GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Regulars, role players and rookies, they’ll all be nervous before the puck drops at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. Why not? After 93 regular-season and playoff games, the Rangers have an opportunity to extend their season against the Ottawa Senators, who lead the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series 3-2.
There’s no margin for error. Elimination can be a bad read or a deflection away.
“If you’re not nervous, you’re not human,” coach Alain Vig neault said after practice Monday, during which it appeared that the lineup won’t differ from Game 5 in Ottawa. “I believe in this group and we’re going to rely on our experience. With experience, you can see things evolving a little quicker, you can focus on the right things, you can play with confidence because you’ve been through it before. They’re going to bring it.”
The Rangers dropped the first two games in Ottawa, then held serve at the Garden with a pair of 4-1 wins. A 5-4 overtime loss on Saturday — after the Senators scored the tying goal with 1:26 left in the third period on a shot that bounced off three Rangers before trickling across the goal line — put the Blueshirts on the brink of elimination.
A little luck could determine the outcome in Game 6, but Senators coach Guy Boucher dismissed that premise. “We never want it to be lucky. We don’t want luck,” he said Monday. “We want to deserve it.”
Several Rangers, who wouldn’t mind having a bounce go their way, said one lesson from elimination games is simple: Get involved early.
“You want to get physically engaged,” J.T. Miller said. “That’ll make you relax a little bit; taking a hit, getting a shot, doing some things you can control. You don’t have to worry about scoring a goal right away, it’s hard to control that. But you can make a play, block a shot, whatever you need to do. We’ve been doing a good job of being desperate in this series. We were down 2-0.”
Versatile winger Jesper Fast, who has three goals in the playoffs, agreed. “You have to be ready when the puck drops,’’ he said. “Whatever it takes for you to get ready, whether it’s a hit or making a good play. We have no time to waste right now.”
Said Dan Girardi: “I think you’ve got to realize what’s at stake; the season’s on the line, but you can’t be holding the stick too tight or really getting nervous or thinking too much. Just got to go out and play hard. Every little play counts.”
The Rangers, Miller and others noted, have won four straight playoff games at home. “We’ve been a lot better at home recently, and this is an easy game to get up for,” Miller said. “You’re fighting for your lives. We probably gave them 10 [scoring] chances in the two games here. We need to do that again.”
After an optional practice at the Garden, Boucher was asked why stalls were switched in the visitors’ locker room. “I didn’t change that,” he said. “Guess it’s the players. I hate to be a slave to superstition. I don’t like to be a slave to things that don’t really matter . . . The only focus we have is the first 10 minutes of the game, we’ve got to be better than the last time we were here. We know they’re going to come out surging, with all the urgency in the world.”
Boucher has credited the presence of 17-year veteran Chris Neil in Game 5 for lifting team spirits, and it appears likely that he will dress again. Asked if Neil will affect the Rangers’ mindset Tuesday night, Vigneault responded: “I can’t believe that a player playing two minutes and 26 seconds would be any factor in our group. If it is, then we don’t deserve to win.”