Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers stay honest with themselves in their self-assessment as a team.
ST. PETERSBURG — Honesty is the best policy, or at least it has been the Rangers’ best policy the previous two days during a suddenly roller-coaster Eastern Conference finals.
They recovered from back-to-back losses in Games 2 and 3 by being honest about their shortcomings and adjusting. Honesty is governing their assessment of Friday night’s 5-1 Game 4 victory, as evidenced by players’ and coaches’ comments Saturday morning here at the team’s St. Petersburg hotel.
And it is honesty about where they stand that will frame their preparation for Game 5 on Sunday night at the Garden, with the series tied at 2-2 but with no clear indication of which team will gain the upper hand when the Blueshirts and Lightning face off next.
“I know we’ve scored 10 goals the last two games, but we’re one and one,” Martin St. Louis said Saturday morning before flying back to New York, off his team’s split of Games 3 and 4 on the road. “It’s not just about scoring goals; it’s playing the game. And I think we’ve done a good job having a good pulse of how we’re actually playing, whether we’re scoring goals or not scoring goals.
“I think that helped us this year get to where we are,” the 39-year-old veteran added. “Really having an honest opinion of how we’re actually playing.”
An honest opinion of Game 4 would start with the fact that Henrik Lundqvist and Rick Nash were as ready as they’ve ever been for a big game, thanks to Lundqvist’s “soul-searching” and Nash’s resolve and skill. It would also include critical commentary, however, on the dreadful outing of St. Louis before his early third-period goal, early miscues from Kevin Klein and Chris Kreider and a Lightning surge that could have broken the game open if two glorious chances hadn’t sailed wide and Tyler Johnson hadn’t caught iron.
A fair examination would also reveal that Tampa is vulnerable, particularly veteran forward Brenden Morrow, plodding defenseman Andrej Sustr and goaltender Ben Bishop. Tampa coach Jon Cooper’s description of a Saturday question about Bishop’s starter status as “asinine” perhaps is a signal that the Lightning now feels as frustrated as the Rangers had been after surrendering 12 goals in Games 2 and 3.
With the Rangers unable to play tight defense in those matches, their demeanor and discourse had grown tight. But on Friday morning before Game 4, their locker room in Tampa was notably loose. It’s easy to say that should be the case, but some teams never get over that hump in the middle of such an emotional series.
Rick Nash finally comes alive in Game 4, something he must continue to do throughout the series.
“I think it’s just the best way to do it, is just stay confident with the group and have good positive vibes,” said alternate captain Derek Stepan. “There’s no sense of dragging the lip around the room. It was 2-1. We weren’t gonna change that. And it’s the same thing going forward from here. It’s 2-2; we can build on things from here, but Game 5 is Game 5.”
It is a new game, a new opportunity, which is something Alain Vigneault’s players are plenty familiar with, since he coaches honestly, with an uncommon patience for mistakes that sometimes backfires but over the long haul fosters trust.
In Game 4, for example, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to sit St. Louis or pull back on Klein’s or Kreider’s minutes to settle down a wild second period. Instead, Klein bounced back in a major way with primary assists on two goals scored in less than two minutes, with the resilient Kreider scoring the first.
St. Louis tallied in the third, and the power-play units Vigneault has kept together erupted for a 6-for-13 stretch these last three games after slumping to 6-for-40 through their first 13 matches. “It depends on the struggle,” Vigneault said of whether he is ever tempted to shorten his bench. “There will be some types of plays or decisions out there that tell me that this guy’s gonna be off and I should do something quick. But most of our guys are pretty good.
“At this time of the year, you need your four lines and your six D’s,” the coach continued. “They know that when one part on one line or one part on a D-pair isn’t ready to execute, it affects the whole team, and nobody wants to hurt the team.”
The Lightning is a top team just like the Rangers, so the Blueshirts have learned they can’t guarantee to limit Tampa’s top talent on any given night. But as long as Vigneault’s top players perform and his roster faces this challenge collectively and confidently, the Rangers know they can win.
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