By Matt Calamia
The Rangers have had the same six defenders since Game 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on May 7. That’ll change Thursday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens following John Moore’s two-game suspension for a hit in Game 5 on Tuesday.
The question now becomes who will replace Moore: Raphael Diaz or Justin Falk.
Head coach Alain Vigneault would not say who is in, but it appears to be Diaz, who was off the ice during the morning skate with the starters while Falk remained on the ice with the extra players.
Diaz, who was acquired from the Canucks at the trade deadline, last played in Games 3 and 4 against Pittsburgh, while Falk has not played yet in the postseason. In the first game, Diaz said he did not know he was playing until warmups, when he replaced Moore, giving some similarities to this potential return to the lineup.
“[Diaz] is a good defenseman in the sense that he’s not overly-physical, but he’s got good instincts, he moves the puck well, he can help us on the power play,” Vigneault said. “He’s going to be all right. I mean, every time we’ve used him this year, he’s been good for us.”
“I think the last time was similar. I didn’t play and then the lineup changed and I was playing two games. Now it’s the same. The lineup change again,” Diaz told reporters after the morning skate. “I think I’m going to be ready. I’ve worked hard off the ice and on the ice as well.”
Whomever replaces Moore should expect to play alongside Kevin Klein. If it is Diaz, a right-handed shot, he’d shift to the left side of the ice, something he’s done in the past, including the two playoff games earlier in the postseason.
“I think make it simple for us. Play simple hockey,” Diaz said when asked what the game plan would be for pairing with Klein. “Good first pass and try and join the rush. Of course communication is important, let us know what each other want to do. I think that’s the key of the whole game, communication.”
Klein said that while Diaz will make the adjustment to playing the left side, he too must adjust as well.
“Just getting used to the right shot over there,” Klein said. “Try not to put him in any positions where I’ll force him to his backhand where he doesn’t have an out. The D-to-D passes, things like that. You just have to make sure you put your emphasis on where you put the puck for him.”
The fact that the two have played together — albeit briefly — should help the adjustment, rather than going in cold in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.
“It definitely makes it a little easier to transition,” Klein said. “You practice with different guys, too. You get out there — Raph is a good player. He skates really well, great offensive instincts. He’ll step in and do well.”
While the Rangers acquired Diaz from Vancouver, he was traded by Montreal to the Canucks earlier in the season. Diaz spent parts of three seasons in Montreal dating back to the 2011-12 season.
Diaz now has a chance to send his current to the Stanley Cup Final, and his old team home.
“At the end, it’s a game,” Diaz said. “I think this is a huge opportunity for this whole organization, to go to the Stanley Cup Final. I think it’s going to be a good challenge tonight. We have to be ready from the start.”