NEW YORK, N.Y. – Whether the New York Rangers truly believed they could overcome a 3-2 playoff series deficit earlier this year doesn’t matter now.
The Rangers did it against the pesky eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators in the first round, giving them confidence they can pull it off again against the formidable New Jersey Devils and reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 18 years.
The historical calendar is in line with the dates of New York’s 3-2 comeback over the Devils the last time these division and area rivals met in the Eastern Conference finals in 1994. None of the names are the same for the Rangers, and only New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur—and assistant coach Larry Robinson—still have the same jobs as way back when.
So the top-seeded Rangers’ point of reference as they head into Game 6 in New Jersey on Friday night isn’t the history book but rather their shared experience of rallying past Ottawa.
If they extend their season, they will be back at home on Sunday for a winner-take-all game.
“You can draw off that experience, just the feelings going into the game,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said. “Just stay even keeled about it. We’ve got to go into an opposing building and win one game and get it back to the Garden.
“They’re going to be a desperate team, too, to close it out on their home ice. We need to find that next level, that extra desperation. Obviously, it’s a huge game, but we don’t need to say that.”
New York has embraced desperation much more than prosperity this post-season. The Rangers have won two in a row in a series only once and have never enjoyed a two-game lead in any of their three matchups. However, they are 3-0 when facing elimination—including Game 7 victories over Ottawa and Washington.
“We’ve been through these situations a lot this year, including in the playoffs,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said Thursday after practice. “I’m very comfortable as far as our mindset. Today was a good day for us. As we approach our game, I’m very comfortable in where we’re going to go.”
That was not as easy to see Wednesday night in New York’s 5-3 home loss to the Devils in Game 5. The Rangers fell behind 3-0 less than 10 minutes into the game, but managed to tie it in the opening minute of the third period.
However, a goal with less than five minutes remaining by Devils fourth-line forward Ryan Carter finished the Rangers for good. The loss was New York’s first in these playoffs in which it scored at least three goals.
“It’s a good group,” Tortorella said. “It’s a group that stays with it. There’s not a lot of panic there. They just go about their business, and we’re a pretty good hockey team.”
They were the best in the East over the 82-game regular season, and they tied for the second-most points in the entire NHL. All that will be an afterthought if the Rangers fail to get to a finals matchup with the upstart Western-champion Los Angeles Kings.
If confidence can be conveyed in words, then the Rangers seem loaded with it as their season hangs in the balance.
Tortorella said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist will rebound from a subpar performance in Game 5 and “play his best game tomorrow night.” He echoed that sentiment for top-line forward Brad Richards, who also struggled on Wednesday.
“It’s tough when you go into a game like this. You want to win so bad, sometimes it’s more pressure than you need,” Lundqvist said. “When you’re out there, you try to focus on the things you always focus on. The challenge every time you play an important game is to find a good balance mentally, but I’m trying to approach it the same way.”
Tortorella is a master motivator, whether it be with words of encouragement or a dose of tough love that often results in benchings within games. No one is immune from that, as leading scorer Marian Gaborik found out in the Rangers’ Game 2 loss.
The coach also has been less contentious with reporters recently, making postgame news conferences calmer even as the stakes have risen during the East finals.
Tortorella is no stranger to digging out of 3-2 holes. He coached the Tampa Bay Lightning to the championship in 2004, erasing such a deficit in the finals against the Calgary Flames.
“I don’t have to motivate the team,” Tortorella said. “I think our team is motivated. I don’t look at it as overcoming a 3-2 deficit. We need to win a hockey game. We’re preparing to try to win one hockey game, and we’ll see after that.
“We prepare as we always do. There’s no magic. There are no special speakers coming in. There is none of that.”
Richards scored two goals in that Game 6 win for Tampa Bay, and Ruslan Fedotenko—now his teammate again with the Rangers—found the net twice in Game 7 to lock up the Cup for the Lightning.
That experience would seem to be invaluable, but maybe not.
“That was a really long time ago, and I had a concussion at that time so I can’t remember really anything,” Fedotenko said with a wry smile. “I remember winning, but that is basically it.”