For the first two months of the regular season, the New York Rangers had the most dynamic offense in the NHL. They could roll four lines with goal-scoring capability that created matchup nightmares for opponents.
But toward the end of the regular season, the Rangers began playing a safer, tougher game, partly because goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was being hung out to dry far too often.
That style has carried into the first-round series against Montreal, which the Canadiens lead 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
"We've been playing a certain style this season that's permitted us to get into the playoffs that, in my estimation, when we play it, we're a hard team to play against," coach Alain Vigneault told the New York Post on Monday. "I think we've shown in this series, in moments when we've played that way, we're a hard team to play against. And from game to game, there's different things that a certain team might do that's making them a little harder to handle.
"So if you make minor adjustments as far as making a read or a puck decision, it could help your game. But as far as changing the overall way of how we play and how we have success, obviously that's not going to happen."
The adjustments could come in the form of inserting rookie Pavel Buchnevich into the lineup for Tanner Glass, a fourth-line grinder who has one of the Rangers' five goals that haven't been scored into an empty net this series. The Rangers were 2:56 from being blanked in Game 3, and that is the team's only goal in their past 143 minutes.
Buchnevich had eight goals and 20 points in 41 games, although his playing time diminished down the stretch when Glass became a lineup fixture. But with the Rangers desperate for offense, Vigneault could opt for talent over grit.
"I'm looking at all our options right now," Vigneault said to the New York Post when asked directly about Buchnevich. "There is definitely a lot of credit to be given with how well (the Canadiens) are playing, not only without the puck, but with the puck and the decisions they're making. Some of our problems have come a lot on our puck management. We need to do a better job."
The Canadiens, meanwhile, just want to continue doing the things that have brought them success, no matter who the Rangers have in their lineup for Game 4.
"We're really focusing on our game and we're focusing on what we need to do to have success," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said. "Not so much of what we have to do to make it hard on them, but what we can do to make it successful for us. We're not overthinking this game, we know our strengths and we know what we need to do to win and that's what our whole focus is on right now."
That focus seems to be on forechecking the slower Rangers defensemen and letting goaltender Carey Price see as many shots as possible. Since Mats Zuccarello's goal with 5:13 remaining in the second period of Game 2, Price has stopped 41 of 42 shots with his teammates limiting high-danger chances.
With everyone buying into the defense-first philosophy, beating the Canadiens three times in the next four games will be difficult for the Rangers.
"It's good but it's a best-of seven-series," Canadiens winger Alexander Radulov said. "There can be four more games. We can enjoy the moment then get ready for the next one. There's nothing done yet so we have to prepare. The next game's going to be huge. They're going to come out hard again so we have to play the same way but with more effort and play good as a team."