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'Subtle change' pays off big

Rick Nash and Kevin Hayes of the New

Rick Nash and Kevin Hayes of the New York Rangers collide with Vladislav Namestnikov and Brenden Morrow of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first period during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, May 16, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Alain Vigneault called it a "subtle change," swapping right wings on two of the Rangers' top three lines for Game 1.

There was nothing subtle about Kevin Hayes' addition to the line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, though, and the Rangers used their size up front to disrupt the Lightning and generate just enough offense to pull out the opener of the Eastern Conference finals, 2-1.

"That's the goal, obviously, to generate offense," Hayes said after his rocket pass from the goal line banked off Dominic Moore's shin pad and in for the winner with 2:25 to go.

Hayes has played the bulk of the postseason with Moore and Carl Hagelin, so it was coincidental that he set up the winner with those two regular linemates rather than those he had regular turns with Saturday afternoon.

But it was the big-boy bookends of the 6-4 Nash and the 6-4 Hayes who created the most offense for the Rangers and were by far the most dangerous Blueshirts. Vigneault said he swapped Hayes with Martin St. Louis after watching video of the Lightning's first two series. Perhaps what he saw was that Tampa Bay's defensemen are big but not necessarily quick enough to keep up with the swooping size of Hayes and Nash below the goal line.

Hayes, Brassard and Nash had the gaudiest advanced stats from Game 1, a combined +40 in Corsi for events (unblocked shot attempts for minus unblocked shot attempts against), and the line dominated the Lightning's depth defensemen, Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison, Matt Carle and the 6-8 Andrej Sustr, who had a rough day all round.

There also was size and more than a bit of mischief from Chris Kreider on the Rangers' second line. He tugged down Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop with no penalty called in the second period, a few minutes before he knocked Bishop's stick from the goaltender's hands seconds before Derek Stepan pounced on a deflected shot to open the scoring.

It wasn't the full-on takedown of Carey Price in Game 1 of last year's Eastern Conference finals, but Kreider made his presence known in the Tampa Bay end. The Rangers dominated the game at five-on-five, losing their grip on it only when they gave the talented Lightning three straight power plays in the third period.

"At times could our D have been a little bit better? Sure," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "At times I thought they were exceptional . . . What got us through the Montreal series is not what we did tonight in parts of this game. I've got no answer why in Game 1 of the conference final, why that happened."

Not having Brian Boyle up front -- he is day-to-day with an undisclosed injury -- hurt Tampa Bay's ability to impede the Rangers on the cycle. Ryan Callahan, another old Rangers friend, subbed in for Boyle, five days removed from an appendectomy, and it was Callahan whom Hayes bodied off the puck behind the Tampa Bay net to make the play to Moore for the winner.

"We had a lot of Grade-A chances that we didn't put in today," Hayes said. "Hopefully next game, we can convert a few of those."

If that line gets the same sort of scoring chances in Monday night's Game 2, the Rangers could use their size up front to bully the Lightning right out of the series.


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