NEW YORK — This series between the Senators and Rangers has come full circle.
At the outset, it pitted the eighth seed from Ottawa, playing with house money, against a first-place Rangers team expected to drape themselves in glory. The pressure, the expectations to advance were all on New York in a playoff round that for the Senators was already icing on a pleasantly surprising treat of a regular season.
And now? Four games deep, the series is down to a best-of-three, and the sound we heard from the Rangers dressing room the other night was the proverbial ‘gulp.’
As well as the Rangers played in the regular season, they rarely overwhelmed anyone, hockey’s version rope-a-dope, keeping teams hanging around in games before beating them, usually by a single goal, while sacrificing flesh and bone to help goaltender Henrik Lundqvist block shots.
Now, they’re in the stressful position of having kept the Senators around in this series, perhaps slightly taken aback by Ottawa’s work ethic and growing confidence.
“They’re going to keep coming,” Lundqvist said, as though alerting his teammates to wake up, after the Senators 3-2 overtime victory in Game 4 at Scotiabank Place.
While the Rangers have home ice advantage over the final three games, that has meant little in the first four (each team is 1-1 on home ice, 1-1 away).
What to make of the fact the Senators have not held a lead in regulation but have as many wins as the Rangers? Again, the Rangers have shown a remarkable inability to put the Senators away when they’ve had opportunities, never more glaring than in Game 4 when they scored two quick goals on Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson and, fatally, could not add to it.
On Friday, someone asked Rangers coach John Tortorella if the first 10 minutes of Game 5 would be important.
“As important as the last 50,” Tortorella replied.
Good point. His guys played swell for 10 minutes in Ottawa, but the last 50 left a door open, just a crack.
Nor is playoff overtime the Rangers’ friend. Those two Senators wins in OT have run the winless string to seven for New York. Lundqvist, the Rangers’ “identity,” as Tortorella calls him, has a career playoff overtime record of 1-7.
If the Senators’ confidence is growing the longer this series goes, how good must they feel as games head to extra time? For New York, there has to be a sense of ‘here we go again’ when the Zamboni returns at the 60-minute mark.
There is an ebb and flow to playoff series, shifts of momentum, confidence and emotion that can turn suddenly. So, too, do the media tide twist.
After the 1-0 Rangers victory in Game 3 in Ottawa, extending the Senators playoff home ice losing string to seven, scrums naturally swarmed the top two Senators yet to score — Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek.
Fast forward to Game 4 as Michalek scored a huge goal, young Kyle Turris felt the weight of the world lift of his shoulders with the OT winner, and even Spezza had a huge grin on his face in the day-after soccer game in the arena corridor.
There really is no better feeling than winning in the playoffs.
Now – until the next shift – the focus is on the light-scoring stars on the Rangers. For a sense of this, check out The New York Rangers Blog site, which has some irreverent fun with the shortcomings of Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky.
“I wonder if Dubinsky would be able to score a goal if he was playing in the Penguins/Flyers series? Doubt it.”
Gaborik managed four shots in Game 1, but has since contributed 0, 1, and 2 shots in the other three games.
“Paging Mr. Gaborik, Mr. Gaborik, please pick up the nearest courtesy phone,” jabs the NYR blog.
That Tortorella is defending, not ripping, his star players is interpreted by some as a sign the Rangers are truly concerned, being careful not to pile on the under-achievers.
God knows New York’s best players are getting ice time. In Game 4, Tortorella extended defencemen Dan Girardi (31:17) and Ryan McDonagh (28:14) and captain Ryan Callahan (25:35) while leaving several soldiers on the bench to rot.
Forwards Mike Rupp (who had a dominat OT shift just prior to the Turris winner), John Mitchell and college sensation Chris Kreider along with defenceman Stu Bickel all played four minutes or less.
On the other side, Senators head coach Paul MacLean has all his players in the game. Not a single Senator played less than double-digit time in Game 4. This was a fundamental tenet of Bryan Murray-coached teams: use your bench, get everyone involved, make them feel a part of it.
Two of the those 12-minute-men, Konopka and defenceman Matt Carkner, were walking especially tall after Game 4.
Of course, that was then. Game 5 at MSG Saturday is the next opportunity for momentum to shift, for a critical leg up on the “best of three.”
Who will it be?