Photo by Anna Enriquez
Earlier this season, both the New York Rangers and the Dallas Stars drew accolades for their physical play. Neither team was very deep and neither played with much finesse, but both teams could grind an opponent down.
But is that kind of play sustainable over the course of an 82-game season?
It doesn’t seem to be the case for the Rangers or the Stars.
The Rangers have dropped eight of their last 10, including Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Flyers.
Dallas is 2-9-1 in their last dozen games.
Mike Heika says the Stars don’t seem to trust each other on the ice.
Players are also pushing for offense and big plays, at the expense of simple, solid defense.
The Rangers just look out of gas. They’ve been unable to keep opponents pinned to the boards and stuck in the corners, and opposing teams have been able to capitalize on the massive amount of space in the middle of the ice.
Both teams are at the bottom of their respective conferences’ playoff lineups and seem vulnerable to falling out of playoff position.
Each team’s best player is also injured. Brad Richards has concussion-like symptoms, but could be back later this week. Marian Gaborik suffered a concussion during the Sunday loss to the Flyers. There’s no time table on his return.
New York Rangers’ coach John Tortorella and Dallas Stars’ coach Marc Crawford each started the season with incomplete, imperfect rosters. They both quickly figured out that what their teams lacked in talent could be made up for in aggression. And it paid off for both coaches.
But now, the physical play has taken its toll. Both teams are worn down by injuries. Both teams look exhausted. And there are still over 20 games left to play before the playoffs.
The NHL season is simply too long and grueling for a sustained strategy of manhandling opponents. Even the Cup-winning Ducks team, a fairly physical team, tempered that physical play with smart defense that often obviated the need to get physical with opponents. Instead, much of their strategy was just to keep the puck off of their opponents’ sticks. It wasn’t always fun to watch, but it kept players healthy and rested.
Tortorella and Crawford seemed to have forgotten that players are humans and can’t go full-bore indefinitely. So now, both coaches need to figure out a way to keep their teams in the playoff picture without losing any more players.
Some coaches are already thinking about these kinds of things. Over in Philadelphia, Peter Laviolette, another coach who likes a physical game, is lowering the ice time of key players to keep them both healthy and rested. Laviolette has the luxury of depth, but he also understands players need a break from the grind of the season.
The Stars and the Rangers rode physical, aggressive play into the playoff picture. But if they can’t rediscover that style of play and deploy it successfully, both teams might end up on the outside of the playoffs.
It’s time for Tortorella and Crawford to adjust their strategies. Their teams are out of gas and can no longer take every body on every shift. If they keep coaching like their players can, their teams are going to quit on them. If their spirits don’t surrender, their bodies certainly will.