GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — If you didn’t know the top-seeded New York Rangers were one loss away from elimination, the low-key practice before their biggest game of the season wouldn’t have given away the dire circumstances.
After their best seasons in years, the Rangers are trailing the No. 8 seed, the Ottawa Senators, 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. If New York doesn’t win on the road Monday night and then capture Game 7 back at home on Thursday night, the 51 wins and the first-place finishes in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference won’t mean a thing.
Adorned on the high wall at the Rangers’ suburban practice facility is a motivational saying that can be seen on either side of the circular dressing room: “Everyone wants to win … not everyone is willing to prepare to win.”
Of the 22 previous times the Rangers were tied 2-2 in a series, the Game 5 winner advanced 20 times. That doesn’t bode well for New York, which has been knocked out of the first round in both previous years coach John Tortorella led the club to the playoffs.
The Rangers, who dropped Games 4 and 5, lost three in a row during the regular season only twice — including the first three games they played.
“Whoever is going to win has to win four,” Rangers forward Brad Richards said, “and no one has done that yet.”
Only 11 players took the ice Sunday in what could have been the Rangers’ final practice of the season, and many of them aren’t likely to be in the Game 6 lineup Monday in Ottawa. One player who will, is Carl Hagelin — the speedy rookie forward who finished serving a three-game suspension Saturday night when New York lost 2-0 at home.
Hagelin has been eager to get back in the lineup ever since his wayward elbow to the head of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson in Game 2 landed him in trouble with the NHL and earned him the three-game ban. New York lost that game and then two of the three Hagelin missed to fall into this precarious position.
“I’m excited to get back,” Hagelin said Sunday, still wearing his helmet and practice gear. “We’re down 3-2. We want to get the next one, and that’s the only thing on my mind right now.”
Hagelin declined to answer if he has spoken to Alfredsson, his Swedish countryman, since the hit that left Alfredsson with his second concussion in six months.
The Senators also held an optional practice Sunday, and Alfredsson took part in it — creating at least some hope that he can also return for Game 6 in what will surely be a raucous home crowd.
“We’re obviously going to wait until (Monday), but the way the last two days felt, I’m encouraged,” Alfredsson told The Canadian Press.
Hagelin refrained from making any comments about what the Rangers’ lineup might look like on Monday, and he also didn’t want to say much about Alfredsson or the Senators. He kept his game face on and stuck to simple answers that wouldn’t get him in trouble with his club or anyone else.
“I don’t want to comment on anyone on their team. If he’s good, then that’s good,” Hagelin said of Alfredsson. “I am going to keep playing the same way I have been playing all year. I am not a dirty player. If I don’t play the way I need to play, I’m not going to be a good player. I am going to do my thing.”
So is Ottawa agitator Chris Neil, who appears to have escaped punishment from the NHL for his high and hard hit against 6-foot-7 Rangers forward Brian Boyle in the third period of Saturday night’s game that according to Tortorella, gave Boyle a concussion.
Boyle struggled to get back to the bench, played only a few shifts after the hit, and is a question mark to even make the trip to Ottawa for Game 6. If Boyle can’t play, that means that quickly improving rookie Chris Kreider will probably be in the lineup for a fourth straight game. The 19-year-old Kreider, who recently won an NCAA championship with Boston College, signed with the Rangers right after his college season ended.
As of Sunday afternoon, the NHL didn’t schedule a disciplinary hearing with Neil after reviewing the play, so it is unlikely he will be fined or suspended. Neil wasn’t given a penalty in the game, either.
Tortorella said Sunday he had no reaction to the lack of punishment, a far cry from his stern words after the game on Saturday. He angrily compared it to a hit delivered by Phoenix’s Raffi Torres, who was suspended by the NHL on Saturday for 25 games for his shot that sent Chicago’s Marian Hossa to the hospital.
“He’s concussed and out,” Tortorella said about Boyle. “Exact same hit as Torres. “He launches himself, head shot. The puck is at the goal line when he’s hit. The blueprint is there.
“It’s just a dangerous, dangerous, cheap hit.”
Alfredsson has the luxury of being cautious because his club still has a game to play with before it would face elimination. His wait to return, although difficult, was made a bit easier by the fact that the Senators won three of the four games — including the one in which he was injured — he missed.
“The guys have played really hard,” the 39-year-old Alfredsson told CP on Sunday. “I think we’ve played the way we want to and it’s been fun to watch — but it’s also been a frustrating week.
“It’s nice to be back on the ice and hopefully get back at it (Monday).”
Alfredsson skated Monday morning before Game 3, but had a setback that kept him sidelined all week.
“I could tell I didn’t feel right and we had to back off,” he said. “It took a few days. It wasn’t until Friday I started feeling a little bit better.”
A few goals against suddenly solid Senators goalie Craig Anderson would do a lot to help the Rangers’ confidence and their chances of surviving this matchup.
New York scored four goals in its series-opening win, but has managed only five in the four games since. The Rangers have had 66 consecutive shots stopped by Anderson, who hasn’t allowed a goal in 116 minutes, 32 seconds — dating to the first period of Game 4 when New York took a 2-0 lead before losing in overtime for the second time in the series.
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