NEW YORK — Win, loss. Boom, bust. Up, down.
"That's the playoffs," said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. "You go from high to low, and one day you're so happy and excited, and the next day you're disappointed and upset. The big thing is just to forget about it."
Well, that has been the playoffs for these Rangers, anyway. They have been riding the seesaw for so long, they ought to be sick to their stomachs. You wonder if they're on the verge of an uptick, because the pattern says they're due to win, or an upchuck, because they can't keep eking it out like this.
They never take control of a series. They struggle to score. They don't make it easy. At 10-8 during the playoffs, they aren't far above .500. These are not the Los Angeles Kings, cruising into the Stanley Cup final at 12-2.
But the big thing is really to remember: It had to be this way for the Rangers, who are built to survive on grit, guts and goaltending, and it has all led to this for Lundqvist, who seems like he was made, in body and mind, to make the difference in the playoffs.
While the Western Conference final is already over, the Eastern Conference final is just getting started. The Rangers and New Jersey Devils are tied, 2-2, entering Game 5 on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. Best 2-out-of-3.
"You get more and more excited for each game. You know you're getting closer to where you want to be," Lundqvist said. "Of course, you feel the pressure, but you don't want to put too much pressure on yourself. You want to see it as a great challenge and a great opportunity instead of just a lot of pressure."
The situation seems desperate for the Rangers. The situation seems so desperate, in fact, that captain Ryan Callahan wasn't asked, as players always are, if this is a must-win game. He was asked if the first period of Game 5 is a must-win period.
Of course, Callahan said no. It isn't.
The Rangers went win, loss, win, loss through the first four games in the first round against the Ottawa Senators. They lost Game 5 at MSG. They came back and won the series in seven.
The Rangers went win, loss, win, loss through the first four games in the second round against the Washington Capitals. They won Game 5 at MSG. They still needed to win the series in seven.
Now the Rangers have gone win, loss, win, loss through the first four games in the third round against the Devils. No matter what happens in Game 5 at MSG this time, we will know this series isn't over.
A new pattern seems to have emerged against the Devils. When Lundqvist pitches a shutout, he is 2-0. When he doesn't, he is 0-2.
Besides rookie Chris Kreider, who went straight from Boston College to the playoffs and has three goals in this series, the Rangers have gotten virtually nothing from their top six forwards. Marian Gaborik, Carl Hagelin and Derek Stepan each have zero points. Brad Richards has two assists. Callahan has one assist to go with an empty-net goal.
Coach John Tortorella gave his best one-word answer of the playoffs when asked what he could do to get those guys going.
"Pray," he said.
But this is really not new.
The Rangers weren't exactly a scoring machine in the regular season. That's why they have become famous for blocking shots, and that's why they had to plunk a college kid into their lineup at the most important time of year. They have been resilient all along. "I think it defines our team," Tortorella said.
Lundqvist has never had much of a margin for error. Based on his regular-season work, he was named a finalist for not only the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the NHL's top goaltender, but the Hart Trophy, which goes to the league's most valuable player. Based on his work now, he is a leading candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes to the playoff MVP.
The Rangers haven't scored four goals in a game since Game 1 of Round 1. They have scored 34 goals over their past 17 games. So they are essentially averaging two goals per game. Lundqvist, who has yet to allow four goals, is 0-6 when he allows three. He is 10-2 when he allows two or fewer.
"I try not to think too much about how we play as a team, because it's not something I can control," Lundqvist said. "We will have nights where we score more goals, and some nights we're going to win 1-0 or 2-1, and I'm fine with that."
In other words, he can only keep pucks out of the net. He can't put them in it. And he's used to it.
He's also at the height of his powers and about as rested as he can be. He's 30 years old. He played only 62 games in the regular season, the fewest since his rookie year, precisely so he could be fresh in May and June. He posted the best numbers of his career in the regular season, a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, and now his numbers are even better in the playoffs – 1.64, .939.
Even though this is his first appearance in the conference final, he won't reach his personal high for games played – regular season and playoffs combined – until Game 6, which will be Game 82 for him.
Bottom line: The Rangers are the Rangers. They have to do a better job of keeping the puck out of their end, and they have to generate more offense, and they might even be overdue for a big night – especially if Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur is overdue for a bad one. But they can't change who they are at this late stage, and they might not need to.
Lundqvist is Lundqvist. He's ready for this. He rested for this. If ‘The King’ can carry his team to face the Kings, he will add the biggest jewel yet to his crown.
"It's the fun time of the year, no question," said Lundqvist with a smile. "Every game is so intense. You're definitely more tired after each game than during the regular season. You put in more energy and more focus into each game – but you're fine. You get two days, and you're ready to go again. You want to be here."
There is a reason they put seesaws in playgrounds.
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