They carefully tried to keep this in perspective and to not get carried away with one win, however decisive it might have been. But honestly, who are you going to believe, the Rangers or your own eyes?
It sure looked like they had pulled even, or even moved ahead in the series Tuesday night. In a way, it felt like they are leading, one game to two.
We all know that series can turn on a dime, as the Rangers said a couple weeks ago. So what they did in a 4-1 triumph over the Senators Tuesday night could get wiped away in the first few shifts tomorrow night. Don’t bet on it, though. Game 3 definitely had the feel of Game 4 against the Canadiens in the first round, a turning point that turned out to be a sea change.
“It says we can erase an emotional loss,” Rick Nash said, referring to the gut-wrenching overtime defeat in Ottawa Saturday, when the Rangers blew a two-goal lead in the final minutes of regulation and eventually fell behind two games to none after the overtime loss. T
he thing was, even the Senators admitted that they had been outplayed that time. They admitted it even more bluntly Tuesday night.
“They were great, they were desperate. We were not,” Ottawa coach Guy Boucher said, adding that his team had no business being in contention after a sleepwalking first period.
The Rangers showed no indecision or self-doubt despite the hole they had dug for themselves. “Honestly, I think it was the day off,” Derek Stepan said, thinking back to a clear-the-heads respite on Sunday.
It allowed them to forget the hurt. “It’s part of the job,” he said. “You have to find a way to understand and grasp that you have more hockey to be played. That’s what our message was and that’s what we’re going to continue to preach.”
It might be more than a one-day recess, though. It might be mental toughness that has been part of the Rangers DNA late in the Henrik Lundqvist era. Three times since 2013 they have rallied to win series in which they trailed by two games, twice against the Capitals, once against the Penguins.
“I think everyone is confident in themselves. We believe in ourselves,” said Mats Zuccarello, who got the show going when he converted Mika Zibanejad’s pass in front at 5:31 of the first period. “It’s only one game, so now we move on to the next one.”
That was the mantra in the Rangers locker room, as it should have been. Nash said, “In a series there are going to be momentum swings. They had the momentum coming into tonight but we had a good effort. We’re still down so next game is even that much more of a bigger deal.”
But the eye test Tuesday night proved what Games 1 and 2 had hinted: The Rangers are better than the Senators. Most people thought that before the series started and Boucher used that as inspiration, seizing on the underdog theme. That did not help in Game 3, nor was it comforting for Ottawa to see two forwards, Zack Smith and Bobby Ryan, leave the ice with injuries.
Of course, there are no guarantees. But at the very least, the Rangers did shore up what had appeared to be their greatest weaknesses in this series: sloppy play with a lead and a vulnerable psyche. It would be an absolute shocker if the Rangers failed to win again before the series is over. Tuesday night was only one game, but it quite possibly counted for something more.
“Listen, it’s a good win for us, but come tomorrow it doesn’t mean anything. We did a lot of good that can help our confidence but after tonight it doesn’t mean anything,” Stepan said. “We’re still down in the series, 2-1.”
Given the way things were trending as of Tuesday night, though, being down 2-1 did not seem so bad.