The neutral zone may sound like a benign place on the ice, but in Game 1 the Rangers viewed it as nothing short of a quagmire.
That is one area in which the team vows to be diligent during Game 2 Sunday afternoon when the Eastern Conference best-of-seven semifinal series resumes against the Bruins at TD Garden.
To a man, the Rangers said they need to limit turnovers, forecheck better, and make crisper, faster passes up the ice.
“We have to try to get our forecheck going a little more, hold onto some pucks in their end, and create offense off of that,’’ said captain Ryan Callahan. “Our biggest weakness was not spending enough time in their end. I think that’s one of our strengths, getting in on the forecheck, creating turnovers, and that’s how we get most of our offense. I didn’t think we had enough of that in Game 1.’’
It wasn’t as if the Bruins’ game plan was a mystery. This time of year, each team knows what the other is about, it’s just a matter of which one executes better.
“They’re a good team,’’ said Callahan. “They come at you hard, they’re hard on the forecheck. They are very good in the neutral zone. I think we turned the puck over a little bit too much in the neutral zone and they had some counters off of that. It’s no secret, they’re a good club over there. That’s what they showed us in Game 1. I think Boston’s really good in the neutral zone, they clog it up pretty well and it’s hard to get pucks in behind their defensemen. But that’s an area we need to improve on and something we need to focus on.’’
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh said one of the challenges the Bruins present is that they aren’t able to be rushed. They wait for other teams to make mistakes.
“They’re a very patient team,’’ said McDonagh. “Obviously, they’re aggressive and heavy on the forecheck at times. But they play a patient game through the neutral zone. Really, if you have any kind of turnover, that’s what they thrive on. We did a decent job at times getting through there and you can see their strength, too, obviously in the defensive zone. We weren’t able to hang onto pucks enough.”
One of the people who most created problems for the Rangers was Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, whose size and reach during yeoman’s minutes made it difficult to maneuver.
“They’ve got some big defensemen who can really move and get around the ice,’’ said McDonagh. “We’re trying to get our backs on pucks a little bit more and create second and third opportunities that way.’’
In the middle of the ice, McDonagh said the Rangers need to be mindful of not only what they are doing but what Boston is doing, too.
“A lot of teams are really focusing on that neutral zone, it’s such an important area of the ice,’’ he said. “A lot of teams are trying to clog it up and create those turnovers there. So in that aspect, Washington and Boston are pretty similar.
“[The Bruins] are really detailed in their structure. They don’t get out of that structure very much. You don’t see them running around. They seem to know where each other are on the ice, both coming out of their zone, through the neutral zone, and the offensive zone. They have really good chemistry having played together for a while.
“We really have to just focus on when we’re checking, make sure we have our heads on a swivel, know when they’re at, and when we have the puck, use our legs and use our speed a little bit and get them moving. We’re focusing here on coming out with a little bit better start obviously. We just want to try to set the tempo of how we want to play.’’
The Rangers battled back from being down, two games to none, to the Capitals before rallying to win in seven games. They certainly don’t want to replicate that hole, and a split in Boston would send them back to Madison Square Garden in a strong position.
“We’ve been in this situation before,’’ said Callahan. “I think you have that to look back on, but it’s a new series. We knew there were going to be times in the series where maybe we were down. It’s just a matter of coming out and putting that one behind you and looking at Game 2.’’