New York Rangers center Derek Stepan (21) and Washington Capitals...

New York Rangers center Derek Stepan (21) and Washington Capitals center Brooks Laich (21) battle for the puck during the first period. (May 9, 2012) Credit: AP

After the Rangers' 3-2 loss in Game 4 last Saturday in Washington, which tied the Eastern Conference semifinal at two games apiece, the Rangers' locker room was tense and angry, with raised voices coming from the off-limits trainer's area.

On Wednesday night, the atmosphere was far different after the Capitals, with a 2-1 victory, forced a winner-take-all Game 7 Saturday. The players who stuck around to talk to the media were disappointed, not defiant. The body language reflected a weary team that had been outworked and was hoping to regroup, a frustrated club that needed a day off.

Through a superb season, one in which they claimed the top seed in the East with 109 points and ousted the pesky Ottawa Senators in the first round, the Rangers have answered the bell after tough losses.

But now the pressure assuredly is growing to move past the second round for the first time since 1997 and reach the conference finals against the Devils, who have dispatched the Panthers and the Flyers.

Eliminating the Capitals, who are playing with house money after finishing seventh in the East and bouncing the defending champion Bruins in seven games, will be no easy task.

"You have to get together here and play our absolute best hockey of the year with a Game 7 at home," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "It's going to be a tough one, but a great challenge for us to try to beat this team."

In short, this squad is looking for answers.

The Rangers hope to ride a wave of enthusiasm at Madison Square Garden, where they edged the Senators, 2-1, on goals by Marc Staal and Dan Girardi in Game 7 on April 26 to advance to this round. Going one step further would be rarified air for this franchise, which has made only five trips to the conference finals in 40 years.

Rangers coach John Tortorella, who had been miffed about his team's level of effort and a four-minute power play that launched only three shots at Braden Holtby and shifted the momentum toward the Capitals, was less critical Thursday.

In a brief conference call, Tortorella said it wasn't what the Capitals did to defuse the Rangers. "The onus was on us,'' he said. "We've already met on it, moved by it, and are looking ahead to Game 7. I have a ton of optimism about our club; our club has gone through a lot of different things as far as momentum all through the year and playoffs, and I have nothing but confidence as far as what's going to happen Saturday."

As has been his pattern, Tortorella declined to discuss strategies to spark an offense that scored 13 goals in the series' first six games. "We've discussed that as a team,'' he said, "and we'll keep it in our locker room."

Tortorella often shuffles lines after losses; that could happen Saturday, especially with the second and third trios. Third-line center Brian Boyle was ineffective on a second line; Derek Stepan could be moved up. Perhaps rookie Chris Kreider, who played only 6:06, will see more ice time. "He's a young man trying to learn the game," Tortorella said. "I think he's improving and we'll see where it goes."

If the Rangers win Game 7, they will host the Devils on Monday night and Wednesday night, the NHL said Thursday.

Each of the Rangers' previous 13 playoff games has been decided by either one or two goals. They are 5-5 in one-goal games and 2-1 in two-goal games.

Reasons for optimism on the Rangers' side? They are 4-5 in Game 7s but 4-0 at home. The Capitals are 3-7, 1-1 on the road.

Then again, no team has ever won the Stanley Cup after being forced to Game 7s in the first two rounds.

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