The New York Rangers’ 4-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils was the first time this postseason that the Rangers have given up 4 goals. They’re averaging just 1.83 goals against per game, second only to the Los Angeles Kings. The defensive performance of the Rangers in the playoffs is even more remarkable when you realize they’ve been playing the vast majority of their games with just 5 defencemen.
6th defenceman Stu Bickel averages approximately 5 minutes of ice time per game, which is one of the reasons why Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh average around 27 minutes per game. With Brandon Prust suspended, however, the Rangers dressed a 7th defenceman in his place, Steve Eminger, who ended up with more ice time this game than in his previous two playoff games combined. Bickel, who started the game as a forward, had 9 minutes of ice time.
Bickel and Eminger ended up seeing more ice time partly because John Tortorella benched Michael Del Zotto for most of the second and third periods. Del Zotto finished the game with 11:39 of total ice time, which is not only his lowest ice time of the playoffs, but his lowest ice time of the entire season. What’s baffling is that this decision came when the Rangers were down by two goals and Del Zotto is one of the Rangers’ best offensive players.
This wasn’t the first time in this series that Tortorella has benched an offensive star in a loss. In game 2, Tortorella benched Marian Gaborik for the first half of the third period after a series of defensive miscues led to the Devils tying the game near the end of the second period. The Devils scored early in the third period, but Gaborik, who scored 41 goals during the regular season, remained on the bench until there were 9 minutes remaining.
Del Zotto is tied with Gaborik for third on the Rangers in postseason scoring, with 10 points in 14 games. He was also their leading defenceman in points in the regular season with 41. Del Zotto is averaging just short of 22 minutes per game in the playoffs and was on pace for just over 22 minutes after the first period, but skated just one shift in the second period and had only four shifts in the third period.
Down 2-0 after the first period, Tortorella appeared to decide that the Rangers needed less of Del Zotto, their best offensive defenceman, and more of Stu Bickel and Steve Eminger, who combined for 14 points this season. As if to put an exclamation point on it, when Del Zotto finally got a few shifts midway through the third period, he got an assist on the Rangers’ only goal, providing both the outlet pass to start the rush and the screen in front of Martin Brodeur.
To be fair, Del Zotto definitely struggled early in the game. He was certainly at fault on Travis Zajac’s 2-0 goal as he allowed Zach Parise to walk right around him at the point, had some trouble handling the puck at the offensive blueline, and had a giveaway in his only shift in the second period. To remove an offensive weapon from the lineup in a game where offence is desperately needed, however, seems to be the height of folly.
What was the purpose of benching Del Zotto and Gaborik? Was it to send a message? If so, the Eastern Conference Final seems to be a remarkably poor time and place for that kind of message. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the Rangers lost both games in which one of their best players didn’t play for a large chunk of the game.
In both cases, the player was sent back on the ice halfway through the third period, which would seem to subvert any message being sent - Sit on the bench until we’re really desperate for offence. In Gaborik’s case, the Rangers were only down by one, but the score was 3-0 by the time Del Zotto got back in the game and any offensive push he was able to provide was too little, too late.
Tortorella claimed that he “just wanted to take a little pressure off him and let him watch for a bit.” A few shifts is a “bit.” Del Zotto sat on the bench for nearly half the game.
While Tortorella has done a fantastic coaching job this season and has the Rangers running like a well-oiled, shot-blocking machine, this strikes me as an area where he needs a little flexibility. When down by a goal or two, Stu Bickel and Steve Eminger are not the players that need more ice time. You need to believe that talented offensive players like Gaborik and Del Zotto are going to be able to make up for their defensive miscues by creating a goal at the other end.
Del Zotto did exactly that; imagine if he had been allowed to do that in the second period, when the game was still within reach.