By Steve Silverman
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The New York Rangers know this going forward: If they can handle the Ottawa Senators in Games 6 and 7, they will have this pressure thing down.
When you are the No. 1 seed remaining in the playoffs (the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks were happily eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings) and you are trailing the No. 8 seed 3 games to 2, you are under pressure.
You will face better teams if you survive, but the pressure won’t be any greater. As the Rangers prepare to face the Senators in Ottawa tonight, the prospect of humiliation hangs over their head. Losing to the No. 8 team in the playoffs makes you question your ability, strategy and what hockey people like to call “character.”
Everything the Rangers worked for during the season when they were sweeping the regular-season from the Philadelphia Flyers and dominating the Stanley Cup champions from Boston could go by the wayside. One more overtime goal or a fluky shot could lead to their demise. It should never come down to that when you are facing a team like the Ottawa Senators.
It’s not that they are a bad team, but they don’t have anywhere near the ability of the Rangers. Defensively, they don’t compare. They have played much better in that area during this series, but don’t think for a minute that it’s not the result of the Rangers squeezing their sticks too tightly and failing to make the finish on the setups that they were putting away during the regular season.
Whatever you do, don’t make a legend out of Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson. He is an average goalie who stopped 91.4 percent of the shots he faced this season and recorded a 2.84 goals against average. He may be playing somewhat better right now, but don’t make him out to be Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent or Patrick Roy. He’s not that good and he can be beaten, despite the shutout that he put on the board in Game 5.
Much of this falls on John Tortorella, who usually runs so hot that his players have a bit of an edge to their game throughout the season. But as a front-runner during the playoffs, his methods may not be the best available. Players need to peak at this time of the year and their confidence needs to be at its highest. The Rangers clearly are not playing their best hockey of the season.
Championship teams have to face many hurdles if they are going to make a memorable run. Perhaps this is the Rangers’ hurdle. They need to show they can get by the first round and then take on the Caps, Flyers or Devils in the second round once they have hit their stride. But there’s no guarantee that they won’t struggle every single round if they manage to survive the Senators.
One of the key issues has to be the start of the game. The Rangers don’t have to score three goals in the first 10 minutes, but they do have to skate with a purpose. They have to take the ice knowing they are the better team and play decisively. Their leaders have to play like they are the best players in the league. Marian Gaborik has to use his speed to spread out the Ottawa defense. Brad Richards must set up in Gretzky’s office and find the open man. Ryan Callahan must drive through the slot with abandon and pick up every loose puck and take advantage of his quick release. Dan Girardi must be a shot-blocking demon who can shut down any Ottawa foray. Henrik Lundqvist must be exactly what he is – the best goalie in the world.
They need the confidence to do exactly what they did in the regular season. If any of these elements are missing, Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Daniel Alfredsson could write their own heroic story for their fans in Scotiabank Place.
But it is in the Rangers’ hands and that means that Tortorella has to raise a peak effort from his team. This is why the Rangers hired him in 2008-09. He had something of a track record when he was hired because he had won a cup with the underdog Tampa Bay Lightning in 2003-04, but he is still looking for his first playoff series win with the Rangers.
So the pressure on Tortorella may be even more intense than it is on his talented players. But when you coach in the NHL in New York, that’s the way it is and there’s no getting around it. The Rangers will find out exactly what kind of coach they have over the next couple of games. If the production level isn’t there in Games 6 and 7, hard questions have to be asked and tougher decisions will have to be made.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).