PITTSBURGH — If it seemed as if Adam Fox was playing with a heightened level of energy and purpose in the first two games of the Rangers’ first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the reigning Norris Trophy winner had a simple explanation as to why.
It’s the postseason, silly.
“I mean, I think it’s just the playoffs,’’ Fox said after Saturday’s morning skate as the Rangers prepared for Game 3 of the series at PPG Paints Arena. “Everyone’s going to up their game, bring a different level of intensity. It’s not Game 62 of a regular season. It’s do-or-die at this part of the year, so I think everyone’s upping their game. I think everyone’s bringing a different level of intensity. And I think that’s what we’re going to need to win here.’’
The Jericho native had a brilliant start to the season and seemingly was well on his way to earning his second straight Norris Trophy before suffering an upper-body injury in a Jan. 27 game in Columbus.
At the time, he had seven goals and 40 assists through 44 games and led all NHL defensemen in scoring. The injury caused him to miss the final three games before the All-Star break and to miss the All-Star Game. He did not score at the same pace after the break, finishing with four goals and 23 assists in his final 34 games.
There were a couple of games in early March in which coach Gerard Gallant dressed seven defensemen in an effort to reduce ice time for Fox and his defense partner, Ryan Lindgren. Gallant rested both players (along with defenseman Jacob Trouba and forwards Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad) in the second-to-last game of the regular season once the Rangers’ shot at finishing first in the Metropolitan Division was gone.
Fox, 24, wouldn’t suggest he was in need of a rest during the season’s second half. But whether missing the one game helped or not, he did look much more like his first-half self in the first two games against Pittsburgh.
He scored the first goal of the series during a power play at 9:19 of the first period in Game 1 and assisted on the Rangers’ second goal in Game 2, providing the shot that was tipped in by Ryan Strome for the Rangers’ second power-play goal of the series. It gave them a 2-1 lead at 2:59 of the second period.
His 44:28 on ice in the triple-overtime 4-3 Game 1 loss was tied with K’Andre Miller for the team lead, and his 23:25 in Game 2 was second on the team behind Trouba’s 24:03.
He also had to adjust to the loss of Lindgren, his regular defense partner, in Game 2. Lindgren was unable to play because of a lower-body injury suffered in Game 1 and again was out for Game 3.
Fox’s partner for Game 2, and likely for Game 3, was Justin Braun, who was acquired via trade from the Flyers at the March 21 deadline. Braun had been the seventh defenseman before being pressed into action.
The complication with Fox playing with the 35-year-old Braun, who had played in 101 playoff games entering Saturday, is that both are righthanded shooters.
So Braun, who plays on the left when he’s with Fox, is playing on his “off” side. But Fox said that wasn’t a problem in Game 2.
“Brauner’s been around a while,’’ he said. “He’s a smart player. You know, I’ve played with Lindy for so long, we have a little bit of comfort, reading off what we’re going to do. But I think besides the [lefthanded-righthanded difference], they both do a good job of reading off me and trying to know when I’m trying to go [join the rush] or anything like that. But I think they’re both simple, smart players, so it’s kind of easy for me to play with both.’’
The key to playing with another righthander, Fox said, is to talk more before and during the game.
“If I get on the left side, if he wants to come back and be on the left the whole time, or if I’m going to play the left on that shift,’’ Fox said, giving an example of the things he and Braun talk about. “So I think it’s just a little more talking in terms of positioning.
“But other than that, the handedness, I think if you’re making a pass, you’re looking where his stick is anyway.’’