are a lot of guys in this room that play similar games.”
Hagelin felt immediate chemistry with his linemates, to the point where he’s optimistic helping Nash do something in Game 5 that he’s only done three times in 24 playoff games this postseason.
“I like playing with Rick. It was my first time since last year. I’m not going to say that I’d give him an empty netter, but if I could, that’d be great. He does so many good things for our team. He’s working hard, strong on the puck, making great defensive plays and I think he’ll score tomorrow,” he said.
But that wasn’t the only lineup move. More dramatically, Vigneault built a line with Kreider, Dominic Moore and Marty St. Louis, dropping the perilously slumping Brad Richards to the fourth line with Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett.
Was it a difficult decision to drop a former Conn Smythe winner and a player with seven years left on his $60 million contract to the fourth line?
(Wait, sorry, that as a question from a John Tortorella press conference from the 2013 playoffs … ah, here we go ...)
Was it a difficult decision to drop a former Conn Smythe winner and a player with six years left on his $60 million contract to the fourth line?
“Brad's a team-first guy. I mean, as a coach, and especially at this time of the year when you don't get a lot of these opportunities, sometimes you got to make decisions that might be a little tough to make on a personal aspect. But on a team aspect, you have to,” said Vigneault. “I just felt that certain guys were playing a little bit better than Brad. You know, that's the way it is.”
Richards took the demotion in stride, although what else was he going to do?
“I actually played more five-on-five last night than I did the night before. You guys will read into it because I was on a different line,” he said. “I haven't been where I need to be this series, so my ice time has been lower. We're trying to win games, to get to a chance to win a Cup.”
Meanwhile, St. Louis and Moore proved to be a sometimes dynamic pairing with Kreider, as the two linemates sparked the veteran winger’s play and helped him to a night with three shots, a goal and some undeniable optimism for Game 5.
"I think we're due for a win in this building,” said St. Louis. “We've done some good things in this building, unfortunately we didn't get a win yet. We all know these two games here could have gone either way. We're looking for that game to go our way tomorrow. We'll have to earn it."
While puck luck and the hockey gods – great name for a metal band, by the way – were getting much of the attention after the Rangers’ Game 4 win, there’s no denying that the team played with desperation and spark while facing elimination.
Well, for the first half of the game at least.
“You know, for half of the game I was pretty pleased with how, at both ends of the rink, we were able to defend and generate some good chances,” said Vigneault. “The second half of the game I thought [the Kings] had a strong push. Our goaltender permitted us to hang on and find a way to win that game.”
By the end of the game, the Stepan line in particular was getting dominated in puck possession, with the Rangers playing better without Nash (minus-9.0% corsi rel). Hagelin (-9.0%) and Stepan (a team worst -12.8%) all getting rolled in puck possession.
Did these new lines do enough for Vigneault to come back with them in Game 5?
“If there are enough positive signs from that game for me to not make any other changes?” he asked. “Stay tuned tomorrow at 5:00 and find out.”