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Monday, May 20, 2024

Rangers can change their closeout narrative

RALEIGH, N.C. — It was as if the first three victories somehow counted less than the ensuing two defeats. It was as if the Rangers, and not the Hurricanes, were the ones on the brink entering Thursday night’s Game 6.

The narrative has begun to dominate the conversation, it is a narrative about the inability of the Rangers to close out a series — after losing in seven to the Devils last season after winning the first two games of the first-round series on the road a year after they lost four straight to Tampa Bay in the 2022 conference finals after taking a 2-0 lead at the Garden.

Funny, but I always thought the unexpected run to the 2022 final four reflected well on the team that overcame a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh to win the first round in seven in overtime at the Garden before overcoming 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to defeat Carolina in a Game 7 on the road.

Jacob Trouba #8 of the New York Rangers celebrates his second period goal against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5. Getty Images

Now, though, the final four games against the then-two time defending champs retroactively have come to define this squad, which is two years removed from that experience and is operating under a different head coach and staff.

Nothing is really expunged from the record, right? Benefit of the doubt does not accrue to a franchise that has not won the Stanley Cup in 30 years and has won one championship over the past 84 years.

The 2023-24 Rangers have been a different breed under head coach Peter Laviolette, but the defeats in Games 4 and 5 — and most certainly Game 5 when the club pulled a no-show — have cast some doubt whether things have actually changed.

And every time they come to this kind of a crossroads — whether it was against the Devils last year, the Lightning two years ago, the Senators in 2017, the Lightning in 2015, the Devils in 2012 — it strikes me once again just how monumental 1994 was and just how monumental Mark Messier was in owning 1940.

The series is not only played on the ice, it is also played between every player’s ears. I asked Laviolette whether the Blueshirts needed to remind themselves that they’re actually the team that’s leading the series.

Rangers left wing Chris Kreider and Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Jalen Chatfield battle for the puck. AP

“I think that’s just the nature of the playoffs,” said the coach, who was not terribly interested in engaging in a philosophical discussion seven hours ahead of the opening draw. “We know we’re in a situation where that best-of-seven window has narrowed down to two, and we know we need to win one game.

“We focus on how we can play better, things we can do to make sure that we are ready to play and win a hockey game.”

The Rangers scored four times on their first six power-play opportunities while operating at a next-level capacity. It was as if they were toying with the Carolina’s top-ranked penalty kill. The penalty kill had been pristine as well in shutting down the league’s second-ranked power play.

Now, though, the Rangers have been blanked 11 straight times on the power play since Vincent Trocheck’s double-overtime Game 2 winner. And though the Canes might have only one power-play goal and indeed have yielded two shorthanded goals in the series, Carolina avoided a sweep by winning Game 4 on Brady Skjei’s power-play goal at 16:49 of the third period. One more kill — a 17th straight after snuffing the first 16 — and we’re likely not in Raleigh this fine day.

Carolina did adjust on the PK. They have not been quite as aggressive out to the points, and they have tightened their coverage. But the Rangers haven’t been able to retrieve as many pucks over the past three games as they did in the opening two. They haven’t had the same possession. Their entries have been disrupted. They haven’t been able to set up. They needed to win more pucks in Game 6 than they did in the previous three contests.

Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) tends net against the Carolina Hurricanes during the first period of Game 5. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“I think when you’re up 3-0 it can kind of seem like you can take it for granted a little bit,” Jimmy Vesey said. “Now we’ve gone through some adversity, and I think anytime there’s a run in the playoffs there are going to be highs and lows along the way.

“This is one of those instances, but all year we have been a team that has responded and have met every challenge. This is our chance to meet the challenge ahead of us.”

Or, as Chris Kreider said: “We have an opportunity.”

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