Trailing 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Final, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault sent his team a clear message before Game 4 Wednesday night at the Garden. He demoted Brad Richards to fourth-line duty after a second straight poor performance in Monday's Game 3 shutout loss.
That move might be an omen of things to come for Richards, who may well be the target of a compliance buyout at the end of this month. The immediate effect was significant because it broke up Richards and winger Martin St. Louis, who won a Cup together for Tampa Bay in 2004 and have been a source of veteran leadership for the Rangers throughout this run to the Final for the first time in 20 years.
Richards skated with Brian O'Boyle, who took the faceoffs in the first period, and Derek Dorsett. Dominic Moore centered for St. Louis and Chris Kreider. But Vigneault maintained Richards as part of the top power-play unit, playing his customary point position.
Another high-priced Ranger who was under the microscope in Game 4 was Rick Nash, who came into the game with 15 shots on goal but no goals in the series and a minus-three rating. Nash started on the top line with Carl Hagelin and center Derek Stepan.
Seconds after the puck dropped, Nash intercepted a pass in the Kings' zone, skated into the right circle and sent a harmless crossing pass through the slot to no one. But on his second shift, he crashed the crease, bothering Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick and forcing a tough save on a shot by Hagelin.
No doubt, that was a message the Rangers were encouraged to send to the Kings that they were bent on creating more traffic in front of Quick. If that was the intent, it worked when the Rangers scored the game's first goal on a deflection between the circles by Benoit Pouliot just two seconds after their power play ended at 7:25 of the first period.
The Rangers built their lead to 2-0 in the second period when Kreider and St. Louis crashed the net after a Stepan drive. St. Louis lifted a rebound over Quick from left of the crease.
But another Ranger who has struggled in the Final, defenseman Dan Girardi, committed a gaffe similar to the one that led to the Kings' overtime winner in Game 1. This time, he broke his stick while trying to control the puck at the blue line. It dribbled to the Kings' Dustin Brown, who skated in on the breakaway to tucked it past Henrik Lundqvist at the right post to cut the deficit to 2-1.
A second Girardi giveaway in the final minute created a breakaway for the Kings' Jeff Carter that Lundqvist stopped at the right post to preserve the lead heading to the third period.