Rangers’ Youth Buys Into Torts’ System

In a 2-1 shootout victory in Washington Monday night, the New York Rangers skated four players against the Capitals that had played 15 or less games in the NHL prior to the game. Centers Chad Kolarik and Evgeny Grachev have four and six games played in the NHL, respectively, while defenseman Ryan McDonagh has played in nine games, and winger Mats Zuccarello, 15.

Injuries to players such as Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Dan Girardi have forced the Rangers (61 points after their win in Washington, good for third in the Atlantic Division) to dip into their AHL roster in Hartford to fill out a roster of their own. While Grachev, Kolarik both played less than 10 minutes in the contest, McDonagh played 21:03 on the blue line for the Rangers – including 54 seconds shorthanded – and blocked three shots. Zuccarello, meantime, played 18:08 and played a vital role in allowing the Rangers to leave D.C. with the full two points.

After an overtime session failed to produce a winner between the Capitals and Rangers, it was Zuccarello who was called on by head coach John Tortorella to take the Rangers’ second shot of the shootout. With the shootout score 1-1 heading into the last of the second round, Zuccarello shook Capitals’ goaltender Braden Holtby out of his skates with some silly side-to-side moves that left a wide open net for Zuccarello that gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead in the shootout. New York won the shootout shortly thereafter with an Artem Anisimov goal in the last of the fourth round.

Injuries to key veterans may hurt a team’s point total in the standings, but if young players can step in from the AHL and get significant playing time at the NHL level, hold their own and help their team stay in the playoff hunt, it’s not just a benefit for the young players themselves. It’s a boon to the entire organization, as the Rangers’ opponent on Monday has experienced the past two years.

The Capitals, on their way to a 121-point season last year, used defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson last years when injuries arose to key veterans, and they used Mathieu Perreault in spot duty at the center position. Each player filled in admirably during their time in Washington last year, giving them experience that has helped these players become mainstays in Washington this year.

Such organizational depth gives teams a constant pipeline of young, inexpensive talent that is generally a much more efficient way to fill out an NHL roster than spending big dollars in free agency every July. It allows teams to pick up complementary pieces in July, rather than handing out risky contracts to big-name free agents. The Rangers, of course, have taken road of the risky contract before.

Those contracts usually just don’t end well.

And take this into account, as well: The Rangers skated just two players against the Caps who were 30 years old or more – Sean Avery (30) and Chris Drury (34). The Rangers, as dinged up as they are, managed to hold the Capitals to 17 shots through regulation (23 in total). Granted, the Caps have had their share of offensive struggles recently, but the Rangers’ young active roster limited the Capitals’ scoring chances throughout regulation and the defensemen — namely Marc Staal (aged 24) — contained Alex Ovechkin in one-on-one situations on Ovechkin’s rushes up the ice.

The Rangers — fifth in the league in goals against with 2.37 — are clearly committed to defense, and it showed on Monday against the likes of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. The Rangers’ positioning was superb, always keeping the Capitals’ skilled players in front of them, and they blocked 18 shots as a team for the game.

For a lineup as young as the Rangers skated on Monday, to be as disciplined as they were defensively not only reflects well on the organization as a whole, but also on Tortorella and his coaching staff for implementing a system that works for their given personnel.

A team doesn’t have 61 points at this point in the regular season given the injuries the Rangers have had without coaches putting together systems and schemes that fit into what a lineup this young can realistically accomplish. If that means playing grind-it-out, defensive hockey, then so be it. But the players, of course, have to buy into what the coaches are selling.

And they have.

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