In an Eastern Conference semifinal series that turned sour early for the Rangers, starting with Joel Ward's crushing goal with 1.3 seconds left in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden, the Blueshirts return home Friday night with summer nipping at their heels.
Wearing T-shirts that vowed to "Change the Ending" -- hoping for a different conclusion than last year's Stanley Cup Final in June when they lost to the Kings -- the Rangers couldn't even finish their chances in early May at Verizon Center, a long way from Los Angeles.
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The frustrated Blueshirts scored just once on 59 shots against Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby in two losses that forced them to the brink of elimination.
If the Rangers win Friday night, Game 6 is scheduled for Sunday at 7 p.m. in Washington, where they have lost 12 of the last 16 playoff games. It's not the rosiest of scenarios.
"I could simplify," coach Alain Vigneault said Thursday. "They've been able to make us pay for our mistakes, our turnovers, and we haven't been able to do the same. This is a game of mistakes. As much as I think our game is good, we're down 3-1. It's got to be better."
On an off-day conference call, Vigneault admitted concern about losing faceoffs ("There's no doubt they've been a lot better than we have, they've started with the puck almost 60 percent of the time, so we're chasing it") and getting more shots through to Holtby. The Capitals have blocked 86 shots in four games. "But I believe we're real close," he said. "Sooner or later, you have to believe it's going to pay off. We don't have a choice."
That's the bottom line: Time has run out. The Rangers can't look past Friday night, not at this stage, not while they are reaching for answers.
"It comes down to this: We got to find a way to score some goals," Derek Stepan said. "Focus on Game 5, that's all we really can handle at this point . . . We've been talking about 'Do more, do more, try harder, try harder.' Maybe it's just relaxing a little bit, let the game come, be instinctive. I think we have to go into [Friday] night and just play."
Playing well on every shift is certainly more effective than talking. Beyond saying "this series and this season isn't over," first-year captain Ryan McDonagh, who tried to force a pass through several Capitals before Andre Burakovsky's game-winner on Wednesday, didn't feel the need to deliver a speech.
"It's tough to kind of create words when you're in a situation like we are, with one loss ending our season," he said. "As far as speaking up, I feel with the guys we have in this room, there shouldn't be much that needs to be said. I'm expected to be an impact player and a difference-maker, going to play in a lot of different situations; I need to be as sharp as anyone."
To be sure, there's a core group who have battled through dire straits, led by Henrik Lundqvist, who has put up some eye-popping numbers in elimination games: 11-3, a 1.36 GAA and .957 save percentage, and 8-0, 0.99, .968 and two shutouts in the last eight at home.
Center Dominic Moore, part of last year's squad that rode the emotional wave of Martin St. Louis' return after learning of the sudden death of his mother to overcome a 3-1 Penguins lead, is a believer. "One of the things we can take heart in," Moore said. "We know that we can find another level and find our way through frustration because we've done it before."