The Rangers’ season is hanging in the balance.
Not just in terms of a possible first-round exit in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but also in validating the regular season that saw Rangers garner more points than they had in seven years. Their second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division shocked the NHL, represented the end of the Rangers’ rebuild and set the bar incredibly high for years to come.
But after falling short of a comeback in Game 3 and after an abysmal performance in Game 4 that has the club on the brink of elimination heading into Game 5 Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers are not only playing to keep their season alive, but to prove that they belong in the 16-team Stanley Cup tournament.
The Blueshirts will have to show heart. They’ll have to play with a sense of urgency, authority and decisiveness. Everything that was glaringly missing Monday night will have to come through tenfold.
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Only then will the Rangers be able to hang their hat on this season, which featured major growth from core young players and the development of a winning culture under first-year president and general manager Chris Drury.
Of all their potential first-round opponents, the Penguins were always the matchup of choice for the Rangers, who need to remind themselves of why that was. The way they played Pittsburgh toward the end of the regular season proved that they could hang with star Sidney Crosby and they weren’t intimidated by the Penguins’ reputation forged by 16 consecutive playoff berths. But they haven’t played like it for most of the series.
Still, there were no changes to the Rangers lineup in practice at MSG Training Center on Tuesday, and that falls in line with the way Gerard Gallant has coached this team all season. The Rangers bench boss stands by his players, empowers his players and lets them know through his words and actions that he has their backs.
That approach has worked all season long. If it’s the way to go, however, is yet to be seen.
“I don’t think we have to change anything. I might change something, but I don’t have to,” Gallant said. “We are what we are, we just gotta play well, we gotta play our game. We can’t be loose like we were [Monday] night and expect to win hockey games”.
What does need to change is the Rangers’ marquee players and their impact on the game. Some of the otherworldly play they got from goalie Igor Shesterkin during the regular season would make a significant difference, too. It starts at the top, Gallant pointed out, but the Rangers have preached a team game since Day 1 of training camp and that’s not about to change now.
The Rangers heavily rely on their top two lines for scoring and their top two defensive pairs for shutdown defense. So far, the Penguins stars have outplayed the Rangers stars. That must change if the Rangers want to string three wins in a row to advance from Round 1.
“You can’t get anywhere without your top guys, but in the NHL and in the playoffs, you can’t get anywhere without an entire four-line, six-D effort,” said Ryan Strome, who has a goal and two assist in the series. “So I think everyone, especially from last game, can be better. There’s no doubt about that. But if we’re gonna win, if we’re going to win [Wednesday] night and we’re going to shift the momentum here, it’s going to take every guy in our lineup.
“I think we all know that and it definitely starts with the guys up top, for sure. No doubt, 100 percent, couldn’t agree more.”
As for the kids, they’ve been more than all right. If there’s any positive to take away from this series so far, it’s the fact the youngsters haven’t shied away from the playoff stage.
The third line of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko have to keep doing what they’re doing: firing shots and maintaining pressure around the net on Penguins third-string netminder Louis Domingue, who should get an earful from the MSG crowd as repayment for what the Pittsburgh fan base did to Shesterkin in Games 3 and 4. Defenseman K’Andre Miller needs to keep up his physical presence and tremendous defensive stick work.
But more than anything, the Rangers need to play as a team, as Chris Kreider said sternly after their Game 3 loss. Only then will the Rangers give themselves a chance to pull this off.
“I think our backs are obviously against the wall and I think we just have to come out and play hard,” Adam Fox said. “Obviously, coming back home is hopefully going to give us a little spark and I think we just got to give it our all. Down 3-1, you don’t have much left to lose and just leave it all out there and the results take care of itself.”