So the Rangers go to the brink of elimination, a place where they’ve been plenty the last six years, through 15 playoff series, with a lot of success and some failure.
1. We’re going to see what the Rangers have under the hood … again. They make a habit of putting themselves in these spots, and have done so three times already in these playoffs – down 2-1 to Montreal before winning three in a row; down 2-0 to Ottawa before winning two in a row; and now down 3-2 after Saturday’s 4-3 late lead turned into a 5-4 overtime loss.
2. If you’re looking for a reason to be hopeful, this core group of Rangers has done this before, and this overall roster is arguably deeper than some of those who have done it. We often see the Rangers’ best when shoved to the edge of the cliff. That doesn’t mean we’ll see it again. Not at all. But it doesn’t mean we won’t.
3. Just so you know, the last six playoff seasons the Rangers have come back from 3-1 down twice, came back from 0-2 once and came back from 3-2 down to the Ottawa Senators in 2012. They are 15-5 when facing elimination in that span, starting with the Game 6 and Game 7 wins against the Senators in ’12. And in those elimination games, Henrik Lundqvist has a 1.74 goals-against average, a .945 save percentage and two shutouts (stats courtesy of Rangers’ stat man extraordinaire Mike Rappaport). Even in one of their series losses – to Tampa Bay in the 2015 Eastern Final – the Rangers were down 3-2 and romped to a 7-3 win in Game 6 before losing Game 7 at home.
4. So we’ve established that the Rangers have shown some guts in the past, and twice in this playoff season already. That and $4.75 might get you a venti skim latte. It’s show-me time again for the Rangers, and they have nobody to blame but themselves for being in this fate-tempting spot again.
5. Let’s not sugarcoat it. The Rangers are here on their own merit. Look at this series. They were the better team in Game 1, got an unlucky break when Erik Karlsson’s bad-angle shot banked in off a screened Lundqvist’s hat and in for the winner with 4:11 left. They were in complete control of Game 2, up 5-3 with 3:19 left and 5-4 with 1:02 left before losing 6-5 in double-OT. They completely dominated Games 3 and 4, each by a 4-1 score at The Garden, and of course the all-homer trend with Saturday’s loss – allowing the tying goal with 1:26 left, another 6-on-5 bank-shot goal by Derick Brassard, who didn’t actually shoot it, before losing it, 5-4, on a somewhat lucky-bounce goal by Kyle Turris.
6. Starting with the worst first. The Rangers have had a terrible time with 5 vs. 6 situations, not just in these playoffs but during the last two seasons overall. They gave up one goal in Game 2 vs. Montreal, another in Game 2 vs. Ottawa, and a third Saturday. Why? Well, for one thing, they have a way of turning into a fire drill, players sliding in front of passes and shots, players puck-watching around the crease, not to mention failed clear attempts, lost faceoffs and icings. That’s a pretty good start.
7. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said the Rangers knew how to handle the 5 vs. 6, but added that some may not have known the goalie was pulled? How is that possible? How would you not assume the goalie’s out? How does the bench not alert you? How do the players on the ice not communicate? Hard to imagine.
8. A lot has been made about the defensemen Vigneault chooses in those situations, and like most coaches, he tends to trust his veterans, those who’ve gotten it done for him in the past. In the aforementioned three 5 vs. 6 goal-allowed situations, Vigneault went with Marc Staal and Nick Holden (with forwards J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Michael Grabner) in Montreal; Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi (with Grabner, Hayes and Jesper Fast last week in Ottawa); and Staal and Brendan Smith (with Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello and Tanner Glass) Saturday. The missing piece in these puzzles is Brady Skjei, the rising rookie who doesn’t get on the ice in those situations.
9. But this time, all heck broke loose and the Senators flooded the front of the net. Brassard kicked the puck through the crease, Staal was knocked on top of Lundqvist by Kyle Turris, I believe it was, the puck may have glanced off Staal, hit Glass, and banked in off the skate of Smith, who was guilty of puck-watching. Tie game. Overtime.
10. The Rangers might be the worst at the 5 vs. 6, but they aren’t alone. It’s a league-wide epidemic. There have been 13, yes 13, 6-on-5 goals scored during these playoffs. Most notably, and quite hard to believe, Anaheim scoring three of them with goalie John Gibson on the bench to erase a 3-0 Edmonton lead in the wee hours of Saturday morning, then winning in double-overtime. The last of those three came with 14 seconds left in regulation, and with Ryan Kesler yanking goalie Cam Talbot’s right pad, opening his five-hole to let the tying goal sneak in. Video review didn’t get it right. Earlier in the week, Pittsburgh tied Washington with 1:05 left in Game 3, 6-on-5, but Washington won in overtime. So it happens. It just happens to the Rangers more.
11. Still, they had chances to win it in overtime. Early on, Miller’s long wrister through traffic hit the pipe. Hayes carried in and his pass deflected high, Grabner batted it in, but with a high stick, so the goal was disallowed. Then came the crusher. Kyle Turris’s shot was blocked by Dan Girardi – why the Rangers still block long-range shots instead of letting Lundqvist see them, I don’t know – but the puck bounced right back to Turris, who was already past Girardi, and his shot beat Lundqvist. Game over.
