It's hard to imagine a much better start for the Rangers in last night's Game 4 against the Senators: They capitalized following two early Ottawa penalties, and moved the puck the way they do when their power play is really clicking. Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards picked up a couple of points each — neither had recorded a point since Game 1 — but the Rangers weren't totally reliant on their big scorers for offense. (One of the goals came from Anton Stralman, his second of the playoffs after scoring just twice during the regular season.) And perhaps most importantly, any time spent in the Ottawa zone was time the Senators weren't able to set up in the Rangers' zone. An observer watching that game with a checklist of keys to the series could have marked off quite a few boxes in the first 6:10.
Then, of course, momentum started to shift, and this morning we're left asking the following question: Do the Rangers have a problem protecting leads? That's not really something that haunted this season, but in their Game 2 loss to Ottawa, they blew leads of 1-0 and 2-1 before losing in overtime. Then last night, in Game 4, they took an early 2-0 lead, before Ottawa tied the score and, yet again, won the game in overtime. (Hell, if not for the heroics of Henrik Lundqvist in the Rangers' 1-0 Game 3 victory, the Senators would have at the very least sent that game to overtime, as well.)
Again last night, the Rangers looked at times like they were trying to hang back and protect their lead, as opposed to being aggressive and playing their normal game. After they took their 2-0 lead, the ice was tilted in the Sens' favor for part of the first and much of the second period. Ottawa at times did such a good job controlling the puck in their zone and setting up their offense that we were tempted to count the number of Rangers on the ice, just in case they were playing shorthanded and the announcers failed to mention it. (And, of course, that's when the Rangers weren't actually shorthanded, as they were five times over the first two periods.)
Things would get better in the third period, when the Rangers again started to generate scoring opportunities of their own. But Craig Anderson wouldn't let another puck behind him after those two goals — well, except for that Ryan Callahan shorthanded clear that rolled down the ice and under Anderson's glove before hitting the post — and his save on Marc Staal as a second-period Rangers power play expired started the sequence in which the Senators would score their first goal of the game. What could have been a 3-0 game was instead 2-1, and the Senators would continue to put pressure on the Rangers through the end of that period, when you got the sense that the Rangers were desperate just to get to the dressing room with the score tied.
Perhaps the real question is whether the Rangers are at times spending so much time in their own zone because they have a certain mindset and want to protect their leads, or because they simply can't gain control of the puck, go the other way, and set up at the other end of the ice. Ottawa's got enough skill that letting them get comfortable in their offensive zone is a recipe for disaster, at least when Lundqvist isn't standing on his head and stopping every shot that comes his way. It's great that the Rangers block as many shots as they do, but it would be even better if they limited how many shots the Senators could even attempt. And as Ottawa proved in overtime last night, the best was to beat Lundqvist might be to take shots he can't see. In Game 2, they did a terrific job of getting traffic in front of his crease; last night, Kyle Turris used Lundqvist's own teammate as a screen on the game-winner.
What started a week ago today as a best-of-seven series has turned into a best-of-three. The Rangers regained home-ice advantage with their victory in Game 3, and return home to Garden on Saturday night for Game 5. We imagine it will be loud.