A season's worth of hard work, identity creating and a lot of a victories is about to come crashing down. After one of their best regular seasons in team history, one that saw them be amazingly consistent and resilient, the Rangers are one loss away from going home and flipping what could have been a very memorable season on its ear.
Throughout the regular season, the Rangers were a team that thrived on outworking its opponents. John Tortorella has crafted them into a team with a crystal-clear identity. The Rangers aren't going to skate you in circles with dazzling passing and puck possession. Instead, they're going out-muscle you and win the battles along the boards, and grind you down to a nub by the end of the night. They've been trying to do that through five games of their first round playoff series with the Ottawa Senators. It's just not working.
When the Rangers were winning game after game after game during the season, often times the good results were buoyed even more by the fact that the Rangers were playing "playoff style hockey". You can't really look at this series and say the Rangers haven't been playing their game. Especially in Game 5, the Rangers got their forecheck going, they limited their opponent's opportunities, and they leaned on their goaltender to make big saves. That all did happen. But the Rangers simply can't put the puck in the net. In Game 3, the Rangers scored only once and rode Henrik Lundqvist to a steal of a win. After taking a lead with two early goals in Game 4, the Rangers couldn't find the third goal. On Saturday, zilch.
And let's not be lazy and just jump to the convenience of "Craig Anderson is standing on his head and stealing this series." The Rangers did put 41 shots on goal in Game 5, of which Anderson stopped them all. But let's be honest here. How many of those were really great chances? A few come to mind, like Brandon Dubinsky's backhand rebound chance in the 2nd period - which would have went in if Dubinsky just lifted the puck - Chris Kreider's first period half-breakaway, and Ryan Callahan's also half-breakaway. Point is, Anderson played well. He didn't play exceptional. When you're the 8 seed, and your goalie pitches a 41 save shutout on the road, it's usually because he played out of his mind. Anderson didn't because he didn't have to.
The Rangers simply aren't creating quality scoring chances. Of their 41 shots against Anderson in Game 5, how many of them came on un-screened, weak shots from the wing? How many were actual quality chances from dangerous spots on the ice? Unfortunately, the former outnumbered the latter quite significantly. But if you looked closely at the Rangers all season, this doesn't come as a huge shock. For a team that finished with the most regulation wins in the league, the Rangers have a quite surprising lack of natural skill. They were a middle-of-the-pack goal scoring team - ranking 13th. Tortorella notoriously juggled his lines almost every night - would a team who had pronounced skill and the ability to consistently generate great scoring opportunities need to have its line combinations changed so often?
A lot of eyes are looking at Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards, and with good reason. They are the Rangers' two best offensive players. Gaborik is only the third Ranger to ever have multiple 40-goal seasons for the Blueshirts, and Richards was brought in with a mammoth contract in part for his playmaking ability and also for his proven playoff track record. It's fairly safe to say that if those don't find the scoresheet in the next two games, the Rangers will be going home.
When the pending absence of Brian Boyle has the chance to seriously peril your offense, you know you're not a great offensive team. Boyle is a heart-and-soul guy, a tireless passionate player who makes the Rangers better. But he's by no means an offensive whiz. Unfortunately, the Rangers have built their team this way, and with this style. At this point they're more so a collection of third-liner type players, not guys who are really going to put huge amounts of pressure on their opponents' defense. The Rangers' lack of skill is making Craig Anderson look like a Vezina finalist, and making the Senators look like a very good defensive team - neither of which is the truth.
Now it comes down to one game, for the favored Rangers, just to get the series back to their building for a Game 7. You'd have to think the Rangers, who have three goals in their last nine periods, would chip a few goals in if only by the percentages. But, with their season on the line and the pressure higher than ever, who's going to be the one to step up?
But perhaps the problem is deeper than that. Do the Rangers have the capable players on their roster? We're about to find out.