For a few years, the thing the Rangers have had an impossible time dealing with is pressure from the opponents in the neutral zone. It’s infuriating to watch; the team battles so hard and seeing them unable to create chances no matter what they do is somewhat perplexing. There is a reason this happens to the Rangers more so than it does to elite teams (i.e. Red Wings, Pens, Vancouver): aggressive pressure in the neutral zone.
If you’ve watched enough games, you know it the second you see it. First, they get bottled up near the red line and try to dump the puck and get possession on an aggressive forecheck. Teams that apply neutral zone pressure, however, tend to play such strong team defense that they can clog the neutral zone and essentially have a d-man back playing free safety to easily corral the puck and start a break-out before the Rangers can get into the zone to chase the puck down (A good example of this is when Tampa’s in a good rhythm and effectively executing their 1-3-1; the last d-man back plays that free safety role).
Basically, this type of pressure is a relative of the dreaded trap that pretty much every team uses in one way or another. It’s been around forever and there are always methods to beat it. The problem is that the 2 main methods used to beat this trap are methods the Rangers struggle to execute, each for a different reason.
1: Skate Through the Pressure – Right now, there’s really only one guy on the team who’s capable of this, and it’s Gaborik. He’s insane. Somehow he can consistently find a few feet of space between multiple defenders and slither through to get off a shot. Richards has plenty of skill and skates well, but he’s less of a carry-the-puck-to-space type of player and more of a work-for-possession-and-find-soft-spots-on-the-ice guy. Step doesn’t quite have the speed, nor does Artie, Dubi has the speed but he’s in a funk and his skill level isn’t that high, Cally doesn’t quite have the skill level and it’s not his game, and the only remaining elite skater on the roster is McDonagh who’s still developing the offensive part of his game. I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but this situation is exactly where the Rangers miss Scott Gomez. Fine, a guy like Scott Gomez: great ice vision, awesome speed, and moves around on the ice like a waterbug on adderall. If the Rangers can only rely on Gaborik to skate through D like this, teams can key in on him and stop him, thus leaving them with no players who can skate through a trap consistently. The other option:
2: Quick Passing to the Open Space – It’s fundamental in any sport: if a second man comes over to pressure you when you have possession, it means someone else is open. When a team increases pressure on a single player with the puck, a few quick passes can get the puck to that empty real estate and then into the zone. Obviously, this is far easier on paper than it is in reality; NHL players are incredibly fast on their skates and great at consistently blocking passing lanes, and when executed properly the trap takes away a forechecker’s space before he has time to make a decision and consequently turns the puck over. Elite passing teams tend to have one thing in common: ridiculous skill level throughout the line-up. Announcers refer to these teams as playing a “puck-possession style,” but really that’s just saying their offensive intelligence and skill level is much higher than everyone else’s. I suppose they don’t say that because it would sound incredibly dumb on TV. But the teams that can consistently beat this pressure (best examples: Every Red Wings team since like 1994, the cup year Blackhawks) just have a high skill level, great chemistry, and innate hockey sense that can’t be taught. Now, the Rangers this year are a smart group, their chemistry is improving (Dubi aside), and their skill level is higher than it has been in the past. Even so, they are only an above-average team skill-wise. Outside of Gabby-Artie-Step, all of their lines have a grind it out with hard work mentality. This isn’t a bad thing, and it works well with the strong team D they play, but lacking that skill level is what leaves them vulnerable to fall into a funk on offense against trapping teams.
This isn’t a guarantee for playoff failure or anything like that. It’s going to be a major weakness, but every team has one. You can’t ask for perfection. Hopefully, come playoff time, the Rangers can wear teams down enough physically that they don’t have enough gas in the tank to execute a trap as well as normal and thus become vulnerable. But as the team goes forward it’s something to keep an eye on, especially if they start to figure out how to beat the trap regularly.
Wasn’t this fun? This is literally the longest thing I’ve ever written without a dick joke, and I can’t help myself.
Q: What’s green, slimy, and smells like bacon?
A: Kermit the Frog’s finger.
I’m sorry I’m not sorry.