NEW YORK – When the New York Rangers last left Madison Square Garden they were embarrassed, disappointed and unsure if they would get another chance this season to erase the haunting memories of a playoff meltdown.
Hard work, desperation, and team bonding – all in the face of a personal tragedy – were enough to prevent the Rangers’ season from ending Friday night in Pittsburgh against the Penguins.
New York will need two more performances just as good to reach the Eastern Conference finals.
The first one is Sunday night back in the Garden, where two losses in the past week put the Rangers in a 3-1 hole and on the brink of elimination.
“Our first game at home, we played real well,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said Saturday after the team returned to New York. “We limited Pittsburgh to 15 shots, we had 35 shots, we had a good amount of scoring chances. We just didn’t finish. The second game, obviously, we’d like to forget about that one.”
That was Wednesday night, a lackluster 4-2 defeat in which the Rangers recorded only 15 shots on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and turned over the puck a staggering 25 times. They had no answers for their foibles and they searched for confidence that they could shake it off and get the series back to New York for Game 6.
“Like we mentioned, it was a bad time to have a bad game, but we did,” Vigneault said. “We moved past it, we got ready for (Friday) night, and we played a good game.”
The Rangers showed their desperation from the start, and jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first period when they had 17 shots – two more than their Game 4 total. They took the play to the Penguins, and rallied around teammate Martin St. Louis, who was in the lineup despite the sudden death of his mother Thursday.
When the Penguins got within 2-1 in the second, the Rangers responded with a pair of goals 50 seconds apart to stretch the lead to three. An empty-netter made it 5-1 and ensured Sunday’s game would be necessary.
“It’s going to be a very emotional night again for our group, being Mother’s Day, and the situation that Marty is going through,” Vigneault said.
While the Rangers waited to head home – their return was delayed until Saturday because of fog in New York – St. Louis went back to Montreal. It was his second trip there as he also went home Thursday after learning of his mother’s death when he arrived in Pittsburgh.
St. Louis spent the night with his father, and on Friday morning they decided it was best for him to rejoin his teammates because that is what his mother would’ve wanted. His latest trip to Montreal was to pick up his father and sister, who will be in attendance for Game 6.
“Hopefully, that will bring us some positive energy,” Vigneault said. “We’ve been able through adversity and through some of these moments to focus in the right areas. That’s what I think we did last night. We applied the game plan we wanted to apply.
“If our intentions are on continuing to play this year, we have to win. Pittsburgh, if they don’t win, they still have another opportunity. From our standpoint, we don’t have a choice. Our level of play, our level of execution, our level of compete and desperation has to be as high as it can be.”
That is one area in which New York has excelled in recent years.
The Rangers are 8-2 in their last 10 games when facing elimination, dating to Game 6 of the first round in 2012 at Ottawa. Henrik Lundqvist has a 1.38 goals-against average, a .953 save percentage, and two shutouts in those games. He is also 6-0 with a 0.98 GAA, .965 save percentage and two shutouts in his last six home elimination games.
New York has won a game when facing elimination in six of its last seven series.
“When your season is on the line, it’s a given that you’re going to come in with every ounce that you have – mentally and physically – and put it all on the line,” forward Brad Richards said Saturday. “We did a good job of having everybody do that (Friday). That’s the biggest challenge, getting everybody to put forth that energy level.”
The Penguins will be looking to regain the momentum that made a loss in Pittsburgh on Friday appear unlikely. Even though they still have two chances to win one game and advance to the East finals for the second straight year and the fourth time in seven seasons, they certainly don’t want to face the pressure of a winner-take-all Game 7 – even on home ice.
“We weren’t at their level,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday. “They were more desperate, and came at us real hard and forced the issue on us.
“A lot of their opportunities were gift-wrapped by us.”