This first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Penguins has turned into a microcosm of the Rangers’ whole season.
Every time they have been counted out, the Rangers have defied the odds. Each time the uphill battle has seemed too steep to overcome, the Rangers have made it to the top anyway. Their resiliency, devotion to a team game and knack for finding ways to pull out wins have carried the Rangers to this point — and all of that will have to come through when they take the ice for a do-or-die Game 7 on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden.
“We approached the last two games as Game 7s,” head coach Gerard Gallant said after practice Saturday, referring to how the Rangers avoided elimination in Games 5 and 6 after falling behind 3-1 in the series. “Really, we had to win those games, they were must-wins and we found a way to win those hockey games. So tomorrow is no different.
“If you lose, you go home, so just keep trying to play and keep winning hockey games, and then you can move on.”
There is no stage bigger than this one. The pinwheel ceiling at the Garden hasn’t looked down upon a Rangers Game 7 since May 29, 2015, when the Lightning handed them their first-ever loss under such circumstances, to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. That’s right: The Rangers have lost just one Game 7 on home ice in franchise history.
This Rangers team is charged with keeping that number in the loss column at one. It’s a lofty task for a team competing in its first postseason in five years, but one that the Blueshirts, all season long, have shown they’re capable of handling.
Anyone who has watched the Rangers this season knows that rallying from behind has become an identifying trait of theirs. Throughout an 82-game regular season, the Rangers recorded 27 (27!) come-from-behind victories. And when they were minutes away from summer in Games 5 and 6, staring up at two-goal deficits, the Rangers did what they do best and found ways to keep their head-turning season alive.
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“I think we don’t quit,” said Alexis Lafreniere, who described playing in Game 7 as a privilege. “Our character is really something. We were down in both games, we never quit or stopped playing as a team. That’s something that’s really good for us. As long as we play like a team like that, I think we have a good chance to win.”
While the rallies have kept things fun and interesting, the Rangers can’t keep pressing their luck. Falling behind by a couple of goals will catch up to them eventually, and in a Game 7 against an experienced club like the Penguins, the Rangers shouldn’t take the chance.
How many times can they dig themselves out of early holes? How many times can they rely on goalie Igor Shesterkin to bail them out? How many comebacks do the Rangers have in them?
We could find out Sunday night. But if the Rangers want to set themselves up with substantial confidence — not only for the second round, but for the foreseeable future — Game 7 will have to be a decisive win.
Whether Penguins star Sidney Crosby plays or not. Whether Pittsburgh’s No. 1 goalie, Tristan Jarry, plays or not. It’s on the Rangers and the Rangers alone to seize this opportunity.
“As long as we finish the right way, I don’t care,” Gallant said. “It’s all about winning the hockey game. We’ve had some tough starts on the road, no doubt, but we had some real good starts here. So I’m not concerned about it.”