NEW YORK (AP) — The last time the New York Rangers had a game to forget, they responded with five straight wins that put them on the cusp of the Stanley Cup finals.
They are still there, and the Montreal Canadiens aren’t going away without a fight.
New York needs one more victory to reach the championship round for the first time in 20 years. The Rangers know that Game 6 at home on Thursday is their best chance to get it.
They returned home from Montreal on Wednesday, one day after a wild 7-4 loss cut their series lead to 3-2. If New York doesn’t end it Thursday, the Rangers will have to go back to Montreal for a deciding Game 7.
New York, which went the full seven games in each of the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs, will be playing its 20th postseason game. No team that played a pair of seven-game series before the conference finals has reached the Stanley Cup finals.
“It’s an opportunity to win the game to go to the Stanley Cup final,” Rangers forward Brad Richards said. “I think everybody is alert and ready that way. We were talking about it all (Tuesday) how excited we were to get on the ice and start playing.
“We had some mental breakdowns, but I don’t think it had anything to do with (fatigue). We’ve had a lot of rest this series. The opportunity that faces us right now, we’re pretty excited about it. I don’t think there is too much letdown.”
In the second round, a poor performance at home in Game 4 against Pittsburgh dropped the Rangers into a 3-1 series hole. But New York won Game 5 on the road, took Game 6 at home, and won the clincher back in Pittsburgh to set up the matchup with Montreal.
Now that the Canadiens have staved off elimination once, the Rangers are wary of giving them any more hope they can turn the tables.
“You learn a lot from it. That’s why experience is experience,” Richards said. “You go through many situations. (Tuesday) night was a bad feeling, but today we’re getting on a plane to go back to our city, and we get to play in front of our fans.
“It’s always, forget as quick as possible and try to remember the good things that we’re doing. It was one bad night, but we’ve been doing a lot of good things in this series.”
The Rangers won the opening two games in Montreal and then split a pair of overtime decisions at home. Even though they have had success on the road and in recent Game 7s, they know that going the distance again works against them.
“It’s a desperate time,” Richards said. “You don’t want to go back to a Game 7 where anything can happen. We want to get this done. They’re a good team anywhere.
“We’re going to have to be a lot better, and we will be.”
This is as far as New York has advanced since captain Mark Messier led the club to the 1994 Stanley Cup title — breaking the Rangers’ 54-year drought.
The Garden will be ready to celebrate again Thursday. After the Rangers lost Game 4 to Pittsburgh, the loyal fans thought they might not see their team again until next season. That will be the situation again if the Canadiens pull off another victory.
“You win a game, and things change in your locker room and you start feeling better about yourselves,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “We know how it feels coming back in a series, but it doesn’t change anything in our room. We are as confident as ever going into our building, and looking forward to it.”
So are the Canadiens.
They know that if they would’ve scored in overtime of Game 4 as they did in Game 3, they would’ve had a two-game sweep at the Garden and would be the ones looking to advance Thursday.
“We’ll be ready for one of those tight-checking games,” defenseman Josh Gorges said Wednesday after an optional practice in Montreal. “I’m sure it will be again one of those hard-fought games that we’ll have to make sure that we’re even better than we were last game.”
Montreal will have rugged forward Brandon Prust back in the lineup after he served a two-game suspension for a late hit on Derek Stepan in Game 3 that broke the Rangers forward’s jaw. Stepan returned Tuesday and scored two goals while wearing a full faceguard.
The Rangers will be without defenseman John Moore. He was suspended for two games Wednesday after receiving a match penalty Tuesday night for a hit to Montreal forward Dale Weise’s head.
Moore will miss the remaining two games in this series if it goes the distance, or will sit out Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals if the Rangers advance with a win Thursday.
“It’s kind of what I would’ve thought would’ve happened,” Canadiens captain Brian Gionta said Wednesday night after the team arrived at their New York hotel. “They were very similar plays, and I guess the precedent was set on Prust’s hit.”
Henrik Lundqvist will be back in goal for the Rangers after he was pulled in Game 5 on a rare off night in which he allowed four goals on 19 shots in less than two periods. He avoided the loss when New York rallied from a 4-1 deficit to get even. Backup goalie Cam Talbot gave up two goals in relief.
“(Tuesday) night was probably the best game we’ve played in this series,” Canadiens forward Lars Eller said. “If we keep doing a lot of those things, I think the end result will be good.”