Rangers Playing with Fire in Eastern Conference Final vs. Revitalized Canadiens

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22: Dominic Moore #28 of the New York Rangers and teammate Rick Nash #61
skate off the ice after Alex Galchenyuk #27 of the Montreal Canadiens scores the game winning overtime goal in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 22, 2014 in New York City.Canadiens defeated the Rangers 3-2 in OT.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

It’s been 20 years since the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup that snapped a 54-year drought. Since that last Cup, though, the Blueshirts have been unable to get back to the final series.

They’ve had opportunities but haven’t capitalized when it counted. They’ve lacked a killer instinct.

With a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens, the Rangers have as good a shot as they've had in the past two decades of taking another crack at the NHL championship.

They’ve been the better team in two of the three games so far, allowing six goals and scoring a dozen of their own.

But the Rangers are playing with fire here.

By allowing the Canadiens to steal Game 3 in overtime at Madison Square Garden, New York gives the Habs a serious swing in momentum and makes a series out of what could have—and arguably should have—been a walk in Central Park.

The visiting Habs didn’t even play that well in the 3-2 overtime victory on Thursday, which means there’s plenty of room for improvement heading into Game 4 on Sunday night.

Brian Gionta: "I don't think it was a perfect game. I think we stole that game."

— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) May 23, 2014

If the Canadiens can come away from New York with a 2-2 tie in the series and head back to Montreal with home-ice advantage again, the Rangers might be back to square one when it comes to their quest for a return to the Cup final 20 years later.

After squandering the chance to put their collective (and figurative) skates on the necks of the Canadiens on Thursday night, it's apparent the Rangers still lack the killer instinct that was clearly missing in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers and only surfaced out of desperation against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2.

With a chance to crush the Flyers’ hopes in Game 6 of their first-round series and get some much-needed rest, the Rangers fell completely flat in a 5-2 loss. In Game 7, they battled and came away with a narrow victory but certainly left some wondering if the better team truly won the series.

In the second round, things improved a little for the Rangers, who were a tired bunch early and fell behind 3-1 in the series before rattling off three straight wins to polish off the Pens in seven games.

It was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist who ultimately led the team to victory in those series by shutting the opposition down in winner-take-all scenarios.

Henrik Lundqvist in 2014 Game 7s
Vs. Flyers37 36 .973 W 3-1
Vs. Penguins27 26 .963W 2-1
Playoff total477444.931

If it sets up that way in a third straight series, the Rangers may not be so fortunate.

This is a goalie, you may remember, who fought with consistency early in the regular season. Leaning too heavily on him a third straight time isn’t recommended. It’s a risk.

Which is why the Rangers need to develop a more aggressive mentality. They need to dig deep and find more than just the bond that seemed to intensify as the team rallied around Martin St. Louis when his mother died of a heart attack. The emotion and adrenaline created by a situation such as that is temporary at best.

The Rangers need to win big games earlier in the series and leave nothing to chance.

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 22:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 and Chris Kreider #20 of the New York Rangers watches Daniel Briere #48 of the Montreal Canadiens (not pictured) goal into the back of the net in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Final during the 2014 NHL S
Al Bello/Getty Images

No game this entire season may be bigger than the next one.

With a loud, hungry crowd at MSG behind them, the Rangers have to play their best game of the spring on Sunday to beat the Canadiens and take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. They need the breathing room.

If Game 5 back in Montreal doesn’t go well—whether it’s because of a hot goaltender or some bad bounces—they can always clinch in Game 6 at home.

As good as Lundqvist has been in Game 7s, they’d prefer not to get there against the Habs. We all saw how that worked out for the Boston Bruins—the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the regular season and clear favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference when the playoffs began.

Hope is a dangerous thing in hockey, and the Habs have plenty of it right now despite being outplayed for most of the series. They have a rookie goaltender, Dustin Tokarski, who overcame a shaky first start to shine in his second and earn CBC's first-star honors on Thursday.

The Rangers' tactical error was not taking out Dustin Tokarski with a skates-first crease crash.

— Iain MacIntyre (@imacVanSun) May 23, 2014

The Habs also have Daniel Briere, a proven playoff performer who seems to score goals at key times—even if they’re not always the prettiest.

The Canadiens now have their nasty edge back, too, triggered by the questionably late hit from Brandon Prust on Derek Stepan in the first period of Game 3. The Rangers lost their minds when no penalty was called and saw Dan Carcillo ejected for abusing an official after ramming Prust into the boards in retaliation.

Some may not believe that sequence was a big deal, but focus is a key factor in the postseason, and the Rangers lost theirs.

vengeance works in NHL? Prust  hit sends Rangers on vigilante mission. Lose focus. Lose carcillo. Lose game. Torts must be very pleased.

— bruce dowbiggin (@dowbboy) May 23, 2014

@dowbboy Not the reason NYR lost the game or MTL won the game. Not even remotely close to the reason. Had little to no effect in fact.

— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) May 23, 2014

“Well, you can’t do, obviously, what he did there,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters from the podium after the game, via NHL.com. “We’ll let the league handle that. I believe if a penalty would have been called on Prust, that probably wouldn’t have happened, but there’s nothing we can do about it."

They’ll have to make sure not to dwell on it, either.

Carcillo’s loss in itself isn’t a big deal for the Rangers, but if they can’t move forward from the perceived Prust injustice—assuming the hearing goes in Prust's favor—there’s no bigger distraction than playing rattled, angry or without focus.

Just ask the Bruins.

Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.


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