12. Back to the beginning. So the Senators inject Chris Neil, soon to be 38, who hasn’t played in months, into the lineup to concuss Brian Boyle. Oh, wait, that was 2012. This time to try go get Tanner Glass to fight him. Glass is smarter than that, of course. No reason to fight Neil, who was at his Teflon luckiest when, after a Glass hit on Dion Phaneuf, which was correctly called a penalty, Neil charged in, dropped his gloves and threw punches at Glass. The officials determined that an interference penalty and a complete mugging are both worth two minutes. Neil had zero negligible real impact in the game, and very little ice time thereafter.
13. That said, it meant a whole lot to the Senators to have Neil’s historically unpunishable muscle in the lineup after Glass had been so obviously in their heads the previous two games. Also worth noting, as well as Glass has played when he got the call in this series, he was minus-3, including the tying goal Saturday. Thus, I wonder if Neil plays Game 6, and I wonder if Alain Vigneault makes a switch back to Pavel Buchnevich – his history is to make changes after losses and rarely after wins.
14. So away they went, and the start could not have been better for the Rangers. Smith’s steal at the defensive blue line and 3-on-2 pass was dunked by Fast. 1-0. Jimmy Vesey caused a turnover and sent Holden in for a shot in off the post behind Anderson. 2-0. Big Game Brass was in full glide mode on Holden’s goal.
15. But Lundqvist, who was not nearly at his best in the Game 2 loss, was a bit wobbly again in Game 5. He tried to make a pass from behind his net to McDonagh but missed him, and it created havoc. The Rangers never recovered and Mark Stone buried a rebound. 2-1.
16. Glass rubbed out Erik Karlsson, who retaliated and put the Rangers on the power play. To that point, Glass had been so effective in the series. But Karlsson was warming up and would have a sensational game. Karlsson put a solid hit on Chris Kreider, and he was getting warmed up. He would play 31:09, wincing and limping throughout.
17. The Rangers were cutting through the Senators, but the Senators weren’t meeting a lot of resistance through the neutral zone themselves. On yet another 2-on-1, Fast’s pass gave Grabner a semi-break, and Anderson made an arm save. Then Lundqvist stopped one off a slow-developing Ottawa 4-on-2. With Girardi in the box for the first called crosscheck of these playoffs (sarcasm), Lundqvist came out and made a lunging save on a Turris one-timer. But the penalty seemed to re-charge the Senators, who were reeling to that point.
18. After a long Rangers shift in the Ottawa end, the Senators answered and Mika Zibanejad made a tremendous defensive play to knock a wide-open Smith off the puck at the left post. Lundqvist made a big stop on Viktor Stalberg’s wrap-around short-handed after Kreider whiffed on a wrister in the slot down the other end. A Holden slash put Ottawa back on the power play.
19. During that 4-on-4, Lundqvist stopped Stalberg and Hoffman. And Glass, out of the box, hustled back to break up a 2-on-1.
20. Karlsson broke up a play in front of his own net, the Senators broke out with numbers. Vesey drifted across the ice, leaving Mike Hoffman to slam in a one-timer from Karlsson with Hayes well behind the play. 2-2.
21. Another odd-man situation and Tom Pyatt wasn’t tied up by Skjei – despite all the emphasis on tying up sticks in front — and redirected Smith’s pass through Lundqvist. 3-2. Two goals in 23 seconds.
22. As Ottawa had taken over play, the Rangers put together a good shift in the Ottawa end by the Hayes line. Girardi fired it to the front of the net. The puck was blocked, but Grabner got free from a check and swept it toward the net. McDonagh in deep tipped it past Anderson. 3-3. That was a big, big point in the game. Then MacArthur took a needless, senseless slashing penalty that put the Rangers on the power play to end the period.
23. They wasted it, and when it was over, Staal had a shot blocked and got trapped for a breakaway by Bobby Ryan, but Lundqvist kept it at 3-3 with a smothering save. On consecutive shifts, Oscar Lindberg and Miller, then Kreider with a semi-breakaway, had chances to untie it.
24. The Situation Room in Toronto, which missed the interference on the game-tying goal in Edmonton-Anaheim Friday night/Saturday morning, got one right in the Rangers’ favor for a 4-3 lead with 7:12 left. Vesey laid out to direct a shot/pass from his roommate Skjei over the goal line. Anderson reached back and made a sensational grab, but his glove was over the line and the goal-cam showed very clearly that it was a goal.
25. At that point, and beyond, the Rangers should have been able to take a 3-2 series lead back home. They weren’t, and again they went into the mode of not spending time in the opponent’s end … same as Game 2 in Montreal, same as Game 2 in Ottawa.
26. So here they are down 3-2, and really it’s remarkable they are even where they are with the offensive contributions they’ve gotten from Stepan, Kreider, Hayes and Miller, and even in this series, Zuccarello and Rick Nash. Hard to imagine they can take it a lot farther without more from all of them. But, we’ll see. These Rangers have been here, done that, before. They’ll have to play their best game of this series. Twice.