By Steve Silverman
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When the Rangers take the ice Friday night in Newark, they will find themselves in the same position that the 1994 Stanley Cup champions were when they faced the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
They are down three games to two to a hard-skating, gritty team that took advantage of a rare off-night from Henrik Lundqvist to secure a 5-3 victory.
However, all hope is not lost for the Rangers. They were down 2-0 before the game was five minutes old and 3-0 before the halfway point had been reached in the first period. It would have been cause for most teams to throw up their hands and die a slow death. But the Rangers refused to feel sorry for themselves and emerged out of the abyss to tie the game early in the third period. The comeback was solid and honest. They skated, they forechecked and they put shots on Marty Brodeur, who was quite vulnerable himself. It was a game that John Tortorella would call his team’s “best” showing in the series.
Even though they ended up losing by two goals.
The sixth game will take place 18 years to the day of the Mark Messier game. That was the game that cemented Messier’s position as one of the NHL’s greatest all-around players of all-time and the author of the greatest Rangers legend of all-time. Down 3 games to 2 and facing elimination in New Jersey, Messier issued a guarantee that the Rangers would win the game and that their season would not come to an end. He backed up his guarantee – which was even stronger than Joe Namath’s Super Bowl III pregame edict – by scoring a hat trick in the Rangers victory. Messier’s guarantee was bold and direct; Namath’s came in response to overserved Baltimore fans who were denigrating and laughing at the Jets.
The Rangers don’t have anyone on their current roster with Messier’s gravitas. That’s nothing to feel bad about. The Rangers may be on the brink of elimination, but they were the better team for the majority of Game 5 and they have every reason to think that their sensational goalie will rebound with a legendary performance of his own.
Henrik Lundqvist has earned all the plaudits and praise that have come his way this year. He has taken an offensively challenged team and led them to play more consistently than any team in the league from start to finish. He has taken the responsibility on his shoulders by taking advantage of his size and quickness to play at a superior level all year. There’s no reason to think that Lundqvist won’t bounce back from the first-period woes he displayed in Game 5.
He should have been able to stop Stephen Gionta’s opening goal and Travis Zajac’s wrist shot that gave the Devils a 3-0 lead. Lundqvist left Gionta a juicy rebound after stopping Mark Fayne’s point shot and the Devils’ forward efficiently deposited that puck in the net with a deft backhander. Zajac merely skated into the offensive zone and blew an unscreened wrister past the King. That’s the kind of shot that Lundqvist normally stops with ease.
When that shot went in, the Rangers responded by skating faster and hitting harder. Brandon Prust’s backhander in the latter stages of the first period got them on the board and it showed Brodeur was not on the top of his game. That was confirmed 17 seconds into the third period when Brodeur kicked Marian Gaborik’s shot/pass into the net for the game’s tying goal.
Instead of completing a classic comeback, the Rangers once again gave the Devils offensive freedom. Ryan Carter took advantage of it when he gathered in Gionta’s razor-sharp centering pass and slammed a short wrister past Lundqvist for the winner.
That shot hurt the Rangers and Zach Parise sealed the deal with an empty netter.
But the moment Parise’s shot hit the back of the net, the Rangers started preparing for the sixth game. If they can repeat the way they played the final 45 minutes or so, there will be a seventh game in this series. They may not have a Messier to issue a guarantee, but they do have the leadership from Tortorella, Lundqvist, Brad Richards and Dan Girardi to make it happen.
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).
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