Madison Square Garden has been a mecca of misfortune and mixed blessings for the Rangers this season. On Saturday night, their home ice could be their stepping stone.
The Rangers were only 21-16-4 at the Garden during the regular season, but with a 3-2 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens, they can advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by winning Game 6 at home. A victory on Saturday night would send the wild-card Blueshirts to a matchup against the Ottawa Senators or Boston Bruins. A loss would send them on a flight north to uncertainty.
Although the Rangers went 27-12-2 on the road during the season and have won two of three games at Bell Centre in this physically and emotionally bruising series, they do not want to take their chances in a fourth game there, especially a Game 7, when it means win or go home.
“We want to look at [Saturday night] as kind of a Game 7,” said Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith, who has emerged as a rugged addition since being acquired from the Red Wings at the trade deadline. “We don’t want to come back here [Montreal] because anything can happen. I’ve played a couple Game 7s, and it can go either way. We’ve got to try to make sure that we play a smart game and use our fans as a motivator.”
Another defenseman, one who has spent his entire career as a Ranger, felt the same way on Friday, a day after the Blueshirts’ 3-2 overtime thriller in Game 5.
“It’s an elimination game for them,” Marc Staal said. “We’ve been in that situation a lot. You know the feeling going into it; you do everything you can to get a win. For us, it’s an opportunity to close it out at home. Our effort and desperation will be there.”
The Canadiens are 14-9 in Game 7s since 1949. The Rangers are 12-4 in the last 16 matches that were either Game 6 or Game 7, dating to the start of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
A major part of that clutch Game 6-7 record is Henrik Lundqvist, and he has more than done his part in this series. He ranks third among playoff goalies in save percentage (.944) and fifth in goals-against average (1.82). His teammates know where their bread is buttered, and they’re devoted to keeping Lundqvist in one piece by engaging in hand-to-hand combat near the crease.
“We don’t want to see him get hurt by guys jumping on him and falling on him,” Smith said. “I think both teams are walking the line, myself included. I even had some refs saying, ‘You’re on the line now.’ If you watch these playoff games, most of these refs are calling the retaliation. Take a number and figure it out later.”
Said Staal: “There’s a few shifts where they’re sitting on him and falling on him purposely. It’s a team, when Hank’s playing the way he is, they’re gonna try to do some things to get him off his game. If they do cross the line, hopefully we’ll get a man-advantage out of it.”
A timely power-play goal from a forward such as Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan or Jimmy Vesey and the series might have been over by now. Instead, the Rangers are 0-for-14 with the man advantage. “I’m telling myself that we’re due,” coach Alain Vigneault said Friday. “Hopefully tomorrow will be the time.”