The New York Rangers were never going to have an easy road to the Stanley Cup Finals. The crossover format helped, as they would be able to avoid Pittsburgh and Washington until the Conference Finals. But even if the Rangers could make it through the first two rounds, they would be big underdogs against the winner of the Capitals Penguins series. However, two things happened this week that may have given the Rangers a path out of the wilderness and into the Stanley Cup Finals.
1. The Rangers Woke Up
After a mediocre showing in Game 1 and a brutal double overtime loss in Game 2, things looked bleak. They lost on a fluky goal and then squandered a late two goal lead. Vigneault was taking criticism for his baffling personnel decisions. It wouldn’t be easy to recover.
But something happened on the way back to the States. The Rangers came out flying in Game 3 and dominated from start to finish. Not only did they skate, but their puck management was about as good as it can be.
Other encouraging signs were the defensive zone play, where Senators were being neatly rubbed out all over the Rangers’ zone. The Rangers spent little time in their own end for much of the game. It’s not a coincidence that Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith saw increased minutes at the expense of Marc Staal and Nick Holden. Had that been the case in the third period of Game 3, the Rangers would likely be up 2-1.
Another good sign is that the tendency of this team to play poorly at home during the regular season has not carried over to the playoffs. The Rangers have only lost one of four home playoff games.
While there is tough sledding ahead and the Rangers can’t afford another slip, the series suddenly looks singularly winnable. If the Rangers can take care of business on Thursday night at the Garden, I like their chances in a best of 3 series even with two of the games in Ottawa.
2. Sidney Goes Down
Sidney Crosby’s head was on the receiving end of a Matt Niskanen crosscheck on Monday night and he will miss some time with a concussion. He’s only been ruled out for Game Four to this point, but he’s had concussion issues before. Crosby missed the first six games of this season with a concussion. It seems possible that he could miss significant time.
The battled tested Penguins are still a good team without Crosby. After he left Game 3, they were able to score two late goals with their goalie pulled to send it to overtime. The Penguins ending up losing, but this is still a dangerous team. Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Conor Sheary, and Patric Hornqvist, to name a few from their deep stable of forwards, are dynamic players.
With a two games to one lead going into Game 4 on Wednesday, the Penguins still have a shot to find a way to get two more wins even if Crosby isn’t able to play. A favorable scenario for the Rangers would be a bruising seven game series where the Penguins limp through. It would still be a hard battle. Still, the Rangers’ chances of avenging last season’s first round loss would significantly improve with Crosby out of the lineup.
The Rangers have plenty of work ahead if they want to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Things were looking grim leaving Ottawa. However, a stellar performance in Game 3 and the possibility of their potential next opponent being without their top player has opened a door for the Rangers to sneak their way into the Finals. Let’s see if they can pull it off.