“It’s a five-game series and we have to win four,” said nobody ever.
The Rangers’ task is daunting if you look at it in that light. But they won’t, mostly because they can’t and partly because they shouldn’t.
Trailing two games to none after Saturday’s loss in Ottawa, the Rangers have an extra day to rest (and try to forget) Sunday, then a day of practice before trying to turn the series Tuesday at the Garden.
The short-memory thing will be one key, the long-term memory will be another. The core of the Rangers team has completely turned around prior series in worse shape than this, and against better teams than Ottawa.
However, it won’t be easy. The Rangers had a two-goal lead three times, the last one with 3:19 left in regulation before losing 6-5 in double overtime on three consecutive goals by Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who would finish with four.
Reminds me of when Petri Skriko of Vancouver once did it against the Rangers, and Phil Esposito decided he had to play a 4-and-1, with a shadow on Skriko the rest of the game.
But I digress.
The point is, and I’m not trying to be Joe Positive here, but this is how I see it: The Rangers could be up 2-0 and at worst should be 1-1. They’re not.
The core of this team, though, has been in tougher spots and had bigger comebacks against better teams than this Ottawa team, which is still banging that “nobody gave us a chance” drum. Fact about Game 2, despite all the ways the Rangers came up short, is that Ottawa spent 57-plus minutes of regulation and good portions of the two overtimes playing as poorly, or worse.
These Rangers have twice (the only times in their history) since 2014 come back from three games to one to win three straight elimination games, against Pittsburgh and Washington. They have also faced elimination against Ottawa, down 3-2, in 2012, by winning Games 6 and 7, and did the same the following year against Washington.
So to suggest they’re toast down 2-0 and headed home against these Senators might be a tad premature.
With that all said, the Rangers have to clean up some things in order to avoid falling behind 3-0, and in order to maybe turn this series back into a series.
That starts with personnel. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault sat Pavel Buchnevich, who looked a bit overmatched in the neutral zone against the Senators’ trap, then in order to get a rotation going, sat Oscar Lindberg too. Never mind who those players are or what they were or weren’t doing, Vigneault’s team has always been at its best when it rolls four lines; has always played with its speed and depth as an advantage, when all 12 forwards are involved. And once the game goes to overtime, then into a second overtime, heavy legs can become a detriment, too.
That may not have been the case in Game 2, especially since the Rangers had plenty of chances to win the game in sudden death – Rick Nash with an open net, thwarted by Kyle Turris’s desperate stick lunge.
Fans, naturally, had a bigger problem, and it’s difficult to argue this point. Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith, who had a bad moment or two but were mostly very strong in Game 2, were skipped over for Nick Holden and Marc Staal. That pair struggled in both games, and it was Holden’s ill-advised pinch that led to the 2-on-1 and Pageau’s game-winning goal.
It’s probably a slam-dunk that Buchnevich will come out for Game 3, likely replaced by Tanner Glass. That will set off a Twitter firestorm.
But those decisions or opinions are relatively minor compared to the main issue, which is Henrik Lundqvist’s play. Only one other time did the Rangers give him five goals in a playoff loss. He whiffed on Pageau’s first goal after Michael Grabner had given the Rangers an early lead with a short-hander. And when Staal slid to prevent a pass from Pageau on the winner, Pageau beat him glove side.
Lundqvist, who was really strong in Game 1 but lost it on a fluke screened goal from the corner by Erik Karlsson, admitted he didn’t feel he was moving well throughout Saturday’s game. Two of the goals were deflections, one was an uncontested dunk, one appeared to be a screen. The other two he has to stop and a 5-3 lead has to turn into a win.
No way around that. To win four of five, Lundqvist is going to have to find the top of his game, as he did for most of the Montreal series. Otherwise, there’s no chance.
Yes, the Rangers need to clean up a bunch of things defensively – and they can’t have another late meltdown, as they did in Game 2 against Montreal, as well, when a 6-on-5 advantage looks like 9-on-5.
The onus is hardly only on the defense. The Rangers’ offense came alive in Game 2, but it was built on a pair of short-handed goals. Their power play still provided plenty of letdowns and their top-nine forwards can still do a lot more.
Most important is, in both of their Game 2s this year, and plenty of times during the season, the Rangers lost leads largely because they stopped spending time in the offensive zone. They’re careful to get pucks out of their end, but too often chip-and-change, sustaining no pressure in the opponents’ end late in games. Which, Mark Messier used to say, is “like punting on first down.”
The Rangers were effective against Ottawa’s dreaded trap in both games in terms of getting through the neutral zone with good passes and/or good decisions, then going to work on the Senators’ defense, which has its own weaknesses. They also saw that a turnover in or near the neutral zone can be turned into trouble quickly, i.e. Dan Girardi‘s interception on the first Pageau goal.
They proved that they can really open up and dictate the pace of the game if they can get a lead on Ottawa, which isn’t nearly as sturdy an opponent when it can’t sit back.
That trap can cause another problem … it’s boring. Snore-inducing. If Ottawa is allowed to play with a lead or in a tied game, it’s going to be difficult for The Garden crowd to be a factor in a game with no pace. So, yes, the lead will be important in many ways.
The Senators might be banged up, too, with several of their players, including Erik Karlsson, spending some of Game 2 in the trainer’s room.
You hope it’s not the worst news, but Clarke MacArthur – who missed most of the last two seasons with concussions – left the game early after a clean hit by Ryan McDonagh.
McDonagh – last shift of regulation notwithstanding – played another monstrous playoff game, by the way.
On Saturday, the Rangers cleaned up their penalty kill, though they continued to test it to often, and they were plus-2 in goals while killing. They’re going to have to minimize the number of minor penalties – especially the needless ones – if they’re going to get back into this series.
To do that, they’re going to have to figure out a way to win one game, the next one. Then do that again. But it starts with one, and it will start with better decisions all around and adjustments by individuals and the group. Or it won’t start at all.