NEW YORK — Practice for the New York Rangers went from optional to mandatory. Their attitude shifted from agitated to optimistic.
For the third straight series, the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team is all even through four games, and each time New York has headed into Game 5 off the disappointment of a loss that would have given the Rangers a commanding 3-1 edge.
The negative view would be that they can’t handle prosperity. The positive outlook is that the Rangers have a knack of bouncing back. After all, they advanced from this spot in the opening two rounds with Game 7 victories in the comfort of Madison Square Garden.
The task at hand against the rival New Jersey Devils in the conference finals is difficult, yet satisfyingly familiar. The Rangers have lost three straight Game 2s after series-opening wins and all three Game 4s following Game 3 victories. They have won two in a row only once in 18 in playoff games and have just one two-game losing streak in the post-season.
“I guess it’s a positive. We’re used to this situation,” Rangers captain Ryan Callahan said Tuesday after practice. “It’s something we’ve been through. We know how to prepare for it, and we’ll be ready.”
New York, which will host Game 5 on Wednesday night, is now in a best-of-three series with two of the games at home if it goes the distance again.
With whistle in hand, and instructions bellowing across the ice, Rangers coach John Tortorella ran a 40-minute practice that was originally scheduled to be optional. That changed after a 4-1 defeat on Monday in Game 4 in New Jersey.
After a team meeting that didn’t include any film work, Tortorella seemed pleased with his team as it prepared for yet another important game.
“It defines our team … our resiliency,” Tortorella said. “You have to remember, when you’re trying to win two in a row, there’s also a team trying not to lose two in a row. It’s a pretty good team at this stage of the season.
“I feel really good about our approach today and how we’re going to go about our business (Wednesday).”
That doesn’t mean that Tortorella isn’t soliciting outside help for his struggling offence. What can be done to get players such as regular-season leading goal scorer Marian Gaborik, playmaker Brad Richards, and others such as Callahan and Brian Boyle going?
“Pray,” Tortorella said. “I don’t know what else to tell you. We’re going to keep on trying to play, pray, and hopefully something good happens to them.”
The Rangers have scored nine goals in four games with the Devils — six in New York’s mirror-like 3-0 win in Games 1 and 3. Only one has been scored by the Rangers’ top-line forwards.
Rookie Chris Kreider scored in each of the first three games just weeks after helping Boston College win the NCAA championship. Defenceman Dan Girardi, not known for his offensive prowess, has two goals, fellow defenceman Marc Staal also has one and forwards Callahan, Artem Anisimov and Ruslan Fedotenko have one each.
A common theme throughout the playoffs has been that the team that scores first has won most often. New York has been plagued by poor starts, and that was most evident on Monday when the Devils jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first period and never looked back in a game that became more chippy and featured a screaming match between Tortorella and Devils counterpart Peter DeBoer across the benches in the third period.
That followed a left jab from rugged Rangers forward Mike Rupp to the chest of Devils goalie Martin Brodeur that highlighted the on-ice mayhem.
“I think emotion takes over,” DeBoer said Tuesday, an off day for the Devils. “I took offence at what happened on the ice, and that was my outlet — right or wrong.”
Rupp became a prime symbol of the Rangers’ frustration in a game in which sloppiness cost New York dearly. Young defenceman Michael Del Zotto made numerous mistakes, including a pair that directly led to New Jersey’s second goal. Del Zotto played only sparingly the rest of the way after another gaffe early in the second period.
While the intensity is certainly expected to be at a high level for however long this series goes, both teams seem to think that there wouldn’t be much of a carryover of the extracurricular activities from Game 4.
“I don’t think it’s anything that I need to let go or our team needs to let go,” Rupp said. “We’re focused on a three-game series, and we’ve got two of those games at home. We’re confident in that. We faced that the first two rounds, so we’re going to go at it the same way.”
Brodeur said after Monday night’s win that he was surprised by the blow from Rupp, his former Devils teammate. He was impressed by his ability to take a punch and was ready to move on in his quest for a fourth Stanley Cup title — and first since he turned 40.
“It’s all forgotten,” Brodeur said. “It’s the playoffs. I think you need to put everything in check. What happened in one game usually doesn’t carry in the other ones. We know that it’s going to be emotional. It’s a hostile environment in the Garden. They’re going to try to be a little more physical the way they were late in the game.
“We have to do what we do and not worry about anything else. Just go in there and win the hockey game.”
While neither team would disclose its lineup plans for Game 5, the Rangers will surely have Brandon Prust back in following his one-game suspension for elbowing New Jersey defenceman Anton Volchenkov in the back of the helmet in Game 3. The likelihood is that Stu Bickel, who played at forward and on defence in Game 4, will sit again.
Injured Rangers forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Mats Zuccarello both practiced fully with the team on Tuesday, and appear closer to being able to return. Tortorella provided no medical or status updates for the duo.
Coming off a win, the Devils are expected to stick with the their Game 4 lineup that included young forward Jacob Josefson in place of struggling veteran Petr Sykora.
Regardless of who plays, the emotions are expected to keep trending upward with so much on the line. The Rangers haven’t been in the Stanley Cup finals since their last championship in 1994. New Jersey is looking to go back for the first time since winning it all in 2003.
“When these two teams get together, I think you expect things like this to happen,” Devils captain Zach Parise said. “It’s not the way we play, as we showed against the Flyers. We do a good job of staying out of that and playing disciplined. That has worked well for us, so far.
“By no means are we saying uh-oh. You anticipate the tempers to rise a little bit throughout when we’re playing these guys.”