- Scott Burnside, NHL
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LOS ANGELES -- Remember when we told you that the New York Rangers needed to win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals to have a legitimate shot at their first championship since 1994?
But for Saturday's Game 2, we really, really mean it: This is crunch time for the Rangers.
After losing Game 1 in overtime and being called out by head coach Alain Vigneault for a general lack of effort, the Rangers have no choice but to win Game 2. It's that simple.
We know the Rangers were down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins and came back.
And yes, the Kings were down 3-0 to San Jose, down 3-2 to Anaheim, and there have been numerous comebacks this spring. But not in the finals and not against the Los Angeles Kings -- a team that is battle-tested and is coming off a mediocre performance in Game 1 that still got them one win closer to their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
"We have to expect they're going to be a lot better," Rangers center Brad Richards said Friday. "We have to be better or you're going to be down 2-0.
"You know, that's normal. We recognized that right when the game was over. You know, it's this time of year. You get one crack at it. You got to raise it. There's no other option."
Having watched the Kings and their icy resolve, we feel we have a pretty good handle on them and their mindset.
"You don't sit there and say this is our identity of a team," said Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell. "You get your identity labeled by how you play. I think when teams play against us and say that, 'Man, these guys compete. They play hard. They battle for every puck and to win four out of seven against these guys is going to take a lot.' If other teams are saying that or people from the outside are kind of giving us that label, then it means that we're doing a lot of right things here. And so we'll continue to do that."
Given that the Kings were a little sluggish to start Game 1 and will almost certainly be better, especially at the start of the game, we are about to learn a valuable lesson about just what this Rangers team is made of.
We know they are a unified bunch and they have been through many battles both physical and emotional this spring.
We know that their bond is real and it has become a part of their identity and their successes.
On Saturday, we will find out if it is enough.
Vigneault reiterated his comments from Thursday suggesting that everyone (with the exception of netminder Henrik Lundqvist perhaps) needs to be better to beat the Kings.
Vigneault expanded on that theme on Friday, saying it's not just the Kings who demand a better effort from the Rangers, it's the stage of the season that demands the Rangers be better.
"It's not just because it's a great opponent, it's the time of the year," he said. "We're all looking for a better response.
"You know, if you're in the final, and your expectations are to win, you have to bring your best game to the table. Our guys are aware of that. Our guys are talking to themselves, between themselves about it. We're all looking for a better response tomorrow."
In general, the Rangers need to be more committed for longer periods of time than they were in Game 1, when they rarely had the puck in the third period and Lundqvist had to be sensational to keep the game close.
More specifically, they need to create turnovers like they did early in Game 1 when they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period.
That speaks to their speed, a definite advantage they have over the Kings, but only if it's on display for the entire contest.
"You have to establish that forecheck first. To get a forecheck, you have to get pucks deep. We weren't able to get pucks deep and get the pucks out of our end. We spent the second half of the game defending. For me and [Chris] Kreider's game, we have to be in there cycling," said forward Rick Nash, who had moments in Game 1 but still has a long way to go to live up to the expectations upon him.
"Yeah, I had some energy and some chances early, but I've got to finish. I've got to find a way to finish those chances."
The Rangers must also take advantage on the power play, while at the same time staying out of the box. The teams were a combined 0-for-7 in Game 1 with the man advantage, but if the Rangers are going to the box, it likely means they're chasing the Kings and/or are being hemmed in their own zone and taking tired penalties.
Either way, the Rangers cannot allow chances to a potent Kings power play that began this series hitting on 30 percent of its opportunities at home this spring.
Richards noted that even if the Rangers had found a way to win Game 1 -- remember Carl Hagelin's glorious chance during a frenzied final minute of regulation -- they still would be having the same discussions about how to fix their game given the way they played.
Of course that's a big "if."
Instead, Richards said it's important not to worry about the implications of what might happen if they don't win.
"I don't think it's smart to start thinking we don't want to do something or what if we're down 2-0. That's not how you want to have your mindset going into a game," said Richards, one of two Cup winners on this Rangers team (Martin St. Louis is the other).
"Just win a game, that's the mindset right now."
For the sake of the Rangers' Stanley Cup hopes, Richards better be right.
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