By Sean Hartnett
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The perception of toughness and how much its value is linked to winning has changed around the NHL.
In past seasons, general managers would seek rugged enforcers to fill out their fourth line as the trade deadline neared. These days, the vast majority of teams are prioritizing fourth lines that provide speed and skill over grit and sandpaper.
Traditional goons have already gone the way of the dinosaur, while forwards with a limited skill set, whose main strengths are playing the body and serving as on-ice patrolman, are vanishing around the league.
This season's revamped version of the Rangers is succeeding to a great degree because the team has deviated from the belief that dressing an enforcer is necessary. Head coach Alain Vigneault has four lines blessed with speed and skill at his disposal. A fourth line of Pavel Buchnevich, Oscar Lindberg and Jesper Fast has given the Rangers an edge because they are capable of establishing offensive zone time, even when drawing tough, defensive zone assignments.
"Depending on the flow of the game, when I can roll four lines and get that line out there, we usually have pretty good pace," Vigneault said. "That line, with Quickie (Jesper Fast) who is such a hard worker, and Oscar has been playing better, so they're getting some offensive zone time and they're getting some looks. But sometimes the flow of the game, when there are specialty teams on either side, you lose that flow of four lines and sometimes they don't play as much as I would like to get them out there."
Following the Blueshirts' 3-2 shootout loss to the visiting Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, opposing head coach Claude Julien spoke of the difficulty of containing the Rangers, who are deeply stocked with explosiveness and skill. Fifteen of the Blueshirts' 18 skaters recorded at least one shot on goal.
"This is a really potent offensive team, the New York Rangers," Julien said. "They're great on the rush, and they're great down low at cycling, finding those seams."
Lately, the Buchnevich-Lindberg-Fast line has been making positive contributions, despite sometimes being dealt limited ice time. On the Rangers' first-period tying goal on Tuesday, Lindberg corralled the puck in the defensive end and sent a pinpoint pass to Fast as he entered the neutral zone. Fast proceeded to torch defenseman Alexei Emelin out wide before feeding hustling Lindberg, who crashed the crease and beat goaltender Carey Price.
"I think the last couple games, we've been playing pretty well and playing hard against the other team," Lindberg said. "We're starting to get pucks behind their 'D' and also getting a little cycle going and more shots than we had before. It's important to get time in their zone and not trying to get rushes back and forth -- getting the puck deep and also trying to get the puck to the net."
All season, top-to-bottom speed across four lines has been the Rangers' biggest strength. Having that many interchangeable lines has made for quick transitions and has put opponents on their back foot. Forcing the opposition into mistakes isn't something every team possesses.
"It's a key to our team being successful," captain Ryan McDonagh said. "You can't rely on one or two lines every night. You want contributions from everybody and you want guys that buy in. All four lines, that's what we have going right now. It's a fun thing to be a part of."
Last spring, the Rangers struggled to keep pace during their first-round matchup with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins and were ultimately eliminated in five games. This season, their identity has changed. The team's abundance of speed allows it to dictate play. In mid-January, winger Rick Nash explained why he saw similarities between this Rangers team and the group that went to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.
"With guys like (Carl) Hagelin. I know Brian (Boyle) is a big body, but he brings speed for his size — for a guy to move like that. Not since then, we haven't seen that speed. Last year, Pittsburgh kind of had it and you saw the success they had," Nash said at the time.
If the playoffs were to begin today, the Rangers and Canadiens would meet in the opening round. Although the Habs are 2-0 against the Blueshirts this season, slowing down a team bolstered by four fleet-footed lines that can establish offensive zone time during a long series could prove to be a very difficult task.
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