TAMPA, Fla. — Yes, the Rangers have been here before in these playoffs, with their backs squarely against the wall. They’ve faced elimination five times, and each time they have won. But can they do it a sixth time? Against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions?
“We’ve been in this spot before, the first two rounds,’’ Barclay Goodrow said Friday as the Rangers returned to Tampa to face the Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday night. “Our group as a whole have obviously handled it very well, and I think gained a lot of experience like that.
“I feel like when our back’s against the wall, it kind of has brought the best out of us. So I don’t see why it would be any different tomorrow. I think we’re excited for the challenge, and we’re confident we can bring it back to New York.’’
After losing the last three games, the Rangers trail the best-of-seven series 3-2. NHL teams that trail a best-of-seven series 3-2 have won 21.4% of the time, but the Rangers already have done that twice this spring. They trailed the Penguins 3-1 in the first round before winning in seven games and trailed the Hurricanes 3-2 in the second round before winning Game 7 on the road.
Of course, neither of those opponents was the two-time defending champion, but coach Gerard Gallant said that doesn’t matter.
“What are we going to say, it’s different [because] we’re playing the Stanley Cup champs?’’ he said. “We’re going to come into the game saying we have to win, our backs against the wall. Play your best game. Nothing changes.’’
One thing that will have to change if the Rangers are to win Game 6 is their goal production in five-on-five situations. In their last trip to Tampa for Games 3 and 4, the Rangers managed a total of three goals, and all of them were scored on the power play. In their 3-1 loss in Game 5 on Thursday, they did score their only goal at five-on-five, but they’ll need more of that.
“Ultimately, we have to be better five-on-five,’’ Mika Zibanejad said. “We have to be able to create more chances. I think that’s kind of been the theme of everything that we’ve been talking about.’’
Zibanejad knows the particular challenge that he and linemates Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano will face in Game 6. In the two previous games in Tampa, Lightning coach Jon Cooper matched a checking line centered by Anthony Cirelli against the Zibanejad line, and the Cirelli line has been winning the matchup. It was the same strategy employed in the second round by Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour, who matched a checking line centered by Jordan Staal against Zibanejad and Co.
“We’ve been here before, speaking for our line [in] the Carolina series, where we didn’t get much five-on-five against that Staal line,’’ Zibanejad said. “But you know, it’s a new game tomorrow. It’s a new opportunity. It’s going to be obviously a challenge, but a fun one . . . I don’t think anyone would have thought it would be as much fun if it wasn’t a challenge, if it wasn’t tough, and if you don’t go through those ups and downs. I think that’s another test for us. We’ve just got to be ready for it.’’
Gallant said he is considering making changes to his lineup. He could do that by inserting someone new or, more likely, by changing up the line combinations.
One option he ruled out was any chance of injured forward Sammy Blais entering the lineup. Blais, who tore his ACL in November, has been skating with the team the past two series, but Gallant said he is “not a possibility’’ for Game 6.
The Rangers are 5-0 this postseason in games where they faced elimination:
Vs. Pittsburgh (Down 3-1)
Game 5, at MSG: Rangers 5, Penguins 3 — Filip Chytil scores the go-ahead goal 2:53 into the third period.
Game 6, at Pittsburgh: Rangers 5, Penguins 3 — Chris Kreider's second goal of the game at 18:33 of the third puts the Rangers ahead.
Game 7, at MSG: Rangers 4, Penguins 3 (OT) —Artemi Panarin's power-play goal at 4:46 of OT sends Rangers into the second round.
Vs. Carolina (Down 3-2)
Game 6, at MSG: Rangers 5, Hurricanes 2 — Chytil scores twice and Panarin puts game away with a PPG in third.
Game 7, at Carolina: Rangers 6, Hurricanes 2 — Kreider scores twice to send the Rangers into the conference finals.