Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

The Rangers know only one way to play, and that's the hard way.

It's a plus when it comes to sacrifice and physicality. When it comes to momentum and taking charge of a series, the hard way is definitely not the right way.

And that is the way these Rangers are headed, tied with the Devils after missing a chance to take control of the series Wednesday night.

It wasn't a rout -- the Rangers are too consistent, shift to shift, to let games get away. But even when they grabbed a 2-1 lead in the second, they were the second-best team on the ice, missing the dagger to plunge into the Devils' hearts and take their first two-game series lead this postseason.

"This was one of those nights we didn't really have it," Carl Hagelin said. "We were still in the game the whole way through, but that's not how we want to play."

During this playoff run, the Rangers have treated momentum the way they treat opposing defensemen as they home in on the forecheck: They crush it, forcefully.

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That can be good when you have a period like last night's opening 20 minutes. The Rangers were a step slow -- John Tortorella was caught on camera telling his team about its sluggishness, in no uncertain terms -- and the Devils, needing to be desperate, pounced on pucks and clearing attempts and generally made the Rangers look like a team with a 3-0 series lead, just trying to coast to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Rangers came out like a different team in the second, corralling bouncing pucks and forcing the tempo to take a brief lead and then, at the very least, get to the third period tied.

But there is this one nagging issue regarding this Rangers team, one that plays the NHL version of small ball or ground-and-pound: When they have the momentum, as they did going into last night's Game 2 -- as they did going into their two previous Games 2s, as they did after winning a pair of Game 3s against the Senators and Caps -- they don't seem to smell blood.

It's difficult to dismiss a 109-point team as lacking a killer instinct, but this Rangers team may be missing that particular championship trait. Their best player, Henrik Lundqvist, can only keep pucks out of his own net, and he was fairly brilliant at that again, leaving Ilya Kovalchuk with head in hands after a glove save on Kovalchuk's neat deflection in the second. Kovalchuk did beat him for the game's first goal with a ripping shot on the power play in the first.

But saves don't build momentum, as great as some of Lundqvist's have been. Neither do blocked shots, even though Ryan McDonagh looked a bit like Willem Dafoe in "Platoon" after his fifth shot block, splayed out on the ice in his own zone, then trying to hobble back into position.

Saves and blocks just don't translate into momentum.

The Rangers followed up their three-overtime epic in Game 3 against the Caps with a poor showing in Game 4. Same with Game 6, after the stirring tie with 7.6 seconds to go and OT win in Game 5.

The Rangers haven't gotten this far without winning big games. Two Game 7 triumphs here in the Garden, a pair of 2-1 nailbiters can be added to the fairly small list of all-time Ranger playoff victories; they even followed up both of those with Game 1 wins to start the next series.

But with a chance to seize control Wednesday night, the Rangers came out slowly, without desperation. They lacked the killer instinct to take charge.

"You need to improve as a team every game," Tortorella said.

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Wednesday night, they didn't.