MONTREAL -- Returning to Montreal for Game 5 against the Canadiens with a 3-1 series lead, the New York Rangers are just one win away from the Stanley Cup finals -- just 60 minutes.
But if you ask the Rangers how close they feel, they don’t just pump the proverbial brakes -- they slam on them, bringing the talk to a screeching halt.
Maybe that’s because of the staggering volatility of this spring -- an unpredictable playoff stretch that has produced unlikely victors, dramatic game winners and heart-wrenching defeat. Maybe it’s because, just one round ago, the Rangers pulled off an unlikely series win from a 3-1 deficit to knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“This is far from over,” said veteran center Brad Richards, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004. “I remember sitting in here down 3-1 against Pittsburgh. They will feel bad [Sunday], but [Tuesday] they will wake up in front of their home crowd and once that game starts, 3-1, you throw that out the window and it is back in the battle again.”
The Rangers already made the mistake of getting ahead of themselves once this postseason, failing to focus on the task at hand. That game, of course, was the demoralizing 4-2 loss in Game 4 against the Penguins. It still sticks out sorely, as a reminder of what can happen when players fail to remain in the moment and keep their focus tight.
“We were embarrassed in that game,” center Brian Boyle said during Monday’s availability at the team hotel in Montreal.
And though the Rangers are certainly close to the Cup finals, they aren't treating it as a foregone conclusion -- not at all.
“We’ve done nothing yet,” said veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who notched the game-winner in Game 4 on Sunday. “We know we’re going to have to bring our best. And more.”
The worst thing the Rangers could do is allow the Canadiens to entertain thoughts of a comeback. It was only a few weeks ago that the Rangers harbored those same beliefs. They know how vital those thoughts can be to changing a team’s outlook.
“They’ll be a desperate team,” Richards said. “A little hope changes everything.”
Though the Rangers stunned the raucous Bell Centre crowd with an eye-popping 7-2 rout in Game 1, then edged the Habs to take a 2-0 lead after Game 2, they should expect a desperate Canadiens squad on Tuesday with a rabid fan base offering its full-throated support.
The Rangers have to treat this close-out opportunity as their toughest task yet, even if the odds are in their favor. The franchise is 12-1 in 13 best-of-seven series when leading 3-1 after Game 4.
“We have to realize the longer it goes, the more life and more belief they get,” Richards said. “So, it’s going to be a very important start to the next game.”
So, don’t tell the Rangers they are just one game away. Don’t ask if they sense they are on the verge of something special.
“We are obviously up 3-1, but we know how that can turn if we don’t do the things we need to do,” winger Carl Hagelin said. “Our focus now is on the next game and to play Rangers hockey.”