An excitable Alain Vigneault had his team ready to play in Game 6. Credit: Getty Images
Derek Stepan couldn’t help but laugh after Game 6 when a reporter sarcastically referred to the team’s fifth Game 7 since 2008 as being new ground for the Blueshirts.
“It is what it is,” Stepan said. “They’re fun, exciting games. It’s certainly going to be a challenge going into [Pittsburgh] and [trying] to get a game.”
That the Rangers have forced a Game 7, on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, seems borderline improbable compared to where this group was less than a week ago. Following a 4-2 loss in Game 4 — where there were more giveaways (25) than shots on goal (15) — the Rangers held a postgame, closed-door meeting.
The result of that meeting was a team that stressed the series wasn’t over. Two wins later, the Rangers have the appearance of a team that deserves its place in the conference finals.
“We didn’t feel good about [the Game 4 performance], and the next day we really didn’t feel good about it,” Brian Boyle said. “I think to a man, after [the] loss, the next day — aside from ending the season — that’s probably the worst I’ve seen this team feel. Ultimately, I think it was a good thing.”
In Games 5 and 6, the Rangers were the aggressors, jumping out to 2-0 leads in both games and forcing the Penguins to play catch-up, which they never did.
“We’ve done it all year that way and there’s no reason we should change,” Ryan McDonagh said. “We have worked too hard to not give ourselves a chance and play the way we are capable of.
“We talked about it — using our legs, using our speed and our skills upfront — and we have been able to find it here. Obviously, we have to continue one more time.”
Playing with tempo is something all teams preach, as is receiving contributions throughout the lineup. The Rangers have received secondary scoring in the series from Derick Brassard and his linemates Mats Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot. Brassard has four of the Blueshirts’ 13 goals, all of which have come in the Rangers’ three wins. Pouliot and Zuccarello have four points apiece in the first six games.
“That line has gotten big goals at big times,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “Like I have said many times since Christmas, I thought they have been our most consistent line and [Brassard’s second period goal Sunday night] was obviously a big goal for us.”
And while no one will discredit the importance of goal scoring, goal prevention is key in the playoffs. The Rangers have limited the Penguins to two goals in the last two games after being outscored by an aggregate 9-2 in Games 2, 3 and 4. The Rangers blocked 33 shots in the last two games, and the pucks that found their way through were stopped by Henrik Lundqvist, who made 61 saves in Games 5 and 6.
“I don’t care what they feel,” Lundqvist said about the Penguins. “It’s about us and what we feel and we were focused on what we have to do. I think we played a great game. We set the tone right away.”
Still, for all the Rangers have accomplished in the last two games, they are in the same place they found themselves heading into Game 5: Needing a win to keep their season alive.
“We are tied in the series,” Lundqvist said. “That doesn’t let you get too excited. You can be happy about the win [in Game 6] and the way we played in such an important game, but at the same time it’s the next one that counts.”
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter@DenisGorman.