Nobody knows better than the Rangers that momentum can feel like a million bucks, but it can turn on a dime. So they were wary about this exercise in déjà vu in reverse.
It was all so obvious: Rangers-Penguins series goes to Game 5. Road team is down three games to one. The task seems impossible. Last year, the Rangers were on the downside of that scenario. They used it to turn the corner and they have not turned back.
Instead, they turned back the Penguins, 2-1, Friday night and knocked them out of the playoffs as Carl Hagelin made a turn from behind the net into the right circle and scored 10:52 into overtime. They won the series, four games to one, and maintained the mojo that began with that memorable Game 5 against the Penguins last year.
"Our goal tonight was to win it in five," Hagelin said. "We know how hard it can be."
Of course they were wary. The memory of being down three games to one against the Penguins last year still was vivid and the aftermath still fresh. Back then, they were booed off the Garden ice in Game 4 and were pushed to desperation. And look what has happened to them.
So it stood to reason that if it could happen then, it could happen again, the other way around. "That's probably a good way to describe it," said Derek Stepan, who scored a power-play goal at 4:23 of the first period -- a marked contrast to last year against the Penguins, when the Rangers' power play was 0-for-36 at one point.
Friday night turned out to be more about contrasts with the 2014 Penguins series than similarities. That was more anguish. This was sheer fun.
"Going into overtime in your home rink, having the opportunity to close out a series is not a bad position to be in," Marc Staal said. "It's playoff hockey. It's the best time of year, so obviously it's a blast. Obviously, it's better when you win."
The Rangers are just different from they were at their low point of the 2014 playoff series and, for that matter, so are the Penguins. This ought to be a lesson for the teams that put so much effort into tanking in order to land Connor McDavid, the supposed "next Sidney Crosby." The original Sidney Crosby could not prevent the Penguins from staggering into the playoffs.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh's other superstar, went this whole series without a point. "It tells me we've got a great goalie, and great D-men," Hagelin said.
Depth, balance, speed and confidence all matter, and the Rangers began showing all of that in Game 5 on the road in May 2014. Yes, we all remember that Martin St. Louis' presence, after the death of his mother, was the emotional touchstone. But adrenaline rushes do not last nearly a full year. The Rangers won two more to knock the Penguins out of the playoffs, beat the Canadiens and lost to the Kings in the Stanley Cup Final.
They stoked their momentum this season by having St. Louis for a full season and adding and/or promoting Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Keith Yandle. While the long postseason probably took steam out of the champion Kings, who failed to make the playoffs, it seemed to energize the Rangers and led them to the Presidents' Trophy with the league's best record.
There would be no stunning turnaround in Game 5 this year. The Rangers now are better than the Penguins were then. The Rangers now are better than the Rangers were then, too.
"You have to be better this time of year. Everybody has to elevate their game but stay within the system, the way we play," said Miller, who had a solid game for a team that has turned a corner and is in no hurry to turn back.While the long postseason probably took steam out of the champion Kings, who failed to make the playoffs this season, it seemed to energize the Rangers and led them to the Presidents' Trophy with the best regular-season record in the league.